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Masato Nakamura Exhibition
Installation view of Masato Nakamura Exhibition Luminous DespairCourtesy of 3331 Arts Chiyoda

Ten alternative art galleries to seek out in Tokyo

Scattered over the vibrant cityscape – from fetish basements to renovated bathhouses – these are the galleries worth taking a trip to Japan for

With the news that one of Tokyo’s major performance spaces, Asahi Art Square, is to close in 2016, we decided to scratch beneath the surface and discover some of the city's more inconspicuous galleries and hubs. Unlike some other cities that conveniently cram a load of galleries into one small area, Tokyo's choices are spread out across the city. Don't let that put you off though – visiting these places is a great way to get to know the capital, with many of these spaces inviting you into areas you may not have been to before. Respected by art lovers who live in the city, here are some alternative galleries and spaces to consider on your next visit to Tokyo.

OKUNO BUILDING

Not so much a gallery but a collection of over 20 galleries – all crammed into a 1930s apartment block. Looking rather like a mini Chungking Mansions, the Okuno Building stands in complete contrast to its modern Ginza surroundings, almost as if it were a piece of art itself. The art inside is constantly evolving, with many exhibitions lasting mere days, but just walking about Okuno is fun in itself: getting lost in its gloomy corridors and wondering if you're going to fall through the floorboards. Check out experimental project Room 306. Retro geeks will love the manually operated lift.

ARATANIURANO

Impossible to pronounce while drunk, Arataniurano is a contemporary art gallery in Shirokane that strives to present offbeat, experimental exhibitions and projects – often incorporating the design of the building into the exhibition itself. (When artist Tatzu Nishi had a solo show at Arataniurano he dramatically lowered the ceiling lights so that visitors had to creep around the edges of the space.) Once you're done, be sure to take a walk down neighbouring Shinohashi Shirokane shopping street and share a drink with some salaryman.

VANILLA GALLERY

If you think a gallery called Vanilla located in Tokyo's upscale Ginza neighbourhood is going to be all sweetness and sunshine, think again. Closely involved with Tokyo's annual Sadistic Circus fetish party, Vanilla Gallery is your opportunity to see a range of art you're unlikely to see anywhere else in the city: love doll displays, Gothic sculpture, and a true insight into the Japanese underground fetish scene. A mix of the erotic and grotesque, not to be missed.

WISH LESS

Opened and run by British Illustrator, Rob Kidney, and Japanese Graphic Designer, Yoko Nagai, Wish Less is exactly what a small independent gallery should be – hosting everything from gigs and fashion shows to exclusive exhibits. You really do feel the passion of what they are trying to do here; check out an event at Wish Less in residential Tabata and it's not unusual for the crowd to spill out into the street, drinking beer and talking into the night. Akane Ishiga's adorable solo exhibition “Tiny Zoo” will run from the end of this month until 20 December.

SCAI THE BATHHOUSE

Worth a visit for the building alone, SCAI The Bathhouse is – like its name suggests – a former bathhouse, over 200 years old. SCAI has a strong track-record of large-scale exhibitions presenting artists such as Lee Ufan and Tadanori Yokoo who led the genesis of Japanese contemporary art. Located in the heart of Yanaka, one of Tokyo's oldest neighbourhoods, a trip to SCAI can easily be turned into a day out by strolling about the backstreets of this old school area. After successful exhibitions at the Guggenheim in New York and the Château de Versailles in France, Korean artist Lee Ufan is back at SCAI, exhibiting Color Halation / Space Halation until 5 December.

3331 ARTS CHIYODA

Fancy going back to school? Located in an old Junior High School, 3331 Arts Chiyoda is a large multi-level art centre that opened in Akihabara in March 2010. Wanting to fully utilise the space, the designers transformed the old schoolyard into a public park – and the facility also makes use of the school roof and gymnasium. In 2012, 3331 hosted a fully sold-out lifetime retrospective of Katsuhiro Otomo's work, creator of Akira. The space has gone on to become an integral part of the now-annual Trans Arts Tokyo festival, which celebrated its fourth year in 2015.

TOKYO WONDER SITE (HONGO)

Together with its sister sites in Shibuya and Sumida, TWS Hongo is dedicated to the generation and promotion of new art and culture from the heart of Tokyo. Of particular interest is the Tokyo Experimental Festival, which is now in its 10th year and lasts over a period of about three months. Here you can check out multiple performances and sound installations by artists such as Ami Yamasaki and Shun Owada, who both performed there last year. The Tokyo Experimental Festival opens on 21 November and runs until 7 February 2016. For lovers of noise, silence and all the weird and wonderful sounds in between. Highly recommended.

GALLERY ÉF

One for the architecture nuts, Gallery éf is one of Tokyo's most unusual art spaces – the remains of an old warehouse built in 1868 which has since miraculously survived two great fires, a huge earthquake in 1923 and heavy bombing under the Second World War. With its earthen walls and deep red floor, the gallery focuses on unknown artists, and exhibitions are often a direct response to the space’s historical setting. It's been a bit quiet lately but keep checking back for exhibitions – and be sure to stop by the great café in the front.

WAKO WORKS OF ART

Just around the corner from Roppongi Hills and the powerhouse that is the Mori Art Museum, lies the infinitely smaller and unassuming Wako Works of Art. Its location on the third floor above a Mexican restaurant shouldn't deter you, for inside you'll see names such as Gerhard Richter and Wolfgang Tillmans. During Fiona Tan's latest exhibition, a collection of 305 private photographs donated by local families were rearranged and deployed as a mural installation. It makes you think what other amazing yet forgotten photographs must be gathering dust in drawers across the city.

GINZA GRAPHIC GALLERY (GGG)

The ggg is the only space specialising in graphic design in Ginza's countless galleries. Started by one of Japan's largest printing companies, its aim is to create a shared space that encourages great design and embraces modern printing technology. Japanese designers are prominent, with the annual Tokyo Art Directors Conference exhibition taking place here in July. The work is minimal, striking and impressive. During November visitors can see dʒi dʒi dʒi Dainippon Type Organization, an exhibition all about dʒi – in Japanese, 字, pronounced “ji,” meaning character or kana or letter of an alphabet. Confused? You probably will be.