Golden pavilions

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 57, Winter 2018

Page 46

Matthew Wilcox on the private museums waking up Tokyo's art scene

The gaudy temple of the Golden Pavilion was built in 1397 and has always sat oddly with the cliché of Japan as an altar to minimalism – the Japan of monks, gravel gardens, unglazed stone ware and tatami flooring.

Perhaps the country's sobriety is that of a lush after an epic bender, who lies groaning on the sofa and swears that this really will be the last time.

Take the 1980s, for example, when fuelled by green-tea lattes and rumours that Japan was about to overtake America as the world's largest economy, the yen went into overdrive. As the bubble inflated, property values skyrocketed to the extent that, at the heart of Tokyo, the land occupied by the Imperial Palace was estimated to be worth more than the whole of the state of California. The art market followed suit when the formerly buttoned-up directors of Tokyo's mega-corporations went on a massive spending spree. World records tumbled. All three of the world's most expensive paintings were soon in the hands of Tokyo investors. Then it was over. Decades of stagnation followed. At times, it has felt that Japan was frozen at that moment.

In the aftermath of the crash, the Japanese art world folded in on itself. Two-thirds of the galleries went bankrupt overnight. Amid the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, you can still tour these monuments to excess. In the 42-storey headquarters of an insurance company tower is the Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum, where some of the greatest treasures of Western art – van Gogh's Sunflowers is here – hang in glass cabinets, collecting dust, forgotten. But looking down from this folly, you can see the shoots of revival. The all-white Yayoi Kusama Museum has risen like a slender sprout above the grey city blocks below.

The launch of this museum was an eye-opener. The tower houses rotating exhibitions of the artist's own work and includes an installation of her Infinity Mirror Room, but, more than that, the opening in such a prominent location feels significant. Unlike the 1980s, when Japan slavishly imported culture from abroad, Tokyo is finally nurturing its own scene. The new museum, designed by Kume Sekkei, heralds the arrival of a number of other private museums that celebrate this brave new Japan.

Last year, photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto opened his own museum, the Enoura Observatory, just outside Tokyo, while Yusaku Maezawa has his own mega gallery in the pipeline. Maezawa, the billionaire owner of Zozo Town, is bankrolling a group of artists to fly around the moon with Elon Musk. Part of this resurgence is being driven by the optimism generated ahead of the Olympic Games, which is being used as an excuse to tackle some of the city's long-standing problems. Someone has even had a go at making sense of the city's tangled subway maps, which had hitherto resembled one of Kusama's Infinity Net paintings.

Not far from the financial centre of Shinjuku, in the brassy Roppongi neighbourhood, is the Mori Museum, another skyscraper gallery, on the 52nd floor. On the ground floor outside, lurks Louise Bourgeois's giant spider, Maman. Here artists such as Takasahi Murakami have enjoyed major retrospectives, while home-grown architectural movements such as Metabolism are receiving the kind of acclaim domestically that they long enjoyed abroad.

Despite those 30 years of economic woe, visitors do well to remember that Japan is the world's third-largest economy. This wealth is apparent in the Nezu Museum in Minami Aoyama. Reopened in 2009, Kengo Kuma's refined building is a tribute to the country's more reserved architectural traditions. Inside the railroad dynasty's treasure box is an outrageously opulent private collection. Among the museum's 7,000 artefacts are seven so-called 'national treasures', among them Korin Ogata's Irises, an 18th-century set of goldfoil screens. It was copies of this screen that are believed to have influenced the Impressionist paintings of Vincent van Gogh, not least his Irises.

The screen harks back to the Genroku era, another period of maximalist excess. This was high point of the cultured Edo period, during which the famous kabuki plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon were performed, the erotic fiction of the floating world written by Ihara Saikaku, and the poetic essays and haiku of Matsuo Basho composed. The city is finally climbing off that hungover sofa. A new golden age awaits.

Matthew Wilcox is an arts journalist and film-maker.

Where to stay

The place to stay when you are in Tokyo is the Palace Hotel. While most of Tokyo's luxury hotels are high-rise, the Palace is in a conservation zone, adjacent to the park that contains the Imperial Palace. In this Japanese-run hotel, the country's legendary attention to detail and obsession with good service come together. The immaculate Aman Hotel Tokyo is a newcomer to the scene, and a relatively unusual project from a hotel group that usually focuses on lavish countryside retreats. By contrast, the Mandarin Oriental has long been a benchmark for excellent service. It is next to Mitsukoshi, Japan's oldest department store, in Nihonbashi, the original centre of Tokyo. Next door, Saruya has done nothing but make toothpicks since the Shogun first ordered one, delicately handwhittled from fragrant laurel wood some 300 years ago. An option in trendy Roppongi is the Ritz-Carlton. The hotel is a little dated, but the levels of service remain extremely high and the location is perfect for art lovers – the hotel is next to the National Centre for Modern Art, as well as the Mori Museum and the Suntory Museum of Art, an area known as the Tokyo Art Triangle.

Where to eat

Few restaurants in the world command the prestige of a seat at the counter of Sushi Jiro. This means getting a reservation can be very difficult, unless you ask the concierge of your hotel, who should be able to get you a seat in advance with a little (several months) forewarning. Do not, however, expect service with a smile. One of the most eagerly awaited new restaurants in Tokyo is Inua, which opened earlier this year. Run by Thomas Frebel, the former head of development at Noma, this innovative eaterie makes accessible the supreme quality of Japanese seasonal produce, but combines it with Western know-how. Sushi Sora, on the 46th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, is run by Yuji Imaizumi, who is steeped in Tokyo food culture. It has an elegant interior. No visit to Tokyo is complete without a 5am visit to the fish market, formerly in Tsukiji, but now relocated to a 40-acre complex in Toyosu. It has special platforms from which guests can watch the tuna auctions and 70 shops where you can sample the superb sashimi.

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