A beginners guide to art & design travel in East Asia

Feeling inspired by the Lunar New Year celebrations all around us this week, we felt the need to dive a little deeper into East Asian aesthetics (if only we could do so in person!).

We did a little bit of dreaming about where we would start a tour of contemporary East Asian art and design. An exploration steeped in the arts of some of the biggest places that celebrate that took the last couple of days off to celebrate the new year.

Each one of these cities offers years worth of design and culture inspiration to explore, so our list is by no means comprehensive. It’s more of a start, for when you’re on the search for art and design in your travels around East Asia’s capitals — Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and Beijing, China.

We hope to hear some of your suggestions for where you’ve experienced awesome East Asian art and design, below in the comments!

1. Seoul

Leeum Museum (Samsung Museum of Art)

Neighborhoods

  • Hongdae: Known for it’s nightlife and urban arts entertainment, this area is also host to schools, and is thus a site of gentrifying youth music culture. And a great place for viewing excellent street art!
  • Daehangno started as a “street of culture” in the 1980s, and now hosts established institutions of arts and culture — galleries, schools, and theaters.
  • Itaewon: Popular with ex-pats deep into nightlife, during the day this neighborhood offers all sorts of creative options to the aesthetically adventurous tourist.
  • Samcheong-dong: Between the historic and contemporary monoliths Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jongno Tower is this small and gallery-laden street shopping district.

Museums, galleries and shops

The aA Design Museum is designed like a collection of showrooms, boasting sets of industrial design from Bauhaus and mid-century modern masters, to contemporary artisans. Another furniture winner is the Korea Furniture Museum, a notoriously beautiful option. Others biggies to check out? National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) — displaying a heavily international collection of modern work, and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which features both ancient and contemporary art.

When it comes to grand public spaces, Marronier Park is an outside space full of architectural gems and the immense Seoul Arts Center contains the Hangaram Design Museum, in addition to art, calligraphy, music, and outdoor options. If you’re looking for those more intimate galleries, instead try Leeahn GallerySarubia, PKM gallery, and alternative space LOOP.

Seoul is definitely known as a fashion trend-setter, so make sure you explore all of your options, whether it’s carefully curated international fashion menageries like Koon with a View or café/bookstore/stationary shops Beaker, Your-Mind, or Veronica Effect.

Events

Seoul Design Week and the accompanying festival typically happen around the end of a year, and spread across styles and genres of design, expanding past the halls of the convention center and around the city. The signage, printing, and display trade show Kosign is happening in a similar time frame, November this year. For performance buffs there’s the Asiana International Short Film Festival, and the Seoul Performing Arts Festival.

2. Beijing

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Neighborhoods

  • Gulou: Though the name refers to the ancient Drum Towers that make this part of town famous (along with the old-style chinese houses, called hutongs) this district is also home to art galleries, theaters, and hipster expats.
  • Dashanzi Art District: also known as 798 Art Zone, this former factory complex now houses some of Beijing’s best contemporary art galleries, alongside shops and restaurants.
  • Caochangdi is an arts and culture hub made famous by AiWeiWei, hosting a series of galleries and art spaces hidden in an unassuming neighborhood.

Museums, galleries and shops

If you’re looking to go contemporary, a good bet is to start out at some of the larger galleries and museums: like one of the first major galleries in Beijing, China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW) or Pékin Fine Arts, is an international contemporary art gallery that shows work worldwide.

If you’re more into the moving images, China National Film Museum is a 2005 creation, established to celebrate the 100th year of Chinese cinema. For the historians, Red Gate Gallery mixes old and new by placing contemporary art in a 600-year old Ming dynasty watchtower.

In our aforementioned design districts, 798 is home to Ullens Contemporary Art Center and Pace Gallery (made famous in NYC but with locations all over the world) among many others, while Caochangdi hosts Beijing Art Now GalleryPlatform China, and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre.

But it’s not only art museums! Located in the Dashilar district, Book Design Shop is where Beijingers and visitors can go for creative indie magazines, while fashion stops like Triple Major and Wuhao create and collect on-trend staples.

Events

Beijing Design Week is an annual week-long design festival that pulls creatives from all over the world to show off work in all sorts of design spheres, from interior to graphic — and is held typically around China’s National Day on October 1st.

If you’re feeling a little more melodic about your design, you could go for the YinYang Music Festival. Located slightly outside of the Chinese capital, this tome to electronic music brings together the cultures of the east and west for a full-sensory creative experience.

3. Tokyo

Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art

Neighborhoods

  • Shimokitazawa: Dubbed by the Gothamist at the “Tokyo Hipster Paradise,” and a bit more mellow than a lot of the other neighborhoods by this city, here’s a place to stop for food and style and a nice dose of street art.
  • Shibuya: This one boasts a host of galleries in addition to the shopping and eating that make it quite famous (it’s also close to Harajuku, of pop culture phenomena).
  • Minato: This includes but is definitely not limited to the famous Roppongi district, party-land of ex-pats. Scattered among the big commercial districts of this location are select art gems.
  • Bunkyo: Where you go if you want a little culture — home to the University of Tokyo, beautiful civic projects, and a bunch of contemporary art museums.

Museums, galleries and shops

You know those giant museums that you could spend a few days in? Well Tokyo has those — try the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, The Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, The National Art Center, or the Mori Art Museum.

But just as prestigious are Tokyo’s galleries. To sample a couple of the contemporaries: Mizuma Art Gallery strives to bring together the East and Western art cultures in a timeless way, while Ota Fine Arts has championed superstars like Yayoi Kusama, embracing Japan’s regional contributions to the scene.

Test out IMA Concept Store/Gallery for a little contemporary photography, while you’re at it. There’s also Wako Works of Art, SCAI Bathhouse, Kodama Gallery, and Take Ninagawa scattered through various neighborhoods throughout the city.

And among the miles and miles of designer shops, fashion, homegoods, and otherwise, here’s a couple of stores that caught our eye for print-design lovers: Cow Books and Winged WheelMonacle and KinokuniyaNADiff and So Books!

Events

Tokyo continuously hosts arts and design events, from the annual The Tokyo International Art Fair, which features 150 exhibitors from over 40 countries, to Festival / Tokyo — a themed performance art program.

The Yebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions displays international artworks of varying genres, from fine to performance arts to music and film, and the Japan Media Arts Festival keeps on with art, entertainment, animation, and manga.

Where’s the most inspirational place you’ve ever traveled? Share your favorite design cities in the comments!

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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