Tokyo’s modern art scene can be tricky to uncover if you don’t know where to look. Not every gallery has a giant spider to point the way, so here are four cutting-edge galleries to get you started on the city’s art trail

The atrium at MORI Art Museum
The galleries at Mori Art Museum are arranged around this sandstone atrium designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman

Mori Art Museum

Located on the 52nd and 53rd floor of high-rise Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, this major contemporary art gallery has no permanent displays, but instead plays host to huge visiting exhibitions and artist retrospectives from both Japanese and international artists of note, with a public program of exhibition-related events and talks. Documentary and video art have been well-represented here on my visits, alongside sculpture, multimedia installations and more.

If you are here between 31 October 2015 and 6 March 2016, check out the exhibition space featuring works by influential contemporary Japanese artist Takahashi Murakami, which includes the 100-metre-long painting The 500 Arhats, one of the largest paintings ever created. His style is colourful, at times cute, at others grotesque, and links Japanese contemporary pop culture to his country’s long art history. Read more about him here.

There are three major art galleries that make up the Roppongi Art Triangle – Mori Art Museum, The Suntory Museum of Art and The National Art Center. To find more art in the area, click here.

Do it yourself
Open daily, 10am–10pm (except Tue: 10am–5pm). Getting there by train: Take the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line to Roppongi Station, Exit 1C. It takes you right to the building. Address: 53F Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel: +81 (0)3 5777 8600;

Hara Museum's front entrance.
Hara Museum’s front entrance.

Hara Museum of Contemporary Art

Built in 1938 as a private home, this art-deco style building would be worth a visit even if it didn’t have some of the world’s best contemporary art on display. The façade has a white, submarine-like art-deco profile, while inside it has fishbone-parquet floors and timber-framed picture windows to allow views of the tranquil, sculpture-dotted garden. A permanent but ever-changing exhibition called “My Drawing Room” by Japanese pop-artist Yoshimoto Nara acts as a working studio where the artist visits regularly to rearrange miniature dog sculptures and paint and draw quirky, humorous cartoon-style pieces. The studio space is decorated especially for Christmas each year, too. The museum’s permanent collection includes works by Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Karel Appel, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock.

Spend at least a few hours here and allow time for lunch at the garden-side restaurant Café d’Art, which has a daily seasonal set menu with typically pretty Japanese-style plating. Also onsite is a fantastic shop selling arty stationery, ultra-cool home décor, Jap-pop artworks, books and jewellery.

Do it yourself
Open Tue–Sun, 11am–5pm (Wed until 8pm). Getting there by train: Get off at JR Shinagawa Station and take the Takanawa exit. It’s a five-minute taxi ride from the station (warning: or you can choose a not-well-signposted 15-minute walk along a highway and through back streets!). Address: 4-7-25 Kitashinagawa, Shinagawa-ku. Tel: +81 (0)3 3445 0651; click here for website

SCAI: The Bathhouse is old on the outside and super-contemporary on the inside
SCAI: The Bathhouse is old on the outside and super-contemporary on the inside

SCAI The Bathhouse

This smallish gallery is housed inside a renovated, 200-year-old former community bathhouse, or sento (an aside: a sento is not to be confused with an onsen, which pumps in natural hot-spring water. The sento uses heated, plumbed water).

The gallery showcases emerging avant-garde Japanese talent as well as internationally recognised artists. Past exhibitions have featured Tashikatsu Ando, Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie. Check the website below for upcoming exhibitions.

The Yanaka District surrounding the gallery is great for a wander due to its traditional low-rise housing, narrow streets, and as it is the site of historic Yanaka Bochi, a cemetery dating back to the late 1800s, when this part of Tokyo was named Shitamachi. The grave site of the last Japanese shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, is here.

When you visit SCAI The Baththouse, be sure to stop in at Shitamachi Museum Annex (The Old Yoshida-ya Sake Store), a sake museum (2 chome 10-6, Ueno-sakuragi), and Kabaya Coffee, a retro-styled kissaten (coffee shop) selling surprisingly good coffee (6-1-29 Yanaka, Taito-ku). The Asakura Sculpture Museum is also nearby. Click here to find out about that museum, which was the former studio and residence of Asakura Fumio, one of Japan’s leading modern sculptors.

Do it yourself
Open Tue–Sat, noon–6pm. Getting there by train: SCAI The Bathhouse is equally accessible from JR Nippori Station and Tokyo Metro’s Nezu Station (take exit 1). Address: Kashiwayu-Ato, 6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito-ku. Tel: +81 (0)3 3821 1144;

The National Art Centre, Tokyo is one of my favourite contemporary buildings in Tokyo, both inside and out
The National Art Center, Tokyo is one of my favourite contemporary buildings in Tokyo, both inside and out

The National Art Center, Tokyo

A number of exhibitions are held concurrently at the NACT thanks to 14,000 square metres of space in one of the city’s most beautifully designed modern buildings (by architect Kisho Kurokawa).

To break up hours’ worth of wall-gazing, the centre has three cafés and a French fine-dining restaurant, Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musée.

The big news for 2016 is that the National Art Center will host a retrospective on the Hiroshima-born, internationally renowned fashion designer known as Issey Miyake in Western circles. Click here to find out about the Miyake Issey Exhibition: The Work of Miyake Issey, which runs from 16 March to 13 June, 2016. Exhibitions will also include Renoir: Masterpieces and Venetian Renaissance Paintings.

Do it yourself
Open daily, 10am–6pm (Fri 10am–1pm); closed Tuesdays. Getting here by train: Take Tokyo Metro’s Chiyoda Line to Nogizaka Station. Exit 6 is directly connected to the Center. Address: 7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato. Tel: +81 (0)3 5777 8600;

Explore more

To find out what’s on in the art and design world while you are in Tokyo, go to the fantastic art events listing website Tokyo Art Beat. From there, download the GPS-enabled art-beat app, which will help you find Tokyo galleries both big and small, show current popular and niche events and flag galleries near you.

NOTE: This story originally appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine. It has been updated as of October 2015. Please see websites listed for current events and exhibitions.