11 Incredible Tokyo Art Galleries

The sheer volume of Tokyo art galleries is impressive. But which to choose? Take a look at our choice of the 11 greatest Tokyo art galleries for a spot of inspiration.

Museum

Photo Credit: Mitch Altman via Flickr cc

Tokyo art galleries are to be found strewn across the city. Hidden in old bathhouses, schools and tenement buildings, art rears its head in the most unlikely of places in the Japanese capital. Unlike in other cities, galleries are not confined to a single district or quarter in Tokyo, they proliferate all over. Hopping between them can give a visitor a dual insight into the Tokyo art scene and the urban fabric of the city itself. The only snag is deciding which to choose.

Our rundown of the 11 very best art galleries in Tokyo should be able to help out.

SCAI The Bathhouse

SCAI The Bathhouse

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SCAI The Bathhouse is a contemporary art gallery with an exemplary reputation. Since opening its doors in 1993, SCAI has been central to the promotion, growth and flourishing of avant-garde art in Japan.

The gallery itself is situated inside an old bathhouse with a 200-year history. Although renovated for its new purpose, SCAI’s exterior still appears modest. The pitched roof, towering chimney and tiled detailing are fully congruous with suburban Tokyo. The dramatically curved entrance, skylights and old lockers within, again, hint at the building’s past. SCAI is in dialogue with its history and surroundings, something that only adds to its charm.

SCAI’s remit is contemporary art from the postwar period to the present, taking in big names, new talent, Japanese artists and those from further afield. Japanese art world behemoths like Tadanori Yokoo and Lee Ufan have in the past displayed here on numerous occasions, as have international artists like Julian Opie, Janish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois, for who the gallery has acted as a conduit for wider recognition in the country. SCAI has long committed itself to providing exposure for young and peripheral artists and can count among its success stories artists such as Kohei Nawa, Nobuko Tsuchiya, Toru Kamiya, Katsuhiro Saiki, Jeppe Hein, Dzine and Brian Alfred.

SCAI is firmly rooted in the Japanese art world, indeed, it is one of its key players, yet the gallery never feels parochial or exclusionary in its approach. Rather, SCAI should be celebrated for placing itself at the forefront of contemporary art in an international context, all the while lending a helping hand to artists close to home.

Hours: 12:00 - 19:00 (Closed Sun and Mon)
Address:  6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito, Tokyo
Station: Nippori
Fees: Free
Website: SCAI The Bathhouse

National Art Center Tokyo

National Art Center Tokyo

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The Metabolists, a mid-century faction of radical Japanese architects, stressed movement, adaptability and the centrality of nature in their many designs. Kisho Kurokawa, the father of Metabolism, is responsible for the National Art Center Tokyo. True to his roots, the building’s undulating glass facade, light-bathed interior and portable partitions give it a free-flowing air that firmly connects it to its central Tokyo surroundings.

Moreover, the building and what goes on within are perfectly in tune. The National Art Center houses no permanent collection, instead, ambitious, challenging and ever-interesting temporary exhibitions rotate constantly, creating a tantalising schedule that flicks between the world’s most exciting living artists and past greats. The likes of Issey Miyake, Emily Mame Kngwarreye, Salvador Dalí, Van Goth and Picasso have in the past had their work displayed here, as well as lesser known but equally stimulating artists from around the globe. On top of profiles of individual artists, the museum just as often explores abstracted themes, movements, time periods or places with a deftness that can sometimes be lacking in large galleries of this kind.

This year (2017), the gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary. To celebrate, exciting shows from Yayoi Kusama, Alfons Mucha and Tadao Ando will be laid on and a number of special events will take place. To find out how to get involved, be sure to take a look at the website.

Hours: 10:00 - 18:00 (Closed Tues)
Address: 7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo
Station: Nogizaka
Fees: Vary depending on exhibition, see website for details
Website: National Art Center Tokyo

3331 Arts Chiyoda

3331 Arts Chiyoda

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So often, galleries are detached from the communities from which they spring, whether this be the immediate local environment or the community of artists they display. 3331 Arts Chiyoda rejects this disconnection. Housed in a repurposed school, this unconventional gallery is run by artists who have set out to create a space in which anyone – be they an art world newcomer or a seasoned gallery-goer – feels comfortable to enter and get involved.

Over four floors there are exhibition spaces, community spaces, galleries, workshops and shared offices. Typically, 3331 Arts hosts five different exhibitions per month, all free to enjoy by the general public. An interdisciplinary approach is at the heart of this project, however, expressed in the school’s playground which has been converted into a public park, the rooftop garden where local residents can grow their own vegetables, the Foodlab in which cooking and nutrition workshops take place and artist Hiroshi Fuji’s Kaeru Station, a place for children to exchange toys and play.

3331 Arts Chiyoda’s egalitarian, people-centered approach is a breath of fresh air and a model for the future that, were it not for its evident success, would be utopian.

