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00.00.2022 / ArtsPeople

Top 5 Museums in Japan - A Designed Life | Japan


Japan Folk Craft Museum

The Japan Folk Crafts Museum definitely makes our top 5 favourite places in Tokyo to visit.

We go here often to soak in the simplicity of Japanese architecture, warmth of unadorned timber, and rustic beauty of simple craft. Steeped in a fascinating history, this beautiful museum embodies everything about the philosophy of its founder Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961).


'The world of utility and the world of beauty are not separate realms'.


Japanese folk craft - 'mingei' - refers to objects of humble beauty, created by anonymous artisans, and used by ordinary people in their daily lives. 


Literally 'crafts (gei / 芸) of the people (min / 民)' - 'mingei' is a relatively new word in Japanese, coined by philosopher Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), and potters Hamada Shoji (1894-1978) & Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966), in the early 20th century.


The Japan Folk Crafts Museum, opened in Tokyo in 1936, was the culmination of decades of devotion by these three men and others, to the advancement of folk crafts and an appreciation of “wholesome, normal beauty.” They were bound by their shared aesthetic philosophy and belief that their standard of beauty “… should not be the result of theoretical cognition; rather, it should be the outcome of keen intuitive insight.”


Flying in the face of both 'high art' created by famous artists, and the mass-production of cheap, ugly products, ‘mingei’ encourages us to ‘see with our eyes before dissecting with the intellect’.


This is why the experience of visiting the Japan Folk Crafts Museum is so uplifting. Conceived as a total work of art, every element of your visit – the approach from the station; removing your shoes at the entrance; walking on the soft, warm timber floors; and admiring the beautifully arranged objects – is imbued with the spirit of honest, joyful beauty.


*Quotes from Yanagi Soetsu’s collection of essays ‘The Beauty of Everyday Things’.


Continuing our journey to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum - the ongoing importance of folk craft (mingei) in Japanese design is reflected in the fact that contemporary designer Fukasawa Naoto (1956 - ) is the current Director. 


Most well-known for his ultra-minimal designs for MUJI, Nakasawa says "design is the art of the people". He believes the impetus for design is found in people's unconscious behavior, which he calls 'Without Thought'. 


Fukasawa is inspired by mingei founder Yanagi Soetsu and draws our attention to the influence of Buddhism on both the mingei movement and contemporary Japanese design.

"Great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment." Fukasawa Naoto

Design Sight 21_21

Design Sight 21_21 is next in our top 5 favourite places in Tokyo. Directed by a line-up of Japan's design greats - Miyake Issey (fashion), Fukasawa Naoto (product), Taku Sato (graphics) & Kawakami Noriko (journalist) - the museum itself is a stunning design object by architect Ando Tadao. Inspired by Miyake's APOC ('a piece of cloth') concept, the half-submerged museum cuts an elegant figure in Roppongi's Tokyo Midtown district. We love walking down through the landscaped garden to see the folded steel roof emerge in the distance - simultaneously minimal, understated and bold. Japanese design at its best.


Design Sight 21_21's curatorial philosophy, not just its building, illustrates beautifully what an authentic Japanese approach to contemporary design looks like.


Their exquisitely executed exhibitions are oblivious to the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and organically blur the lines between art, craft and design.


The curators look at the continuum of design culture in Japan, combining new work with historical pieces, to tell a story or explore an idea.


These are three of our favourites: Mingei / 民藝 (folk art), Designers hidden sketches and mock-ups and Zakka / 雑貨(domestic paraphernalia).


Rather than thinking in terms of ‘traditional’ vs ‘contemporary’, we’re encouraged to consider the idea of ‘eternal’ design in Japan – those concepts and aesthetic principles that form a continuum through time.


Design here is less about materialism and more about craftsmanship, attention to detail and simplicity - and a meaningful connection to our daily lives.


‘In religion the future is behind us. In art the present is the eternal.’ Okakura Tenshin (1863 – 1913).


Nezu Museum

Next stop, Nezu Museum. A short walk from Roppongi through the Aoyama Cemetery - one of the best Cherry Blossom destinations in Tokyo - takes you straight into Tokyo's fashion district. One of our favourite ways to spend a day is to stroll down fashionable Omotesando - past Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons, Prada - and end up here. If you didn't know it was there, you would miss it.


