Planet Tokyo: The Museosphere 東京星の博物圏

Tokyo is much too big to stuff into one, or even two or three blog posts. I have broken down my excursion into six categories and will be posting them as a series over the next couple weeks.

The amount of galleries and museums in Tokyo is almost overwhelming. Even more daunting is the fact that a very large portion of them are actually worth a visit.

On Monday, while Laura, Don, and I were shopping in Harajuku, we happened upon a delightful art gallery hosting an exhibition of prints by mostly British street artists: the LaForet Museum in the famous LaForet shopping center. It was one of the coolest exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, not just because of the quality of the works and the fact that I was familiar with the visual vocabulary they employed, but because the actual display strategies properly framed the art as products of dynamic urban subcultures without feeling overwrought. The prints were hung on metal grids that looked like chain-link fences, which overlapped to give the impression of convoluted cages. White spotlights hung from the high ceiling gave the artwork a sharp clarity against the gallery’s black walls and floor. My favorite aspect of the display was the hip-hop background music, which could have been over-the-top, but instead it helped to place the art in its proper context. It just makes sense for artists like Banksy and Jamie Hewlett.

The next day we went to the Tokyo Photography Art Museum in Ebisu. There did not appear to be a permanent exhibition here, but instead three different special exhibitions on three separate floors. There is also a movie theatre. Entry is expensive–¥700 or ¥1000 per floor, ¥1400 for two, or ¥2100 for all three–but the exhibition we saw, on surrealist photography, was well worth the ticket price. While the display itself was fairly unremarkable, the collection was great and I’d recommend it as a unique option among major art museums in Tokyo. Plus, it’s located in the scenic Yebisu Garden Place, which has some interesting architecture and a variety of restaurants, including Joël Robuchon‘s three-story spend-o-plex.

On Wednesday, Don and I went to the Edo Tokyo Museum, a gigantic building that sort of reminded me of an AT-AT from The Empire Strikes Back. The interior is no less intimidating, with dim lighting and a huge entrance hall that features a life-size replica of the original Nihonbashi. From there, the museum leads visitors on a more or less consistent course from early modernity into modernity, beginning around 1600 and ending around the end of the Showa period. I say “more or less consistent” because of the completely unnecessary and baffling inclusion of costumes from David Bowie’s Ziggy Startdust World Tour, which were produced by a Japanese fashion designer and loosely (very loosely) based on kimono and armor from the Edo period. But besides this one kink, the museum presented a very comprehensive view of the past 400 years of Japanese history and material culture. I especially liked the section on printing, which included a collection of 18th-century cookbooks and menus and an ukiyo-e print broken down into each individual layer of color. The enclosed area on the Yoshiwara district was clever, too.

After that, we reconvened with Emiko and Laura, and then went to the Mori Building in Roppongi Hills, which, in my opinion, offers the best possible view of Tokyo at its 52nd-floor Tokyo City View. It also houses one of the best modern art museums in Tokyo, the Mori Art Museum, whose displays often act rather shamelessly as promotions for the companies that sponsor them (past exhibits have been on Armani, Pixar, and Virgin; the exhibit we saw was “Works From the UBS Art Collection,” and an upcoming exhibit is on “The Art of BMW” or some such thing. Personally, I adore the Mori Art Museum’s permanent collection, which focuses on contemporary East Asian artists and boasts work from the likes of Akira Yamaguchi 山口晃, Yoshitomo Nara 奈良美智 and Takashi Murakami 村上隆.

On Thursday, we went to the Ghibli Art Museum in Mita, a sort of museum/funhouse showcasing the beautiful works of one of my artistic idols, Hayao Miyazaki, and his prolific animation company. The museum celebrates animation as art and as magic. The first room we entered was full of filmstrips, clever animation cycles, mesmerizing three-dimentional zoetropes, and animated dioramas; this room laid out the museum’s thesis that not only is animation art, it’s really elegant and complex art. On one of the displays something was written that perfectly and beautifully summarized why I love animation; I can’t remember the exact quote in Japanese, but it translated to something like, “Everything in the world is moving. Plants and animals are moving; the sun and clouds are moving; people are moving. So shouldn’t art move, too?” It was a lot more eloquent than that, but you get the gist. The museum also houses a small cinema that shows exclusive Studio Ghibli short films; we saw an adorable, touching, and very Miyazaki-esque cartoon about a lost puppy. But my favorite part of the complex were the rooms that displayed the many stages of the animation process, with sketches and storyboards scattered across rooms decorated to look like the actual Ghibli studio, complete with desks, art supplies, animation tools, and photography books. As an amateur cartoonist, these rooms had me feeling seriously giddy and inspired. And to think that I expected the coolest part of the museum would be the big, furry cat bus on the third floor, which turned out to be off-limits to adults anyway.

And finally, on Friday I found myself back at the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum, a monument to one of Japan’s most beloved foods in all its forms. Unfortunately, the didactic display has changed drastically since I did research there three years ago. The old display contained photos of some of the nation’s first ramen shops, an authentic ramen cart flanked by customer-luring charmera horns, a TV monitor showing ramen commercials from the 1960s onward, and cabinetfuls of ramen bowls and instant noodle packaging. It was colorful and emotive, and I’m sad it’s gone. But the new display is interesting, too, and more focused, if somewhat less exciting. Now, there are models of noodles and vials of wheat explaining the production of the noodles themselves, bordered by a floor-to-ceiling map of Japan explaining regional variations and a large section focusing on the ramen of one particular region. Currently, the featured ramen is Kumamoto ramen! This is a genre I know very well, and I was excited to see that the exhibit focused on Komurasaki, one of my favorite Kumamoto ramen shops (my very favorite is Ajisen, but I think it’s fallen out of favor among ramen tastemakers due to its rapid international expansion).

But of course, the real reason anybody visits the Ramen Museum isn’t for the displays on the thicknesses of various noodles or for information on their carbonate content. People come for shitamachi, a 1958 street scene built within a huge two-story area, complete with narrow alleyways, movie posters, fake clinics, a fake pachinko parlor, a fake onsen (which actually leads to the elevator), and a perpetual sunset. The nostalgia is palpable, and the quality of the scenery rivals Disneyland in its texture and attention to detail. It all serves as context for the ramen itself, which can be sampled at eight different shops tucked away in various areas of the display. I can’t think of a higher honor a ramen shop could achieve than being offered a place in the fond collective memory that is shitamachi.

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