Singapore is ideally located to visit the region’s best art galleries and museums. Within the same day (or just a few hours) you can kiss your pandan plant goodbye (ouch!) and be holding an exhibition catalogue in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok, Shanghai, Yangon, or Sydney.
Planning your Cultural Trip
If you haven’t decided where you want to go yet, do an internet search of the cultural events that are on in the region during your holiday period and if you have a favourite artist, find out where they are exhibiting. Then research other temporary exhibitions showing at the same time, as well as the local and national art museums in that city.
Great online sites to help you are:
- TimeOut, city guides for Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Bangkok, etc.
- The Art Newspaper, for global news on the art market and events and exhibitions.
- Artmap, look at the sections on Events, Artists and Authors and their Map of the current exhibition market.
- Art Radar, for a list of visual art exhibitions in Asia, Europe and beyond.
- Skira Art Guides, discover major and emerging contemporary Asian artists by looking through the: Korean Eye, Vietnam Eye, Malaysian Eye, Indonesian Eye and Thailand Eye series.
- The Art Pilgrim, for city guides for modern and contemporary art museums, curated by Maya Pinkin, of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
- Art Stage, for interviews and updates with artists, collectors and gallerists and Art Stage events.
Maximising your Trip
Once you have decided on a destination and rough travel period, it’s a good idea to research the country’s school holidays, public holidays, high season, festivals and cultural events that bump up the cost of hotels and airfares and cause long queues at arts and cultural venues. If your intention is to catch some of these festivals, though, book your flight and hotel – and museum tickets (if needed) – well in advance.
Particularly if you are just planning a short hop, it’s important to know which day(s) of the week museums and galleries are closed and which days have extended hours. Opening hours and days can also differ on public holidays. Further to visiting hours, take note of the opening and closing dates of temporary exhibitions, along with the museum or gallery’s amenities (café, toilets, gift shop) and vicinity (part of town, nearest train station, taxi rank).
Smaller galleries and private museums often have more restrictive opening hours and shorter exhibition periods. Best to fit them into your itinerary first, around the big museums. Use a calendar tool on your phone or email to ‘pencil in’ events according to their limitations (i.e. opening/closing dates, reduced/extended visiting hours, days closed) and location.
Closer to the departure date of your trip, start looking at local event and culture guides for new and continuing exhibitions during the period of your stay. You might find a few more events to squeeze in to your itinerary or additional exhibitions in the same venue.
To whet your appetite, let’s take a look at Tokyo!
As a general impression, the national fine art museums of Tokyo are quite nationalistic in their choice of featured artists, along with having a small love affair with 19th and 20th century French painters, sculptors and artist collectives, as well as a reverence for Italian Renaissance painters and the Dutch masters. A recurring popular theme is of European artists who are influenced by the Japanese aesthetic (i.e. woodblock printing, fabric, and ceramic design motifs) and Japanese artists practicing in Europe, such as Leonard Tsuguharu Fujita.
In the contemporary art galleries and museums of Tokyo, two main themes, or aesthetics, appear to be at the fore; brash, confronting and vibrant or quiet and meditative. You will find manga, kawaii, enfant terrible, patterns, minimalism and kitsch; think of Murakami, Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara and Makoto Aida as well as sculptural, artisan and ceramic works that are reflective and sophisticated in form and method (see ceramic artists at Musee Tomo), figurative work in wood (Katsura Funakoshi) or are bold in their use of natural materials. Likewise, in photography, the impressive number of internationally successful photographers in Japan mean that there are as many artists practicing in the raw, gritty, black and white urban/Magnum photo journalism style (Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu), as there are completing subtle, careful, and quietly composed studies in nature (Hiroshi Sugimoto).
Japan Specific Guides
Tokyo TimeOut website is regularly updated with current art exhibitions and cultural events, as well as shopping guides for art, design, craft, home wares and fashion. Make “Art & Culture” pages your first go-to place to find out about the big shows on. Jot down the dates of the exhibitions you want to see, then visit the museum websites (via links) for more details.
Tokyo Art Beat (English edition)
This is possibly THE most informative and definitive guide to contemporary art and culture exhibitions and events on in Tokyo and nearby, eg. Yokohama City. In an easy to navigate format, with “ending soon”, “opening soon”, searches, you can browse by date, location and artistic medium.
Japan Times, Events (Arts) section
Within a month or so of your trip, check out the events section of the (online edition) English-language newspaper, Japan Times for newly publicised events and future happenings. Highlighted exhibitions and cultural events are listed with search tools such as “all categories”, “when?” and “where?”.
Museums and Art Spaces – Top Picks
The National Art Center, Tokyo
Contemporary, large, temporary exhibition space with multiple exhibition spaces, predominantly featuring Japanese and regional artists. Has nice museum shop full of local artisans’ books and crafts. Recent exhibitions include: famous architect Tadao Ando, kooky Yayoi Kusama, and a regional showcase with Mori Art Museum, Sunshower – Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980 to Now.
