One of the most potent symbols in the story of Tokyo is the Japan Bridge (Nihonbashi) which connected the commercial district of Tokyo to the rest of the world. A first time visitor to Tokyo, therefore, could do worse than start at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which charts the city’s history, entering the museum across a replica of the 17th century wooden bridge. Inside is a wealth of information and artefacts about the city’s history, as well as imposing models of Tokyo at various periods.

But Tokyo is much more than just a city: Japan is a country with an extensive and distinct artistic culture of its own as well as having the wealth to explore and appreciate art from the rest of Asia and from the West. To get a glimpse of the sheer scale of this, head for Ueno Park (especially if you’re there in late March/early April, which is cherry blossom time) and dive into one of its many museums.

Just one of them – the Tokyo National Museum – will defy the stamina of the most hardened museum-goer, with a collection of over 100,000 items (4,000 of which are on display at any given time). It’s the best place to be immersed in Japanese art, as well as having an extensive gallery representing the rest of Asia. Nearby, the Le Corbusier-designed National Museum of Western Art houses paintings from Veronese and Rubens through to Picasso and Pollock, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum stages special exhibitions. Both Tokyo Zoo and the National Science Museum are nearby.

Also in Ueno Park is the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, one of Tokyo’s two principal concert halls, where you will see concerts from several local orchestras, most often Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, as well as an array of top orchestras, opera and dance companies from around the world: the Chicago Symphony, the Hamburg Ballet and Vienna Volksoper have all visited in the first half of 2016.

Visiting opera and ballet companies are often to be seen at the New National Theatre to the west of the city centre. But for Tokyo’s other major international concert hall, head for the smart night-life district of Roppongi, where the world class acoustics of Suntory Hall attract major artists from just about everywhere. International artists from Murray Perahia and Yefim Bronfman to Yuja Wang play either solo or with a wide array of orchestras, both Japanese and international. You’ll see an impressive array of conductors: just in November 2016, Mariss Jansons, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Blomstedt and Michael Tilson Thomas are all visiting. The highlight of their 2016-7 season will be on October 1st and 2nd, when Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa and Anne-Sophie Mutter join forces with the Vienna Philharmonic to celebrate their 30th Anniversary. (Beware, by the way: the venue will be closed for renovation from 6th February to 31st August 2017).

Suntory is a major international drinks company: Suntory Foundation for Arts is also responsible for the Suntory Museum of Art in the huge Galleria which contains Roppongi station. Nearby is the extraordinary steel and glass National Art Center, which has no permanent collection, but puts on international exhibitions of the highest quality. The principal exhibition at time of writing is of Renoir masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie in Paris.

Completing the Roppongi “Art Triangle” is the Mori Arts Center Gallery, currently showing over 70 frescoes from Pompeii in celebration of 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Italy. Its associated Mori Art Museum, spectacularly located at the top of the 54 storey Mori Tower – is another main venue for temporary exhibitions, slanted more to Asia and to the modern world.

Clearly, Tokyo isn’t short of big, impressive museums. But it’s in some of the smaller venues that you will find more unique experiences. Often, these are the collections of some wealthy industrialist: examples of these are the Toguri Museum of Art in Shibuya devoted to Edo period blue and white porcelain, or the Nezu museum, the collection of Japanese and East Asian art of an early 20th century railway executive, in a recently renovated building with beautiful gardens.

These smaller museums can be anywhere and in any part of Tokyo: in shopping malls, office tower blocks or out-of-the-way backwaters. But don’t be concerned: the subway goes everywhere, it’s easy to navigate and people are incredibly helpful. It’s also delightfully safe: drop your phone or purse and the chances are that someone will pick it up and hand it back to you. Also, Google Maps has improved hugely in recent years and is now an effective tool.

Outside the mainstream arts, Anime company Studio Ghibli runs special exhibitions about the characters from their animations. The Ghibli Museum is an enchanting place, rather old world and not at all in a Disneyland style: founder Miyazaki sought to make “A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel”. (Warning: it’s also being renovated, due to reopen in July 2017).

There are fascinating historical museums, such as the Japanese Sword Museum and the Samurai Museum, packed with weapons, armour and memorabilia of Japan’s warrior class. More controversially, for a stare at Japan’s military past, a short walk from the Imperial Palace will take you to the Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the souls of fallen Japanese soldiers, which will give you a Japan-slanted view of World War II and other conflicts.

But you will be missing out if you only try to see arts and history in the main museums. Ask about the matsuri (the local festivals) - you can find something extraordinary in as improbable a place as a rugby stadium car park. Go and learn about the philosophy of Japanese gardens: it will give you an idea of the way Japanese people see things, as will a trip to their glitzy department stores with their meticulous attention to shopfitting detail. For a Westerner, the basement food displays are especially fascinating, both for the colours and variety of the foods on offer and the artistry with which everything is laid out. Food is a hugely important area of Japanese culture and one which is unlike anywhere else in the world: there are food tours or you can go to Kappabashi Street, packed with specialist shops selling catering goods, from cooking implements to lanterns to the plastic models that you see outside many Japanese eateries.

The one snag in all this is that after a normal holiday-sized visit to Tokyo, you will inevitably leave with the nagging feeling of having seen a pathetically small fraction of what the city has to offer. Live with it. You can always come back.


This article was sponsored by Suntory Foundation for ArtsThanks to Fiona Karlin for her local knowledge and insight after several months in Tokyo.