One of Tokyo’s top nightlife destinations, Roppongi (六本木) has expanded its all-round charms with daytime attractions including major art galleries and the mammoth shopping, residential and office developments Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown. In particular, Suntory Museum of Art, the National Arts Center, Tokyo, and Mori Art Museum form points on the so-called “Art Triangle Roppongi”.
A block northwest of the main Roppongi crossing along Gaien-Higashi-dōri, Tokyo Midtown covers a site of nearly seventy thousand square metres, and includes the small picturesque park Hinokichō-koen, and the 248m Midtown Tower, home to the Ritz Carlton hotel. Strongly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and art, Midtown’s design is a lot more streamlined and subtle than its nearby rival Roppongi Hills.
On the west side of the complex is the traditional and highly stylish Suntory Museum of Art (サントリー美術館). The museum hosts changing exhibitions from its beautiful collection of ceramics, lacquerware, paintings and textiles. There’s also a traditional tea ceremony room, with the actual ceremony performed at 1pm and 3pm.
Two giant triangular planes of steel, concrete and glass peeking out of a lawn to the rear of the main Midtown complex are part of the fascinating 21_21 Design Site, a collaboration between architect Andō Tadao and fashion designer Issey Miyake. More of a forum to discuss and display design in general than a museum, the main gallery is buried one floor into the ground to provide an elevated, airy space in which to view exhibitions on a single theme.
A couple of minutes’ walk west of Tokyo Midtown is the visually stunning National Art Center Tokyo (NACT; 国立新美術館). A billowing wave of pale green glass ripples across the facade of the Kurokawa Kisha-designed building which, at 48,000 square metres, is Japan’s largest gallery. The bulk of the NACT’s space is devoted to shows organized by art associations, both professional and amateur, from across Japan. This can lead to a very eclectic mix: one minute you may be viewing an Impressionist masterpiece or a huge contemporary sculpture or installation, the next the work of an unknown painter. Before leaving, linger in the main atrium, admiring the conical pods that soar up three storeys, and explore the excellent museum shop in the basement.
Roppongi’s metamorphosis was jump-started by the success of the Roppongi Hills development that’s a couple of minutes’ walk southwest of the area’s main crossing. Here you’ll also find a traditional Japanese garden and pond, a liberal sprinkling of funky street sculptures and an open-air arena for free performances, amid the shops, offices and residences. If you approach Roppongi Hills through the main Metro Hat entrance from Roppongi Station, at the top of the escalators you’ll see Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, a giant bronze, stainless steel and marble spider that squats at the base of the 54-storey, Kohn Pederson Fox-designed Mori Tower.
Directly ahead of the spider is the “Museum Cone”, a glass structure enclosing a swirling staircase that forms the entrance to Roppongi Hills’ highlight, the Mori Art Museum (MAM), occupying the prime top floors of the Mori Tower. MAM puts on exhibitions of works gathered from around Japan and abroad, with a particular focus on the best contemporary art and design, and on Asian artists. The building also includes the Tokyo City View observation deck, Tokyo’s highest viewpoint. On some evenings the café here morphs into the sophisticated Mado Lounge, hosting various DJ events, launch parties and the like.
Clearly visible from Roppongi is Tokyo Tower (東京タワ), something of a retro icon for the city. Built during an era when Japan was becoming famous for producing cheap copies of foreign goods, this 333m red-and-white copy of the Eiffel Tower, opened in 1958, manages to top its Parisian role model by several metres. The uppermost observation deck, at 250m, has been supplanted as the highest viewpoint in Tokyo by the roof deck of Roppongi Hills’ Mori Tower (which, incidentally, provides the best view of the Tokyo Tower, especially when illuminated at night). More attractions, most incurring additional fees and none really worth seeing in their own right, have been added over the years, including a gaggle of the usual souvenir shops – to the point where the place feels like an amusement arcade. There are good views of Tokyo Bay from here, but the wise will save their cash for a drink at the rooftop bar of the nearby Prince Park Tower Tokyo, from which you get a great close-up view of the tower itself.
In nearby Shiba-kōen (芝公園) you’ll find venerable Zōjō-ji (増上寺). Dating from 1393, the family temple of the Tokugawa clan was moved to this site in 1598 by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first Tokugawa shogun) in order to protect southeast Edo spiritually and provide a waystation for pilgrims approaching the capital from the Tōkaidō road. This was once the city’s largest holy site, with 48 sub-temples and over a hundred other buildings. Since the fall of the Tokugawa, however, Zōjō-ji has been razed to the ground by fire three times, and virtually all the current buildings are of a mid-1970s vintage. However, the imposing San-gadatsu-mon, a 21m-high gateway dating from 1612, is Tokyo’s oldest wooden structure and classed as an Important Cultural Property. Ahead lies the Taiden (Great Main Hall), while to the right are ranks of jizō statues, capped with red bonnets and decorated with plastic flowers and colourful windmills that twirl in the breeze.