The Unmissable Watari-Um Museum for Contemporary Art


WordsRebecca Zissmann


It’s futuristic form with a curved end and trompe l’œil striped texture makes Watari-Um an iconic building in Tokyo’s Gaienmae district. Beyond its architecture, the museum has established its reputation as an outstanding space for the staging of cutting edge contemporary art.

Designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, master of geometry and simple shapes to which we also owe the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, Watari-Um opened in September 1990. The name Watari-Um is the a contraction of the name Watari and the word ‘museum’ to pay homage to the Watari family, a family of curators, several generations of whom have succeeded one another at the head of Watari-Um. From the outset, the museum has highlighted its Japanese roots, presenting local artists in elaborate exhibitions.


However the museum has also invited the world’s best known international artists from the contemporary period including Larry Clark, Joseph Beuys and Barry McGee. These big names sit alongside emerging artists from the contemporary Japanese scene, rendering the Watari-Um’s offering truly unique. One such highlight was Kazuki Umezawa’s explosive pop paintings and disjointed models dressed in Taku Obata jackets at the end of 2018.

The structure of Watari-Um is designed for an original means of viewing art. The second floor is where most of the exhibitions take place and thanks to ingenious openings in the upper floors that also let in light, the works exhibited at the lower levels can be also appreciated from an elevated perspective.

For fans of the museum gift shop, the bookstore ‘On Sundays’ on the ground floor is particularly well-stocked and has rare items sought out by owner Kisato Kusano.

©Naoya Fujii

©Masaaki Komori


3-7-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo