In Tokyo, Japan you can now get a glimpse of the country’s famous melding of the ancient and modern before you’ve even left the airport...
When arriving in Japan, you can get a glimpse of the country’s famous melding of the ancient and modern before you’ve even left the airport. The CULTURE GATE to JAPAN project shows the work of leading artists in eight different venues, in each one looking at the local culture through a contemporary lens.
Whether you arrive at Narita International Airport, Tokyo International (Haneda) Airport, or Tokyo International Cruise Terminal, the CULTURE GATE to JAPAN exhibitions will start your trip off with a taste of the city’s diverse art scene. Here are our suggestions for what to do next...
On arrival at Tokyo’s Narita or Haneda airports, CULTURE GATE to JAPAN quickly introduces you to the diversity of Japanese culture through art. Travellers landing at Haneda will be greeted by the playful Crowd Cloud (2021) by SUZUKI Yuri and HOSOI Miyu. The piece consists of dozens of standing horns playing the sounds of the Japanese language, creating the effect of a happily chatting crowd waiting to welcome you to the country.
Both airports are also exhibiting the VISION GATE project, in which videos play along the routes out of airports, immersing you in artistic interpretations of aspects of Japan. The diverse range of subjects and treatments – exploring global warming through kintsugi, rendering the Kojiki creation myth in CGI – is a fitting accompaniment to your first steps into this eclectic country.
Alternatively, if you arrive at Tokyo International Cruise Terminal you’ll have the chance to see six more works, again showing the depth and breadth of Japanese culture. UMEZAWA Hideki and SATO Kōichi explore the tension and balance between the ever-changing nature of human life and nature’s solid certainty. TSUDA Michiko looks at the shifting lives of women in mid-twentieth-century Japan. And IGUCHI Kōta examines the subjectivity of our experience of time.
Most travellers arriving at Narita International Airport head straight into Tokyo, but the city of Narita itself is worth seeing. Start at 1,000-year-old Naritasan Buddhist temple, set in a huge park. Omotesandō, the old-fashioned street leading to the temple, sells all kinds of traditional foods, crafts and art. Next, visit the National Museum of Japanese History for an engaging overview – with plenty of English – of Japan from prehistoric times to the modern era.
Haneda is in Tokyo’s bustling port area. Near Shinagawa station – which makes a great base, with excellent hotels like The Strings – you can learn about the famous samurai tale of the 47 Rōnin at the temple of Sengaku-ji. Further up the bay is Shiba Park, where the head temple of Jōdo Buddhism, Zōjō-ji, stands near the iconic red-and-white Tokyo Tower.
Across the bay, Tokyo International Cruise Terminal is close to Odaiba. This futuristic entertainment district is home to Palette Town, where you can get glorious views from the huge ferris wheel or immerse yourself in digital art at teamLab Borderless. Alternatively, just head to the beach at sunset to watch the Tokyo skyline light up, with glittering Rainbow Bridge to the fore.
Start your day in bayside Tokyo, with a visit to the old Tsukiji fish market. Though the trading now happens at ultra-modern Toyosu market, this is still the place to go for the freshest sushi breakfast. It’s also near two superb Japanese gardens, Kyū Shiba Rikyū and Hama Rikyū. These tranquil spots, surrounded by shimmering glass-and-steel skyscrapers, are the perfect places to experience Tokyo’s balance of the traditional and the modern.
From nearby Hinode Pier you can take the Tokyo Water Bus up the Sumida River to Asakusa, a district known for its temples, geisha, and traditional shops and restaurants. It’s easy to while away an afternoon here, visiting Sensō-ji (probably the city’s most popular temple), stopping off at historic cafés and bakeries, and picking up everything from chopsticks to plastic food models at Kappabashi Shopping Street – also known as Kitchen Town.
Staying in Asakusa overnight gives you a chance to experience some of the city’s traditional entertainment options. Start off with Japanese cuisine for dinner; options range from high-end Waentei Kikkō, where your kaiseki meal is accompanied by live shamisen music, to no-frills Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, which has been serving up delicious rice balls since 1954.
A truly memorable option is dinner, drinks and entertainment with maiko and geisha. This will involve kaiseki cuisine, performances of dance and music, and plenty of fun drinking games with these highly trained traditional entertainers. Next, head to one of Asakusa’s izakaya (Japanese-style bars) or the venerable Kamiya, then turn in for the night in a Japanese-style inn like Andon Ryokan.
For something a bit different, work off your jetlag by heading to retro Asakusa Batting Stadium – an all-night venue where you can practice Japan’s favourite sport, baseball, until the small hours.
Many of Asakusa’s scenes are familiar from woodblock prints and scrolls. But cross the river and you’ll reach something a world away from the district’s incense-shrouded temples and wood-fronted shops: TOKYO SKYTREE. At 634 metres it’s the country’s tallest structure, an architectural icon of modern Japan and an ideal place to see the endless sprawl of Tokyo laid out below you. On a clear morning, the snowy cap of serene Mount Fuji seems to hover over the city on the horizon.
Take your pick of where to head next. You could go to Shibuya, picking a café with a view over the scramble crossing (L’Occitane is a good option). Or you could make for Akihabara, to immerse yourself in the city’s thriving anime and gaming culture.
Head to glitzy Ginza for the afternoon, where you can find good-value lunch sets in the area’s high-class restaurants. Try Ume-no-hana for tofu, or Tempura Abe for light, crispy tempura dishes.
There are plenty of galleries and museums nearby, some in the Imperial Palace grounds. To name just a few, the Shiseidō Gallery, Ginza Graphic Gallery, Maison Hermès Le Forum, Tokyo Gallery + BTAP, Crafts Gallery, National Museum of Modern Art, Intermediatheque, and Idemitsu Museum of Arts.
Alternatively, make your way to Roppongi, where the Mori Art Museum, National Art Center and Suntory Museum of Art comprise the Tokyo Art Triangle. It’s also a fun area to explore as the evening draws in, its mix of ultra-modern architecture and bars, green spaces and noisy expressways combining to make an overwhelming but exciting nightlife district.
For a breath of fresh air away from the excitable crowds, make your way to Tokyo City View in the Roppongi Hills complex. It’s one of the best viewpoints in the city, and with last entry at midnight, it’s a magical spot from which to watch the lights of Tokyo.
Narita International Airport, Tokyo International (Haneda) Airport and Tokyo International Cruise Terminal aren't the only places where you can admire art. From the mysterious world of Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu culture to the vibrant history of Okinawa’s ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, diverse cultures can be found throughout Japan. Through the CULTURE GATE to JAPAN project, you can admire art instillations at five other Japanese airports including Fukoka, New Chitose, Kansai International, Naha and Chubu Centrair International airports.
Opening times may vary, please see exhibition website for up-to-date hours of operation.
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