Vol.43 Discovering Public Art in Tokyo

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With its hundreds of museums and galleries, Tokyo is very much a city of art. Whether it’s painting or sculpture, antiques and crafts, Buddhist art or the contemporary avant-garde, there is always an exhibition to catch.

But Tokyo’s artistic side is not restricted to indoors. Take a trip with us as we explore the public art around the capital.

Robert Indiana“LOVE”

Tokujin Yoshioka“A Chair That Disappears in the Rain”

We start in Roppongi, which has recently emerged as a major art district. This is most obvious from the area’s several large art museums and influential galleries, though there is also a lot of art to discover out on the streets.

Let’s begin with an unmissable one: “Maman” by Louise Bourgeois. The giant arachnid looms over 66 Plaza in the Roppongi Hills and is a common place to arrange a meeting spot.

Next head to Keyakizaka-dori and find “A Chair That Disappears in the Rain” by Tokujin Yoshioka. If it’s a wet day, the glass furniture seems to vanish into thin air!

These are just a couple of examples: all over the Roppongi Hills complex and in the surrounding streets as well around Tokyo Midtown you can find numerous artworks by Japanese and international artists.

Now take a bus or train from Roppongi to Shibuya. Every Tokyoite knows the bronze statue of the dog Hachiko in front of Shibuya’s iconic intersection, or the half-buried Moai head statue also tucked around the corner. Be warned, though, they are popular meeting places so there is usually a crowd blocking the view.

Our tip is head up to the walkway connecting the JR and Keio stations. There you can find one of the great achievements of postwar Japanese painting: “The Myth of Tomorrow” by Taro Okamoto. Believed lost for decades until its unexpected rediscovery in Mexico in 2003, the massive mural (measuring 30 meters across) has been installed since 2008 in the station for passengers to enjoy every day. In Tokyo’s most overtly commercial and loud district, it’s a powerful vision of a nuclear apocalypse that felt incredibly urgent when first created in the late 1960s.

A short walk from busy Shibuya takes you to the less frantic area that is Aoyama. Another famous work by Taro Okamoto can be found next to the United Nations University. “Kodomo no Ki” (Children’s Tree) is classic Okamoto: full of primitive imagery and vibrant colors that transcends cultures, genre and era.

Taro Okamoto“The Myth of Tomorrow”

Yusuke Asai “White Lines that Became Plants @Yoyogi Park”

From Aoyama you can walk up Omotesando to Harajuku and then to Yoyogi Park, where you will find one of the subtlest examples of public art in Tokyo. In fact, it’s so subtle you might miss it: look down at your feet as you enter the main Harajuku entrance to the park.

Yusuke Asai’s “White Lines that Became Plants @Yoyogi Park” was painted on the ground in late 2011. Inspired by flora and fauna, these organic lines conjure up a serene landscape of vegetation and creatures to welcome visitors to one of Tokyo’s most popular parks.

Next hop on the JR Yamanote Line from Harajuku to Shinjuku. Then walk west around 10-15 minutes (or take the Marunouchi Line on the subway to Nishi-Shinjuku Station) to Shinjuku i-Land Atrium, a large complex west of the main Shinjuku hub.

The building would be yet another concrete in a sea of uniform architecture if not for its bold public art project. It is filled with numerous sculptures, including works by Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone and Katsuhito Nishikawa, though by far the most striking are Roy Lichtenstein’s two “Tokyo Brushstroke” sculptures and Robert Indiana’s “LOVE.” The latter consists of the four-letter word spelt out in upper case, stacked on top of each other in two rows. Indiana has created these sculptures at sites all over the world since the 1960s.

From Shinjuku you can take the Marunouchi Line down to Kasumigaseki Station. This district is most famous for its cluster of national government agencies. So why should you get off here?

Well, tucked among the towers is the appropriately named Kasumigaseki Building, which was Tokyo’s first skyscraper when it was completed way back in 1968. And in front of this is “Poly Stella,” a remarkable geometric sculpture by the German artist Carsten Nicolai, also known as Alva Noto. The 30 planes function as mirrors reflecting the landscape, adding a mystical vibe to what is usually regarded as a mundane area of Tokyo.

From Kasumigaseki you are only a short subway ride from Ginza, one of the city’s oldest and most popular retail districts. With its broad boulevards (pedestrianized at the weekend), it’s easy to see why Ginza is a joy to wander around.

As you explore, be sure to head to the Sukiyabashi intersection, where you can find yet another impressive sculpture by Taro Okamoto. Inside Sukiyabashi Park stands “Young Clock Tower”, which is technically a clock that lights up magically at night. (As of December 2016, it is currently undergoing repairs and may not light up.) Across the road you can also enjoy a fun sight on the hour with the automaton clock on the facade of the Yurakucho Marion building (it’s between the movie posters for a cinema).

In neighboring Shimbashi, you can find SL Square right in front of the JR station. The plaza is named after its dominant landmark: the locomotive C11 292 SL, which dates back to 1945. It was installed as a permanent monument in Shimbashi to mark 100 years of railway technology in Japan (the first train station in Tokyo was Shimbashi).

Around the square you can find numerous other artistic touches, including the Lion of Love Statue (paying tribute to those who extend a caring hand to the physically disabled) and a police substation with a lattice facade that reflects the sunlight differently during the day.

“Poly Stella”

Claes Oldenburg“Saw, Sawing”

■Odaiba & Tokyo Bay Area
From Shimbashi you can take the Yurikamome Line to go out to the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay. In and around Odaiba, the bay area is packed with attractions and things to do, in addition to offering great views of the city.

The area is also much less dense than the rest of Tokyo, which means the large public art installations really stand out. These include “La Flamme de la Liberté” (The Flame of Liberty), a gilded sculpture by the French artist Marc Couturier that references a famous monument in Paris, and, continuing this theme, even a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

But the most memorable is “Saw, Sawing,” a visually arresting piece of American pop art by Claes Oldenburg. Expressing the process of problem-solving, the enormous saw can be found stuck into the ground in front of Tokyo Big Sight.

It goes without saying that there are many more examples out there, on the streets, at stations, in parks, and on the sides of buildings. Don’t take our word for it, though. Just keep your eyes open while you explore the city!

Updated: December 13, 2016