Mori Art Museum
Known for its large scale, collective, themed exhibitions, the Mori Art Museum always impresses. Well known Japanese and international visual and video artists, sculptors, architects, designers, and collaborators, e.g. TeamLab get a lot of space to show off here. Recent exhibitions include The Universe and Art, Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats, and Argentinian optical illusion master, Leandro Erlich,
In the same complex (Roppongi Hills), is the Mori Arts Center Gallery, which holds smaller exhibitions: e.g, pre-modern paintings from Europe, such as Renaissance masters, cultural exchange exhibitions from the Louvre, France and The Hermitage, Russia. You can also take in the view from the Sky Deck at Tokyo City View and savour a bakery treat from La Boutique Joel Robuchon.
The National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT)
MOMAT is a temporary exhibition space for modern art (early 20th Century and beyond), that typically features solo artists and retrospectives, with a focus on Japanese and Western Artists. Past exhibitions include Francis Bacon, Yasuda Yukiko, Onchi Koshiro and Thomas Ruff. A short takes you to the National Film Center, as well as to the Crafts Gallery.
Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP)
Temporary exhibitions primarily focus on modern Japanese photographers and other regional and international boundary pushing contemporary photographers, as well as on the history of photography and early (esp. French) photographers. Sugiura Kunié’s life work has been recently featured. TOP hosts the World Press Photo exhibition and many international film festivals. Photography bookshop and cafés on site.
National Museum of Western Art (NMWA)
As its name implies, NMWA’s permanent collection is made up of western paintings and sculpture from the Late Medieval period through to the early 20th Century. Here you can see a beautifully displayed and inspiring permanent collection of works by predominantly European painters. Recent temporary exhibitions include: Caravaggio, Arcimboldo, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Picasso, and Le Corbusier. The NMWA has a good museum shop, and is located nearby the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (below) in Ueno Park.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum always merits a visit. With concurrent temporary exhibitions spanning 2-3 floors, visitors are treated to both local emerging artists and international greats. The museum has decent dining options and a good museum shop. An impressive exhibition was Dialogues with Trees, including woodwork by Kuniyasu Takamasa and Tsuchiya Yoshimasa.
The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum
Located in the affluent Marunouchi district, this museum is often overlooked – or not known about. Tokyo’s first western-style office building (circa 1894) is now a sister museum of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and holds special Western art exhibitions. Recent exhibitions include Odilon Redon and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Bunkamura is a cultural multi-complex located in Shibuya consisting of a concert hall, museum, theatre, gallery, gift shop and café. The gallery hosts just a few visiting exhibitions a year – some small, some ‘big names’. A recent exhibition was Chagall, Kandinsky and Klee.
Lastly – while we haven’t been there to review it yet, Yayoi Kusama’s Museum has recently opened.
Your Tokyo Art Trip – Top Tips
1: Getting Around
Train – The tube system in Tokyo is very easy to use and to navigate. Purchase a Pasmo or Suica train card at the airport, which can be easily topped up at any metro station (similar to Singapore’s SMRT EZ-link cards).
Taxi – is another way to travel, if you can afford it! Always clean and quiet, taxis typically provide power sockets for your smartphones – a modern touch to complement the crochet seat covers! Taxi drivers largely rely on building postcodes to navigate, not their names. Avoid a mystery tour by taking a google/maps app screenshot of the full address of the place you want to go in English AND kanji before getting in the taxi. Show this photo to the driver.
2: Group your Visits – Geographic Smarts
Maximise your schedule by planning your visit to Tokyo museums and galleries according to their location. Cultural venues are often clustered together or in close proximity to each other, such as the art museums within Ueno Park and those in Roppongi Hills.
Planning by location allows you to stagger entrance times. You can see an exhibition in the morning at one museum, refuel, and then hit another exhibition at a gallery in the afternoon.
3. Timing your Visits
To avoid long queues in museums, galleries and paying a premium on flights and hotels, avoid school holidays, public holidays, high season and cultural events. For Japan, this means forgoing the magic of the cherry and plum blossom seasons!
Jot down the start and finish dates of temporary exhibitions, and take note of which day of the week museums and galleries are closed, and which days have extended hours.
Rule of thumb, most museums and galleries in Tokyo will be closed on a Monday. There are however, a few, that are closed on a Tuesday. You might choose to end your trip on a Monday, or use the day to shop. Tsutaya’s Daikanyama T-Site is a good place to do this. T-Site is a hip, architecturally designed culture-campus opened by one of Japan’s leading book, music and movie retailers. Browse an amazing collection of books and magazines in the visual arts, photography, architecture and fashion sections.
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