Design, architecture and galleries — there’s so much more than the ancient side to Nippon.
When it comes to visiting or touring Japan, we tend to read (and write) an inordinate amount about the historical and traditional sides of the country — from temples and rituals to festivals and food, and rightly so; their variety is frankly amazing.
Still, the fact that so many travelers are first attracted to Japan by its art and design makes it clear the more disparate, artistic aspects of the country deserve closer inspection. Here are half a dozen (very free-form) alternative tours for the artistically inclined visitor or cultural explorer.
Museums and galleries
Tokyo, of course, has the whole range of galleries and museums, from small basements-for-hire to the 52nd- floor Mori Art Museum, but a short trip to neighboring areas will reward you with some very good local museums.
In fact, three of the most interesting exhibitions I’ve seen have been an hour or more out of Tokyo. Try Chiba City Museum of Art for bloodthirsty 19th-century woodblock-printed scandal newspapers, the Museum of Modern Art in Saitama for historical works by the multi-talented Settai Komura or Fuchu’s Art Museum and its contemporary local Tamagawa artists.
The Fuchu venue also recently featured exhibitions on Christianity in Japanese Art, which was a surprise for me.
Of course — and as with the central museums — your level of interest depends on the exhibitions themselves, but if there’s a good show you also get a chance to explore a local area before or after.
Tokyo International Forum is a hidden cathedral of glass and steel.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the cityscape of Tokyo looks like clutter. But, sometimes hidden in plain sight, sometimes down the myriad backstreets, there are some excellent buildings and small, unexpected architectural quirks.
On the large scale, for example, there’s the Tokyo International Forum. The busy urban location means you don’t get much of a chance to enjoy the outside, but it’s inside that counts — the atrium is a cathedral-like public space that soars for several stories of glass.
Go to the higher floors and you can even stand on a corner of glass against a glass railing and look 11 stories down. And that even in earthquake-prone Tokyo, where in fact the Forum was a place of refuge for stranded Tokyoites on March 11.
A bell chimes you in, and the rush of outside noise diminishes in a ship-shaped curve of changed atmosphere. As you might expect, Tokyo frequently rewards an eye kept out for the small oddities that can be anywhere, like the seemingly unusable garage shown here.
Tokyo International Forum, 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Tokyo or Yurakucho stations.
Totodo — a standout bookshop amid the neon glare of Shibuya,
After taking in the modern scenery and the quirks of its culture, a good bookshop is always a plus for the arts-oriented traveler in a new city.
In Tokyo there is, for example, the compact collection at Totodo, a secondhand bookshop tucked away in the backstreets of Shibuya. The big name artist monographs from overseas may or may not be familiar, but there are also plenty of books on Japanese artists, architects, photographers and designers.
The best Tokyo arts bookshop, Nadiff, once in Omotesando, is sadly no longer — atomized into various smaller outlets which don’t quite equal the sum of that single previous store.
But if you’re looking for new books the ABC shop behind the United Nations University, also in Omotesando, stocks foreign and domestic magazines, books on all contemporary arts, wall space for a display and even a small collection of the artier manga. There’s also a branch in Roppongi.
You’ll perhaps be templed-out on any visit to Japan, yet what visitor with a design bent doesn’t fall for the craftsmanship of Japanese temples’ carpentry and joinery?
Taking the well-beaten tourist path to Kamakura’s temples, near Tokyo, or Miyajima, near Hiroshima, has much to recommend it. But visit the lesser-known Erinji, in Yamanashi to the west of the capital, and you’ll find an example of the rare “nightingale floor,” whose ancient wooden boards still squeak like a bird to warn of ninja-style trespassers (or visiting tourists). Erinji also has a good garden.
To get to Erinji take a limited express train on the Chuo line from Shinjuku to Enzan Station (about 90 minutes), then any of several local buses.
The celebrated layout of traditional Japanese gardens certainly isn’t just for visitors taking a green-Japan tour, although a classic like Ryoanji’s stone garden in Kyoto suffers slightly, like top-listed tourist spots everywhere, from overexposure.
A trip out of Osaka to the temple town of Koya in the Wakayama mountains will take you to Kongobuji’s stone garden, for example, perhaps not as geometrically “clever” as Ryoanji’s always uncountable stones, but aesthetically very beautiful indeed.
Back in Kyoto, Saihoji’s moss garden, which you can only visit by pre-booking, is both gently beautiful and at any one time filled with its limited number of visitors.
You’ll be required to copy a sutra as part of the visit — you trace faintly printed kanji characters, so even those without any Japanese writing skill can “practice” a little calligraphy. The restricted access makes you feel both privileged and a tad corralled, but the reward is a green that’s gossamer to the senses.