Tokyo in 12 hours

Shoppers walked along Tokyo's ritzy Omotesando Hills shopping mall.
AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara
Shoppers walked along Tokyo's ritzy Omotesando Hills shopping mall.

I had come to Japan in my role as the Globe’s art critic. I was on the job, learning about the state of the relationship between Japan and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. (The MFA has a sister museum in Nagoya; it also has a show of its Japanese masterpieces touring the country.) I had my head down. I never even saw Mount Fuji.

But thanks to the generosity of Anne Nishimura Morse, the MFA’s head of Japanese art, and her friend Peter Grilli, outgoing president of the Japan Society of Boston, I met some extraordinary people in those few days.

One was Nobuhiro Nishitakatsuji, the deputy chief priest of the Dazaifu Shrine in Kyushu. This Shinto shrine is one of the most ancient in Japan. Nishitakatsuji is the son of its head priest. His family is descended directly from Sugawara no Michizane, the ninth-century scholar-aristocrat who founded the shrine, which is alongside the Kyushu National Museum (where the MFA’s masterpieces were showing).


Nishitakatsuji’s father, Nobusada, donated the land to build the museum, a curvaceous, gleaming building on a hill surrounded by woods.

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The temple, which is connected to the museum by a long walkway and escalator, is dedicated to a 10th-century aristocrat and courtier who was exiled from Kyoto and died in Dazaifu. He was honored as a deity, one who is especially associated with learning. Not surprisingly, visits to the temple peak around exam time.

The temple has 40 priests, but it’s not just a place of worship. It has galleries for ancient and contemporary art, a kindergarten, and an adjacent amusement park. According to Nishitakatsuji’s colleague Eri Anderson, it also has more than 6,000 plum trees (including 200 species), donated by people wanting to commemorate dead relatives or celebrate anniversaries.

As we strolled around the temple (I remember this as the hour that inaugurated my surging Japan crush) Anderson pointed out two trees she had donated to honor her parents.

Later in the week, I had an early breakfast with Grilli and his wife, Susan, a specialist in the Suzuki method of early childhood music education. I met them at the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, a modernist building designed in 1962 by Yoshiro Taniguchi. It’s worth visiting just for the lobby, which is unbelievably elegant.


After rightly mocking the notion of taking in Tokyo in a single day, the Grillis helped me draw up a 12-hour itinerary, and I was on my way.

After wandering through the East Garden of the Imperial Palace, I caught a Francis Bacon exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art. I then caught a cab to the Nezu Museum, which is one of the most beautiful small museums in the world.

Founded in 1941 by the railway magnate Kaichiro Nezu, it houses a choice collection of Japanese and Chinese treasures. The museum was redesigned in 2009 by Kengo Kuma, and it’s hard to imagine architecture doing a better job of serving the art and creating a contemplative atmosphere. Wandering through the gardens behind the museum, you can easily forget you are in the heart of Tokyo.

But you are. Step out of the museum and you can walk down Omotesando Avenue, a destination not just for shoppers but for fans of contemporary architecture. Don’t miss the futuristic Prada store designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, or Omotesando Hills, the extraordinary shopping plaza designed by Tadao Ando.

I went from Omotesando to Tokyo Midtown, yet another shopping complex that happens to be home to some great museums. Between breaks for tea and exquisite French-style pastries, I took in 21_21, a bustling design museum. Housed in an innovative, mostly below-ground building designed by Ando, it’s popular with families.


Inside the main complex of Tokyo Midtown is the Suntory Museum of Art, which specializes in more traditional Japanese art. When I was there it was hosting a remarkable exhibition about the history of Kabuki Theater.

And that, more or less, was where my day ended. I was beat, sure, but also euphoric.

When I arrived home, my family didn’t know what to make of me. I had taken in so many fleeting impressions, which I was eager to share. But it had all been so short, and after a week or two I was wondering what, if anything, I had actually learned that was not absurdly superficial.


Sebastian Smee can be reached at