Hiding behind a simple fence, you enter a bamboo corridor. This is the transition – a mental and spiritual cleanse - taking you from the busy, material world to a contemplative, inner world. 

You emerge into a serene, elegant space - an homage to Asian art and architecture, and one of the most exquisite gardens in Tokyo. It waits for you like a secret treasure. An oasis in the sprawling bustle of Tokyo.


The history of Nezu Museum is one of those inspiring stories of a talented businessman's love and commitment to art being passed down through generations. Nezu Kaichirō (1860-1940) had a successful career in fast-modernising Japan, including as President of Tobu Railways. But his interests extended into education and the arts - in particular he was an enthusiastic practitioner of the tea ceremony. He amassed an incredible collection of pre-modern Japanese and East-Asian art but didn't want to just keep it to himself. When he passed away in 1940 his son Kaichirō Jnr built a museum in his honour, to house and display the collection, on the site of their family home. Over subsequent generations of the Nezu family, the museum has been expanded and beautifully renovated, most recently by Japanese architect Kuma Kengo (1954 - ). 


One of our favourite things about this Museum is the way the collection, that spans fine art and craft, is brought to life. If you visit in May you can enjoy Ogata Korin's (1658-1716) painted scroll ‘Irises’, before wandering into the sublime garden to admire Nezu Museum's very own irises.


A perfect reminder of the importance of nature and it's transience, to Japanese art.



Spiral is number 4 in our Tokyo Top 5. An art complex housing galleries, design stores, cafes and theatre spaces, Spiral is iconic. Designed by legendary Japanese architect Maki Fumihiko (1928 - ) more than 35 years ago, it's arrival was the catalyst for Aoyama to emerge as Tokyo's centre of cutting-edge architecture, fashion and design. Old by Tokyo standards, the Spiral building is still a great example of Japanese design - she's ageing gracefully.


Spiral is run by Wacoal Art Center, a cultural enterprise funded by Wacoal, one of Japan's most famous women's lingerie brands. Wacoal's founder Tsukamoto Koichi (1920 - 1998) started the company back in 1949 when he predicted a greater role for women in Japanese society after WWII, and saw an opportunity to bring them Western-style lingerie as well as new ideas about beauty, art and culture.


Over more than three decades, Spiral's mission has remained 'connecting art and life', which explains why we love it so much!


Step inside Spiral and you may not emerge for several hours. Their curatorial concept - 'blending art and life' - envelopes you as soon as you enter, and permeates nine floors of exhibitions, retail, food and drink. 

We love wandering through the art and design exhibitions in Spiral Garden, then up the spiralling ramp (where the building gets its name) to Spiral Market. An hour later we float up to 'Call' by Minagawa Akira (of fashion label mina perhonen) and then enjoy an exquisite tea experience at Sakurai. Or on a bright day, we might savour a cup of coffee and cake on the terrace of 'ie to niwa' / 家と庭 / 'house & garden' cafe.


To us, Spiral epitomises Japan's ability to elevate daily tasks - like shopping and eating - to an elegant artform.


T-Site in Daikanyama

More than simply a bookstore, Japanese video and book retailer Tsutaya’s cultural complex epitomises Tokyo's urbane lifestyle.


Sophisticated yet relaxed, we can easily spend half a day here browsing through an incredible range of art and design books, drinking coffee, listening to music and taking in a few art exhibitions dotted throughout. 


The three low-rise buildings (completed in 2011) feature a beautifully textured lattice facade made from interlocking Ts - a subtle branding device for Tsutaya, conceived by the architects Klein Dytham.


Sensitively nestled in amongst existing large trees, T-Site perfectly complements the adjacent Hillside Terrace - an historically significant Tokyo development also filled with galleries and shops, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki (who also designed Spiral from our last post) and built in stages over two and a half decades (1969 - 1992). 


Together these two create an edifying and elegant community feel. 


Visiting T-Site is all about wandering around soaking up the atmosphere of 'a designed life'. (And adding a few kilos in books to your luggage …

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