There are so many places to see modern art in Japan it’s difficult to choose only one location. The Seto Inland Sea is currently the hotbed for travelers to experience contemporary artwork. However, there are other destinations worth exploring all over the country! To help you get started on planning your journey, here’s a list of our favorite festivals, museums, and islands.
Aomori Museum of Art
You can find the Aomori Museum of Art conveniently located south of downtown Aomori City. In addition to exhibition rooms, the four-storied building houses a theater, community gallery, restaurant, and more. The most attractive exhibitions are three huge paintings by Chagall and an 8.5-meter tall statue of a dog. In other parts of the museum, you'll also see works by Pablo Picasso and local artists.
Towada Art Center
Aomori Prefecture might be off the beaten track, but it’s full of hidden gems like the Towada Art Center. The open-air architecture seamlessly blends modern art with the surrounding natural scenery. Approaching the entrance, you’ll pass the Art Square and see some of Yayoi Kusama’s iconic dots. Inside, the museum’s permanent exhibitions display works by over 30 artists, including Yoko Ono.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Visitors to Kanazawa Prefecture’s Kenrokuen Garden should add the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art to their itineraries. The distinctively designed building houses pieces from Japan and around the world. The most beloved of these is Leonardo Elrich’s “Swimming Pool.” When you gaze into the water, the optical illusion makes it seem as though people are swimming along the bottom!
National Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo)
Established in 1952, the National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT) was the first national art museum in Japan. The bulk of its collection comes from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and features 8,000 ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Although ukiyo-e was a modern form when the museum opened, it now represents the epitome of traditional Japanese arts.
Mori Art Museum
Instead of displaying enigmatic works, the Mori Art Museum aims to create exhibitions that anyone can enjoy. It neighbors an observation deck on the top floors of Mori Tower. The museum only holds temporary exhibitions that mostly showcase Asian artists. Past featured artists include Jules de Balincourt, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Yayoi Kusama.
Mori Building Digital Art Museum (TeamLab: Borderless)
In 2018, teamLab—an interdisciplinary group of designers, engineers, and more—opened “Borderless” in Odaiba. The 10,000-square-meter building uses hundreds of computers and projectors to create displays that will stimulate your five senses. The effects include sights of bursting flowers, floating lanterns, and also a digital playground for children. If you plan on going, get your tickets ahead of time because it often sells out.
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
From the outside, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art looks like a residential home. Behind its doors lies a curious assortment of paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations by Japanese and international artists. Its oldest artwork dates back to the 1950s and includes pieces by Lee U-Fan, Andy Warhol, Daisuke Nakayama, and more.
Hara Museum ARC
The Hara Museum ARC is Gunma Prefecture’s annex of the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Architect Arata Isozaki designed the museum so that visitors would enjoy the outdoors as much as the indoors. Artwork populates the scenic grounds that surround the museum, and skylights illuminate the hallways inside of the building. On weekends, the onsite cafe sells specialty cakes made with fresh milk from the Green Bokujo farm.
The Hakone Open-Air Museum harmonizes a careful balance between nature and art. Walking through the various sculptures, you’ll also take in the views of the nearby mountains and valleys. The indoor collections will continue to astound you as you explore its halls. Visitors especially love the Pablo Picasso Hall, which features two stories of his works and photographs from throughout his life.
Naoshima Island is the premier destination for visitors who love modern Japanese art. Arriving by ferry, one of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins will greet you. Naoshima is also home to several museums designed by Ando Tadao, including the Benesse House. Visitors also must see the Lee U-fan and Chichu Art Museums.
Like Naoshima, Inujima recently became a popular attraction for modern art. The Inujima Seirensho Art Museum tastefully incorporates a former copper refinery. You’ll also see other projects throughout the peaceful village.
Teshima Island also ranks as one of the best places to see modern Japanese art in the Seto Inland Sea. Naoshima, Inujima, and Teshima serve as the main venues for the Setouchi Triennale. If you can’t go to the festival, you can find displays all over the island and see converted abandoned buildings.
Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale
Niigata Prefecture holds the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale once every three years. During the festival, artists scatter dozens of pieces throughout the region for visitors to enjoy. Some might appear in rice fields and others in abandoned buildings. In the off-years, there are some permanent exhibitions on display, making it worthwhile to see any time.
The same organizers from the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale put on the Setouchi Triennale. The two festivals follow the same concept, but the Setouchi Triennale takes place across several islands, including Naoshima, Inujima, and Teshima. To attend, you must buy both admission and ferry passes. You can purchase admission tickets online, but ferry vouchers are only available in Japan or through third parties like us.
In the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, the Nakanojo Biennale takes place every two years. The festivities mostly celebrate artists from the Kanto region by displaying over one hundred works. You’ll find pieces of art in abandoned buildings, including a sake brewery, a ryokan, and a train station. As you peruse the festival, you can also take in the rustic charms of rural Japan.