Tokyo’s Museum Scene — Part 1: Roppongi and Ueno
Japan’s capital does not have a center for its cultural life like many cities do — it has centers. This first article of Tokyo’s museum scene series presents the two main areas where art and cultural curation happens in the city: Roppongi and Ueno. Click here to read the second article on those superstar museums, and here for the third article on the most underground museums of Tokyo.
Roppongi is this district of Tokyo mixing banks headquarters, expensive clubs and oppressive elevated highways. Not my favorite neighborhood to hang out, nor the one I would bring my friends visiting from abroad, but if there is one good reason to go there, it is for the “art triangle”.
Go down at Roppongi Station, stay on the station until you find the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower exit — so that you avoid the view of that oppressive highway. Then climb up to the 53rd floor there you arrive at the Mori Art Museum. Head North after that, and then you will have no choice but to pass under that horrible highway, but it will be worth it as you will reach the National Art Center. Finish your art pilgrimage visiting the Suntory Museum of Arts and 2121 Design Sight facing each others.
Those museums have some of the best of the international contemporary art and design scenes. You might also want to visit them just for their visionary architecture realized by big names like Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma and Kisho Kurokawa. But do not forget to pass by the ATM on the way — like everything in Roppongi, the museums of the art triangle are pretty pricey.
If you feel more like walking through a park while hoping around museums, then you should head to Ueno park, Toyko’s version of Washington DC’s Smithsonian or Sao Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park. There all grouped together among the trees, you will find the Tokyo National Museum and its numerous buildings, the National Museum of Nature and Science, the National Museum of Western Art or again the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum among others.
There you will find various exhibitions from classic to contemporary art, history to sciences, Japanese to international. The museums of Ueno park can boast of permanent exhibitions full of national treasures as well as works from supra-famous western painters like Monet, Van Gogh or Picasso. At sunset head to the South of the park to walk around the Shinobazu pond and its small island containing a charming temple complex.
Roppongi and Ueno are the two main museum districts of Tokyo, as interesting one another as they are diametrically opposed in terms of atmosphere and content. One is provocative, exciting, exuberant, while the other is quiet, respected, established.
Historically, there is a reason why those areas developed into such different museum hubs. Indeed, each district is representative of a distinctive wave in the history of museums in Japan.
The oldest museums of Ueno were built at the end of the 19th century as a response to Western museums. By the end of the Edo Period and throughout the Meiji Revolution (1850–1880), Japan suddenly opened to the world after more than two centuries of seclusion. At this time, Japanese delegations were sent to Europe and the United States to investigate about Western culture, while cultural ambassadors from Western countries were also welcomed to Japan. As a result, modernity happened almost at once in Japan, with this feeling of catching up with the West in order to negotiate equal diplomatic terms with Western countries, unlike the rest of Asia which was being colonized at the times.
In 1871 and 1872, Japan built its first museums, respectively the National Museum of Nature and Science and the Tokyo National Museum. The other museums of the park were built afterwards all along the 20th century. Altogether, they served to distinguish and legitimize Japanese elaborate culture and society as an equal contrast of the West.
As for naming this new concept of ‘museum’ in the mid-19th century, Japan decided on the term 博物館 (hakubutsukan, literally “the building for erudite things”) to describe museums in general. Soon after came a specific appellation for ‘fine art museums’, 美術館 (bijutsukan). Now the term hakubutsukan is rather used to describe museums focusing on the history of things, places and people, while the word bijutsukan remains used to define fine art museums. In Ueno, there are both types of museums while in Roppongi you will only find museums of the second category.
The museums in Roppongi were all founded in the 21st century, except for the Suntory Museum of Arts which was built in the 1960s. Located in a rich neighborhood full of expats and MNC headquarters, museums there are a response to the need for consuming international art. The art triangle museums are more focused on temporary exhibitions changing every few months and are surrounded by a quantity of art galleries, for display and for sale. The art in Roppongi is frenetically actualized, responding to global contemporary thematics. It is also more visual, more well-designed, often with more abstract concepts or teaming with big cultural products like Naruto, Star Wars or Ghibli movies. In Roppongi, museums are not focused on erudition and preservation, but rather on innovation and entertainment. They are representative of a new stage in the role of museums in Tokyo.
For updated information about museum’s exhibition content, entry price and other practical things, have a look at those pages:
This article is part of a series aiming to present Tokyo’s museum scene. From pulsating cultural centers to hidden peripheral rooms, there are dozens of incredible museums to visit and hundreds of permanent and temporary exhibitions for everyone’s taste. These articles are meant to be an introduction for tourists to find their personal must-go picks and for locals to discover new places and enjoy their time exploring the amazing city of Tokyo.