Museums & Attractions: overview

The best of what’s to see in Tokyo

Museums & Attractions: overview

Sightseeing in Tokyo is a little different from sightseeing in other major world cities, for the simple reason that – at first – there don’t seem to be many sights to see. Flattened by an earthquake in 1923 and razed by fire bombing during World War II, Japan’s capital has since been rebuilt again and again in a ceaseless churning of development and redevelopment. How do you get a handle on a city that continually erases its past?

Of course, the endless reinvention can be exciting, and is the motive force behind Tokyo’s commitment to the cutting edge in everything from architecture to fashion and technology. But it can also be bewildering, even for a native. That ‘great little place’ someone told you about might be fresh rubble by the time you find it.

But getting lost is often the first step towards appreciating Tokyo’s real charm – the infinite variety of human life that fills its myriad nooks and crannies. Wander the streets and there will always be something new to discover about the ingenious ways Tokyoites have found to live, love, eat, sleep and party.

If you really do get lost, don’t worry. With little street crime and the world’s best public transport, you’re unlikely to come to much harm and are never far from a train line to whisk you back to your hotel.

Ancient art, modern museums

The defining elements of Tokyo’s latest self-reinvention are the mixed-use mega-complexes that have sprung up over the last five years. Happily for the visitor, these often include a showpiece gallery or museum, as well as the obligatory retail, office and hotel facilities.

Driving the current wave of change is an economic recovery that means developers once again have cash to spare for the finer things in life. Better still, instead of blowing it on Old Masters, as would once have been the case, a newly confident Tokyo is investing in its own cultural heritage, as well as providing a forum for the most exciting contemporary art from Japan, Asia and around the world.

Numerous new venues have opened in recent years, and some of the very freshest are to be found in the Roppongi district – formerly the destination of choice for bar crawlers rather than gallery-goers, but now a symbol of the Tokyo’s ability to regenerate.

There you’ll find the Midtown development, which opened in March 2007. Its main tower is home to the Suntory Museum of Art, designed by starchitect Kengo Kuma. He calls it a ‘living room for the city’, and it certainly makes a comfortable space for one of the country’s best collections of traditional Japanese art. It’s also one of the most foreigner-friendly museums in town – don’t miss the excellent English-language earphone guides.

In the landscaped gardens of the same complex is the more challenging 21_21 Design Sight – a joint effort by veteran designer Issey Miyake and architect Tadao Ando. Designed to evoke origami with a structure seemingly crafted from a folded concrete sheet, the exhibition space showed an idiosyncratic streak right from the start by opening with an exhibition on chocolate in art.

Midtown is new, but it’s also a riposte to a nearby development that is only slightly older. Built around its landmark Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills set the blueprint for the new wave of developments. Many would argue that its Mori Art Museum is still the best private gallery in town. It’s certainly the venue of choice for stylish curating and the latest in contemporary art. Perhaps more importantly, the destruction of Roppongi Hills has already been depicted in a Japanese disaster movie, and there’s no greater honour than that.

Just down the road from these developments in Nogizaka, there’s a new museum that – remarkably enough in today’s climate – doesn’t have a shopping centre attached. The National Art Center, Tokyo, which opened a month before Midtown, and is now the biggest museum in Japan. With no permanent collection to call its own, it will be interesting to see if curators can fill its cavernous spaces with consistently interesting shows.

Commerce, history, greenery

Another emblematic view of the modern Japanese capital can be had by stepping out of the west exit of Tokyo Station – exactly what many visitors do by chance when they get off the train from Narita Airport.

There you will find yourself ringed by skyscrapers, not one of which dates back more than five years. Formerly a drab office district, Marunouchi is now another leisure destination – and a lesson in how big, new commercial developments can actually revive a city centre, not drain it of life. Newest of the new towers is the Shin Marunouchi Building (April 2007) designed by Britain’s Sir Michael Hopkins. It isn’t a must see, but it does make a decent place to grab a bite to eat on your way to better sights, including the nearby Imperial Palace East Gardens.

This last is the only public part of the Imperial Palace, which makes it an almost obligatory item on the tourist itinerary, but it’s far from the best green space in the city. For two of the best parks, try the mix of Western and Japanese styles in Shinjuku Gyoen or the fully Japanese flavour of the Hama-Rikyu Detached Garden in Shiodome, near Ginza (1-1 Hama-Rikyu Teien, Chuo-ku).

Walking the streets

Tokyo is less a cohesive capital than a collection of distinct mini areas separated by large belts of grey and beige. To experience the full press of Japanese humanity, try Shinjuku – home to the world’s busiest railway station (about 3.3 million users daily) and the heart of Tokyo’s government. It’s also the place for a titillating (but generally safe) peek at Tokyo’s underbelly, in the form of a walk round the yakuza-run red-light district of Kabuki-cho. While you’re there, stop by the impressive Hanazono Shrine, sitting incongruously next to the sleaze.

Shibuya and Harajuku are the places to see how teen Tokyo keeps up with the fashion of the week; Ginza is where they go when they’ve grown up, got married and moved in to serious chic – take a fat wallet if you want to do more than watch.

Tokyo’s historic side remains an elusive quarry. Best bet, perhaps, is Asakusa with Asakusa Kannon, the city’s oldest temple. Here the back streets also offer a hint of the atmosphere of the shitamachi – Tokyo’s largely vanished traditional downtown districts.

There are other places around town that offer a glimpse of old Tokyo. The Shitamachi Museum in Ueno is a quaint spot that recreates nineteenth-century life in downtown Tokyo and a 30-minute ride out of town will take you to the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum, where numerous classic residences and shops have been preserved in a spacious park.

But the truth is, Tokyo isn’t defined by its heritage. The real city is made up of the innovations, the bizarre juxtapositions and the cacophony that comes with all the crowds. Look out for ‘pet architecture’, as funky young Japanese architects Atelier Bow-Wow have dubbed the tiny eccentric buildings that pop up on any vacant plot of land, no matter how small or weirdly shaped. Try the aural assault of a pachinko parlour. Enjoy the garish fun of a love hotel.

The bottom line is that discovery and adventure are pretty much inescapable. The secret to enjoying Tokyo is to surrender to all the mayhem and see what happens.

Time Out Tokyo Shortlist (Published in 2007)

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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