Modern art is booming in Japan. It often happened that we were standing in long lines next to the coolest Japanese. As if the hottest boy band was in town. Except we were not waiting to get a selfie with the lead singer. But we were excited to see a painting, sculpture or lighting installation. If you are an art addict like us, you should not miss Tokyo, but Matsumoto, Kanazawa and Naoshima are also a must.
Yayoi Kusama, one of Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, is not exhibited a lot in Japan. You can find a giant pumpkin on the island of Naoshima and a permanent exhibition in the Matsumoto Museum of Art. Kusama was born in Matsumoto. We also recommend visiting Matsumoto for the famous Crow Castle and its location at the foot of Japanese alps. But Matsumoto is also worth a visit to discover Kusama’s work in the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. It has works starting all the way back from her childhood but also more famous pieces like the Infinity Mirrored Room. This broad scope is a unique experience, as it provides great insight into her world.
Matsumoto City Museum of Art
The Kusuma experience starts outside with giant flower sculptures. It continues with polka dot vending machines where even the soda cans are covered in polka dots. Once inside, make sure you do not get lost in all the mirror rooms with polka dots. This is a dazzling experience and can even feel quite scary and or emotional. Her famous dots are just all around you to blow you away. The childhood work gives you a rare insight into her start as an artist and her continuous development. Other works are psychedelic drawings and an Infinity Mirrors Pod which gives you a one-person experience of infinity. Even if contemporary art does not appeal to you, this museum can be very rewarding.
The ferry to Naoshima (Miyanoura) departs from Uno or Takamatsu. Check out the exact time table before you go. The ferry crosses the Inland Sea and takes you along hundreds of small Islands. If you look carefully you will see a big red polka dot pumpkin at the coast of a slightly bigger island. This tells you that you have arrived at the art island Naoshima. We recommend you rent a bicycle to discover the island, there are a few rental shops next to the ferry stop. Although Naoshima is a bit hilly, the island is not too big and there are electrical bikes available to give you extra support if needed. The museums and art pieces are spread out over the island which makes cycling far quicker than public transport. As an added bonus, it also provides a nice experience of both the culture and nature that Naoshima has to offer.
Ando Tadao designed the Chichu Museum in concrete, steel and glass and is a sight on itself. Only three artists are exhibited here: Claude Monet, James Turrell and Walter de Maria. This bold choice for quality over quantity, results in an unforgettable art experience.
Next to the Chichu Museum lies the Lee Ufan Museum, also designed by Tadao. It exhibits the minimalistic work of the Korean artist Lee Ufan.
The biggest museum is the Benesse House, where you can also stay the night, if your budget allows it. You can also visit the art exhibition inside and the sculpture garden outside if you aren’t a guest. The famous yellow pumpkin of Yayoi Kusama is one of the sculptures that is on display here.
On the other side of the island you can find the Art House Project, spread over seven different locations. Minamidera, one of the locations, is built on the former site of a temple. Inside this building – again – a design of Ando Tadao, you can find another art piece of James Turrell.
If you are planning to visit the 21th Century Museum Contemporary Art in Kanazawa during the weekend, then make sure you’re on time. Even before the museum opens her doors, people are queuing their way to the ticket offices. This results in more people than art in the museum. Art is booming in Kanazawa. Inside, you can among others, admire video art of Marijke van Warmerdam and a room designed by James Turrell. But without a doubt the highlight is the Swimming Pool, a mystical illusion created by Leonardo Erlich. You can experience the installation both from outside and inside of the pool.
Tokyo is packed with contemporary art galleries, museums and impressive architecture. We want to highlight three museums: The National Museum of Western Art, the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo and the Mori Art Museum.
Mori Art Museum
It’s hard to miss the Mori Art Museum because of the giant spider of Louise Bourgeois outside the entrance. Check the exhibition schedule, to see what is on when you are planning to visit the museum. On the roof of the museum is one of the best viewpoint of the city. Contrary to the other viewpoints, this one is out in the open and your views are not obstructed by glass.
National Museum of Western Arts
The National Museum of Western Arts exhibits great pieces of Western art. It has modern Western artists like Picasso, Miró and Pollock. You can see unique pieces here, which are seldom shown outside of Japan. Together with a wide range of old masters, this museum gives a great overview of Western art.
National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo
The National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MOMAT) is the foremost museum for modern Japanese art. It also has a broad collection of foreign modern art. This gives the viewer the opportunity to place Japanese modern art in a broader context. Especially interesting is the impact of the second world war on Japanese artists.
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