AFTER all the exertions that come with an energy-sapping excursion to Tokyo Disney, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art offers a veritable oasis of calm in a quiet residential district. It is a smart, small-scale and nicely packaged alternative to some of the more obvious culture-based choices in the Greater Tokyo area, such as the Mori Museum in Roppongi Hills. The Hara is a seriously impressive showcase of contemporary art, but it also has no highbrow pretensions and will appeal to both kids and distracted grown-ups alike.
Because it was a private home before it became a private museum, the Hara is tucked away on a quiet side street in the Shinagawa district of south-western Tokyo. A 15-minute or so cab ride from Ginza is required as there are no train stations nearby, and the entrance to the museum is a pretty low-key affair, with only a small sign announcing its presence.
The house, built in 1938, is itself a fine example of western-style residential architecture. It was commissioned by the businessman Kunizo Hara and designed by the architect Jin Watanabe, whose most famous work is the Ginza Wako building at one of the most famous intersections in Tokyo.
'Its architecture is so unique - it's a Bauhaus-style building, which you don't find in this country anymore,' says Junko Watanabe, director of international programmes at the Hara Museum, which opened in 1979. 'This is one of the oldest museums to specialise in contemporary art.' Hara's grandson Toshio, director and founder of the museum, persuaded his family to convert the building when he discovered that Japan had no museums dedicated to contemporary art.
Toshio Hara became interested in art while working in the family business. He started by collecting big international names like Mark Rothko, Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock, but the focus these days is more on Japanese and Asian artists, such as Yoshitomo Nara, whose cartoon-like renderings of precocious young girls has since made him a darling of the international art crowd.
When the museum held a Nara exhibition a few years ago, it used one of its second-storey rooms to create a studio for the artist, who turned it into a personal space for his work-related paraphernalia, and continued to work there even after the exhibition opened, becoming part of a living art installation.
More recently, the Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist was featured at the Hara. One of the more interesting works of this always-provocative artist involved installing a video camera in the toilet bowl of the museum's restroom, and a screen inviting the occupant to watch the proceedings.
The result was a perpetual queue of curious visitors, eager to participate - literally - in the exhibition.
The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art provides a very different - but not totally unrelated - type of entertainment to that found in Tokyo Disney. It stimulates the senses, engages the intellect and also has the ability to unleash the inner child in us - really, what more could anyone ask?
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art
4-7-25 Kitashinagawa, Shinagawa-ku,
Tokyo 140-0001, Japan
Tel:+81 3 3280-0679
Museum website: www.haramuseum.or.jp