8 Things to See in Tokyo: A Guide For Art Enthusiasts

Tokyo is one of the world’s greatest art hubs. Few cities can match Tokyo’s contributions to fine art, pop culture, and design.

Apr 21, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems

art lover guide tokyo


Tokyo used to be called Edo, but during the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, it became the country’s capital and was renamed Tokyo. Industry, art, commerce, and culture flourished in the new capital. Soon, artists from around the country flocked to the city to open studios and galleries. With skyscrapers, bright lights, endless restaurants, bars, and gardens that look like those seen in postcards, Tokyo is a feast for all the senses. For any lover of art, nothing compares to Tokyo.


Tokyo as an Art Hub

tokyo street scene
Photo of Tokyo by Satoshi Hirayama, Source: Pixels


Many Japanese visual phenomena like ukiyo-e became famous around the world. These woodblock prints became symbols of Edo Japan and the new Tokyo. Along with ukiyo-e, other art forms developed in the city, including comic books known as manga, world-famous fashion design, interior and exterior design, and innovative methods of creating mind-warping live art installations.


tokyo ukiyoe prints
Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art


Today, few global cities can match what Tokyo offers to art lovers. Within this massive metropolis of 38 million people, you’ll find an almost infinite amount of world-renowned museums, private galleries, live pop-ups, and outdoor sculptures and murals made by some of the most respected artists and visionaries on the planet. Below is a list of just a few of the top places around the city where art lovers can go to experience the vibes of the city.


1. Tokyo National Museum

tokyo natiional museum artwork
Tokyo National Museum Artwork by Thor Alvis, Source: Unsplash

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After arriving in Tokyo, the first art museum you should visit is the Tokyo National Museum. The museum is part of the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage and is the oldest museum in Japan. It’s also the country’s largest art museum. This grand building in the world-famous green space of Ueno Park houses a vast collection of art spanning from the early Jomon Period to the Edo Period. You’ll see collections of military artifacts, paintings, ceramics, and sculptures that were once part of the Japanese Imperial Collection and private collections from the country’s powerful feudal lords known as Daimyos.


Once you enter the museum, you’ll be greeted by several pieces that are considered national treasures. From centuries-old Buddhist sculptures to well-preserved historical swords, this museum houses some of the country’s most famous and historical works of art. Within the Tokyo National Museum grounds are four galleries plus several outdoor exhibits. The Honkan, or main gallery, is where you’ll find many of the museum’s carvings and sculptures, dating back to the country’s early history until the 19th century.


Special events and exhibitions are located in the Hyōkeikan gallery. Behind it is the Hōryū-ji Hōmotsukan, which houses a special collection of artifacts from the Horyu Temple, one of the oldest and most important temples of Japan’s ancient capital Nara. The smaller Tōyōkan is where you can enjoy the museum’s foreign collections, which come from other Asian countries, including China and Korea.


2. Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum

metropolitan museum art tokyo
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tokyo. Source: Istock


Just across from the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park is the beautiful Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. This large complex houses an extensive collection spanning from Japan’s ancient history to present-day masterpieces. The museum is Japan’s first public art museum. It was designed by the world-renowned architect Kunio Maekawa. Since 1926, the museum has been a central organization for the city’s art world. You’ll see many types of media, including classic calligraphy, photography, and sculpture here.


If you want to experience the world-famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum should be at the top of your list. After spending time enjoying the exhibits, you can dine at the museum’s popular restaurant or grab a drink at their cafe. There’s also a fantastic gift shop inside the museum where you can buy everything from miniature replicas of famous artworks to ukiyo-e woodblock print postcards.


After you’re done with your visit to the museum, make sure to spend some time walking around the expansive Ueno Park. This sprawling green space is home to some of the city’s most celebrated temples, such as Daikokutendo and Kan’ei-ji Temple. The gardens at Ueno Park are artistic masterpieces themselves and no visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is complete without admiring their beauty.


3. Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT)

MOT sam francis
Exhibition by Masaru Yanagiba. Source: Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo


Since 1995, few museum buildings have gotten so much international praise as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. This huge steel and glass building houses over 5,000 pieces of contemporary art from Japan and abroad. There is a moat outside, resembling a traditional Japanese Rock Garden. Even before you enter, you’ll feel like you’re walking through a space that’s a work of art in itself. Inside the museum, you can admire the incredible collections and the open and modern building design they’re housed in. You can also check out the museum’s enormous collection of art magazines, videos, and other art-related media, many of which are in English.


4. Art 53 Stories up at the Mori Art Museum

mori art museum view
View from the Mori Art Museum by Sebastian Hages.


Few art museums in the world are as unique as the Mori Art Museum. Located 49 to 53 floors above the neighborhood of Roppongi in the Roppongi Hills Tower, this museum is like no other.


You’ll enjoy the views of the entire city while perusing through exhibitions from prominent local and international artists such as Takashi Murakami, Louise Bourgeois, Ai Weiwei, and Yoko Ono. The museum’s collection showcases artists from the Asia-Pacific region and it’s expanding annually. Inside, you’ll experience various mediums such as photography, sculpture, video, and painting. There are also thrilling immersive experiences available. Once you’re done walking through the museum, you can grab a snack or meal at the museum’s popular restaurant.


5. World of Hokusai in Ryogoku 

sumida hokusai museum
Photo of the Sumida Hokusai Museum by Nikita Suyetin.


You can find much more than wrestling memorabilia in the home of Japanese Sumo wrestling. The Ryogoku neighborhood is now a wonderful spot for art lovers looking to experience collections from one of the country’s most celebrated artists. First, visit the incredible Sumida Hokusai Museum. This wonderful space features collections from the artist Katsushika Hokusai. Known internationally for his pop-culture-inspiring masterpieces such as the Great Wave Off Kanagawa, seeing Hokusai’s traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints and memorabilia is a must for any fan of fine art.


You should also spend time walking around the neighborhood of Ryogoku itself. Even if you’re not a fan, a visit to the Sumo Museum is a must. Enjoy sampling the neighborhood’s exciting cuisine at the Ryogoku Edo Noren, a space designed as a traditional Edo-style commercial center. Here, restaurants, cafes, and stores bring the Edo Period nostalgia and old Tokyo back to life.


6. Coffee and Art at the National Art Center

national art center tokyo
Photo of the National Art Center by Wood Hong.


As museum architecture goes, few can top the wavy futuristic structure of the National Art Center. Its giant steel and glass exterior is the perfect selfie spot for art lovers on social media. However, it’s not only the exterior that makes people fall in love with it. Inside, you will find some of the most celebrated works of art in the city, making it a must-see attraction.


After admiring the iconic facade of the museum, you’ll enter a massive complex featuring revolving exhibitions from famous Japanese artists and masterpieces from overseas. You’ll find one of the most diverse collections in the city, ranging from ancient Japanese wonders to modern thought-provoking pieces made in various mediums.


Like many of the city’s art museums, this beautiful space features a popular cafe and two restaurants. After exploring the multiple floors of exhibits, make sure to experience Japan’s world-famous cafe culture at Salon de Thé ROND. What makes this cafe even more special is that it’s located on top of a circular tower inside the museum’s main hall.


7. See How Tokyo Influenced the Modern World at MoMAT

momat munakata shiko
In Praise of Flower Hunting, Munakata Shiko, 1954. Source: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo


Set beside the Imperial Palace and surrounding gardens and moats is the National Museum of Modern Art. Inside, you’ll get to see a revolving collection of over 13,000 Japanese works of art from the 20th and 21st centuries. You’ll get to walk through a dozen rooms, each housing various styles of modern art, from paintings to sculptures. Some highlights include paintings and sculptures that the government of Japan labeled Important Cultural Properties. Works by artists such as Uemura Shoen and Murakami Kagaku are all on display here.


Come during spring or fall and you’ll be treated to one of the biggest color spectacles in the city. Spring cherry blossoms at Kita-no-maru Park and the gardens around Edo Castle Ruins are a sight worth seeing. In the autumn, the garden’s maples and oaks turn the green space into a sea of color. Timing your visit to the National Museum of Modern Art with these colorful natural phenomena would make the perfect highlight to any art lover’s Tokyo adventure.


8. Experience Tokyo’s Art on Foot

the great wave of kanagawa mural
The Great Wave of Kanagawa mural by Photo by Matthew Buchanan.


Scattered throughout the city’s busy streets and stunning green spaces are hundreds of art exhibits, sculptures, and street art that showcase the city’s unmatched creativity. Just journeying around the city on foot, you’ll run into stunning murals, statues, and almost otherworldly creations that are there for the public to enjoy. Head to Roppongi Hills and check out the French artist Louise Bourgeois’ masterpiece known as Maman. This lanky and surreal sculpture was dedicated to the late artist’s mother and resembles a giant spider carrying marble eggs.


Even the famous cartoonist Hayao Miyazaki got into the fun of creating public outdoor art in the city. Head to the Nittele Tower at Shiodome Center near Shimbashi Station and you’ll see a giant clock sculpture designed by the cartoonist and director himself. Yet for many visitors that come to Tokyo, nothing beats a tour of its temples. These religious and ceremonial centers of Buddhism and Shintoism contain striking works of art, incredible facades, and manicured gardens that turn the natural landscape into a work of art.

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By Matt DursumBA Geography and GIS SystemsMatt is a freelance writer and journalist from Michigan who’s currently living in South America. When he’s not writing, Matt is studying languages — so far Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French — visiting museums, surfing, and traveling.