Hours: 10:00 - 21:00
Address: 6-11-14 Sotokanda Chiyoda-Ku Tokyo
Station: Suehirocho
Fees: Free
Website: 3331 Arts Chiyoda

Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

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Shinagawa, a ward in the south of Tokyo, has a reputation that is more high finance than high modernist. Swarming with salarymen and studded with office buildings, you wouldn’t expect to find one of the city’s best contemporary art museums here, but find one you can.

The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art was built in 1938 as a home for business mogul Kunizo Hara. It was designed by Jin Watanabe, a practitioner of an architectural modernism indebted in equal measure to European modernists and Art Deco. The building is a joy to explore inside and out, a rare example of Showa-era Western-inspired architecture in the city. Yet, it’s the museum’s impressive collection of contemporary art which provides the main draw for visitors.

The permanent collection was mostly put together by Hara himself and consists of over 850 individual works which span movements, time periods and countries. Work by Tatsuo Miyajima, Yasumasa Morimura, Nam June Paik and Yoshitomo Nara are skillfully displayed throughout the building, though just as interesting are the works from lesser known artists, of which there are also plenty to discover. Various workshops, events, performances and exhibitions from up-and-coming artists are also held throughout the year, staying true to Hara’s commitment to the new and bold.

The museum cafe, Café d’Art, is also worth a mention. A light and airy space which spreads out into the garden in the summer, it is an excellent place to end your visit with a coffee in hand.

Hours: 11:00 - 17:00 (Wed 11:00 - 20:00, Closed Mon)
Address: 4-7-25 Kita-Shinagawa, Shinagawa, Tokyo 
Station: Shinagawa
Fees: 1,100 yen (Regular)
Website: Hara Museum of Contemporary Art 

Taka Ishii Gallery

Taka Ishii Gallery

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Taka Ishii Gallery has committed itself to acting as a channel through which international artists can gain a foothold in Japan as well as a means for Japanese artists to gain international exposure. In this, it has been highly successful and is now looked upon as one of Tokyo’s most important small gallery spaces.

The gallery is rooted in photography and thus regularly hosts exhibitions from some of the world’s best photographers as well as showcases of historical work from pre and postwar Japan. The bulk of the photography and film exhibitions are given over to a separate space apart from the main gallery, simply named Taka Ishii Gallery Photography/Film. However, Taka Ishii Gallery does not limit itself to a single medium, the whole spectrum of contemporary art is displayed here in an average of 10 solo or group exhibitions per year. Past shows have come from artists like Cerith Wyn Evans, Martin Kippenberger and Yosuke Takeda.

Hours: 10:00 - 19:00 (Closed Mon and Sun)
Address: 3-10-11 Sendagaya, Shibuya, Tokyo
Station: Kitasando
Fees: Free
Website: Taka Ishii Gallery

Mizuma Art Gallery

Mizuma Art Gallery

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Since arriving onto the Tokyo art scene in 1994, Mizuma Art Gallery has been a constant source of energy and forward-thinking. Gallery owner Mizuma Sueo confronted head on the challenge of delivering some much-deserved exposure to emerging artists in Japan and has succeeded phenomenally.

The gallery has represented an extraordinary roster of artists, including Makoto Aida, O JUN, Jin Kurashige, Hiroyuki Matsukage, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Tomoko Konoike, Hisashi Tenmyoya, Akira Yamaguchi, Koji Tanada and Aiko Miyanaga. It has also had notable success in introducing Western artists to Japan, altogether creating a space where contemporary art from around the world can come together happily.

In addition to the Tokyo location, Mizuma Art Gallery has now expanded into Beijing and Singapore, with sister galleries opening in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Again, these galleries aim to promote young, bright and challenging artists from across Asia and the world to a public that may have otherwise missed out.

Hours: 11:00 - 19:00 (Closed Mon and Sun)
Address: 3-13 Ichigayatamachi, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Station: Ichigaya Station
Fees: Free
Website: Mizuma Art Gallery

Watari Museum of Contemporary Art

Watari Museum of Contemporary Art

Photo Credit: Scott Mattoon via Flickr cc

Art galleries and interesting architecture dovetail in locations across Tokyo, not least here, at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art. On the border between Harajuku and Gaienmae, in a difficult triangular plot that would pose a challenge for any architect, Mario Botta’s building is a great concrete shard jutting from the pavement. The building is relatively small yet has a feeling of weight and permanence without being overbearing.

On the inside, light floods each of the museum’s four floors. The light and cunning use of space employed by the curators prevents Watari feeling claustrophobic, indeed, the glass-walled mezzanine, sun traps and split levels give exploring the gallery a sense of fun and surprise that only adds to the overall experience. Visitors enter into the large gift shop on the ground floor and from here are invited into an elevator up to the exhibition floors. The second floor is the largest, where the bulk of exhibits take place.

