Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, but it is more than that: It is a city so important to culture, commerce and history, that its name comes up as one of the crucial four international cities: London, Paris, New York, Tokyo.
So it should come as no surprise that Tokyo boasts some of the greatest art galleries and museums in the world. They may not have names that resonate the way that the Tate Modern or British Museum in London, the Louvre and d’Orsay in Paris, or the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan in New York do. But the National Museum of Western Art contains many international pieces, and the Tokyo National Museum is the biggest collection of Japanese art and objects in the world.
The National Museum of Western Art is the place to go if you’re looking for iconic, familiar European and American art. Artists represented here include Picasso, Monet, Pollock, van Gogh, Rodin and many more, with a special focus on the French Impressionists. Housed in a beautiful modern building designed by world-famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier, the museum opened in 1959, so its collection of nearly 5,000 works is that much more impressive for its relatively recent vintage. Perhaps underlining Japan’s enduring inward focus, the National Museum of Western Art is the only museum in Tokyo dedicated to non-Japanese artists, so fans of Western masters should be sure to visit.
Not far away, in Ueno Park, The Tokyo National Museum is to Tokyo what the British Museum is to London and the Metropolitan is to New York: The finest, oldest collection of native arts, crafts, artifacts and other decorative objects from the country’s nearly 2,000 year history. More than 100,000 objects comprise the collection, but unlike the world-straddling collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan, the Tokyo National focuses almost exclusively on Japanese objects (with other parts of Asia represented), making it a grand stroll through the country’s astonishing patrimony. From swords and screens and kimonos to woodblock prints, lacquerware and textiles the collection is mind-boggling, and one day will not be sufficient. Break up visits with time in the extensive gardens and Ueno Park.
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, or MOMAT, was one of the first art museums to arise from the rubble of World War II, and its 1952 building was greatly expanded in 1999, with sections devoted to Japanese film and other more contemporary arts. But its core remains its collection of works from the all-important period of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), as well as imported works by the Impressionists and subsequent periods of Western art. Recent exhibitions explored the ceramic art of raku and the modern furniture of Marcel Breuer.
Three museums constitute what has come to be known as Art Triangle Roppongi, located in the leafy, modern Roppongi Hills area. The first is The National Art Center Tokyo, located in a spectacular modern building by Kisho Kurokawa with 14,000 square meters of exhibition space, enough to handle its ever-changing exhibitions. Opened only in 2007, the building alone is a must-see, and the wealth of different exhibits should offer something of interest to nearly anyone.
The two other museums in Art Triangle Roppongi are the Suntory Museum of Art, named for and sponsored by the soft drink and whiskey bottle, but focused on fine arts and crafts from Japan and Western arts such as the beautiful, delicate glassware of Venice. The third is the Mori Art Museum, located nearby in Roppongi, but a full 54 stories above Tokyo. The exhibits are mostly of contemporary, international artists, but half the draw here is the spectacular view and the concessions at the top, including a bar, cafe, shop and observation deck. It is also open late, adding extra flexibility for those with a museum-going second wind.
Finally, no list can be complete without mentions of three crucial Tokyo museums, The Edo-Tokyo Museum and the country’s two science museums. The first features displays – artifacts, dioramas and even whole model towns – that show how the medieval center of the Tokugawa Shogunate, known as Edo in the two centuries before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, became the biggest, most modern city in the world.
Link: The Edo-Tokyo Museum
The second two museums are Tokyo’s 19th century National Museum of Nature and Science, built in 1871 in Ueno Park near the Metropolitan Art Museum, which houses a large collection of science and natural history exhibits. But to really be dazzled, one must visit the newer (2001) interactive, high-tech National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (casually known as the Miraikan). Centered around an enormous interactive globe, the museum aims to be consistently cutting edge, and exhibits on everything from brain science to the Internet to global climate change constitute what could be the best science museum on the planet.