The gallery generally holds four exhibitions per year from Japanese and international artists and collectives. Big names like Nam June Paik and Ai Weiwei have in the past exhibited here, the latter as part the ChimPom collective. Watari is always worth a visit, even if just for its excellent ground-floor gift shop or On Sundays, a vaunted art book shop located in the basement.

Hours: 11:00 - 19:00 (Closed Mon)
Address: 3-7-6 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo
Station: Gaienmae
Fees: Dependent on exhibition 
Website: Watari Museum of Contemporary Art

WISH LESS

WISH LESS

Courtesy of WISH LESS

Not far from Tabata Station hides WISH LESS, probably the smallest of our galleries, but no less worthy of a visit. Run by British illustrator Rob Kidney and Japanese designer Yoko Nagai, WISH LESS is unconstrained by a single medium or purpose, instead offering up a mixed bag of art, gigs, fashion and anything else it feels like.

Upcoming is a solo show from Japanese artist Masaho Anotani with ‘Petal Play’, his second exhibition at WISH LESS and a continuation of his work on flowers. The intimate space of the gallery and its informal atmosphere makes any exhibition here a lot of fun. Positivity and excitement are at the core of WISH LESS’s mission, an attitude that makes for a nice change of pace from more ‘serious’ galleries.

Hours: Thurs-Fri 16:00 - 21:00, Sat-Sun 12:00 - 19:00 (Closed Mon-Wed)
Address: 5-12-10 Tabata, Kita, Tokyo 
Station: Tabata
Fees: Free
Website: WISH LESS

Okuno Building

Okuno Building

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The Okuno Building was built as luxury apartments for the bourgeois denizens of 1930s Ginza; it survived American firebombs during the war as well as rampant redevelopment in its wake and now stands as one of the oldest original buildings in sprawling Tokyo. Although the building’s exterior appears as a relic, its current use is arguably far more progressive than the department stores and boutiques that surround it. Inside, the old apartments have been transformed into galleries, all sharing the same roof but each with their own character.

On any given day, somewhere between 20 and 50 of the galleries are open to the public, with others being used as artists studios and living quarters. Weaving in and out of rooms, as you’re invited to do, art history in all its breadth and complexity is brought before you: oil paintings and antiques in one room blend seamlessly with ultra-contemporary conceptual work in the next, creating a visitor experience that can be found in few other places. Of all Tokyo’s many art galleries, the Okuno Building is perhaps its most inimitable and one of its most fascinating.

Hours: Vary
Address: 1-9-8 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 
Station: Takaracho
Fees: Free

Take Ninagawa

Take Ninagawa

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The common thread that binds all the artists displayed at Azabu-Juban’s Take Ninagawa Gallery is their commitment to experimental, avant-garde art. Japanese artists such as Shinro Ohtake, Soju Tao, Misaki Kawai have all displayed work at the gallery, as well as an impressively diverse roster of international and unknown artists. Exhibitions span mediums and styles, though together form a picture of a gallery which strives to challenge and critique at ever turn.

Atsuko Ninagawa, the founder, formerly worked as a curator in New York but returned to Tokyo in order to contribute to the thriving but all too often overlooked Japanese contemporary art scene. Ninagawa is a founding member of galleries association New Tokyo Contemporaries and the New Art Dealers Alliance and has displayed at art fairs from Miami to Hong Kong. The gallery, like so many other enterprising galleries across the country, is helping cement the reputation of Japan as one of the most vitalic and exciting places for contemporary art globally.

Hours: 11:00 - 19:00 (Closed Mon and Sun)
Address: 2-12-4 Higashi-Azabu, Minato, Tokyo 
Station: Azabu-Juban 
Fees: Free
Website: Take Ninagawa

Irregular Rhythm Asylum

Irregular Rhythm Asylum

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The Shinjuku of the 1960s and 70s was a hive of subversive politics, radical art and alternative lifestyles, where street battles with the police raged and the mores of conservative Japan were pushed to their limits. Like fossils from a lost future, only scattered remnants from this period have survived into the 21st century. In spirit, the Irregular Rhythm Asylum is very much among them.

The Irregular Rhythm Asylum self-defines as an ‘infoshop’; a resource for Tokyo’s activists and political radicals to use as they wish. The store sells books, zines, pamphlets, music, handmade clothes and much more, plus, justifying its entry onto this list, it also organises regular art shows from non-mainstream, politically conscious artists, which, most often, double as opportunities for like-minded individuals to meet and exchange ideas. If ordinary galleries can sometimes seem aloof and preening, Irregular Rhythm Asylum is the opposite, a place where the false separation of art, politics and life is laid bare.

Hours: 13:00 - 20:00 (Closed Mon and Wed)
Address: 1-30-12 Shinjuku, Tokyo
Station: Shinjuku 
Fees: Free
Website: Irregular Rhythm Asylum

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Jack Heslehurst

Jack Heslehurst

Tokyo-based writer and editor, originally from the UK, with a special interest in politics, history and travel.



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