Exploring the Arts in Tokyo and Seoul: A Cultural Journey

The Foundation's director arts Craig Cooper visited Japan and South Korea recently to connect with arts practitioners and potential partner organisations and scope out new opportunities for the Foundation. In this article he talks about his trip and some of his key takeaways.

For art and culture enthusiasts, Tokyo and Seoul are must-visit destinations. Each city certainly has its own district character.

Tokyo, known for its modernity and technological advancements, is often referred to as a ‘city of the future’ with endless, towering skyscrapers, high-speed trains, and neon-lit streets. In contrast, Seoul feels both steeped in tradition, while at the same time blending seamlessly with contemporary trends, with palaces and temples coexisting side by side with modern architecture. It is a city that celebrates its past while embracing the present.

But one thing these two vibrant and dynamic cities share is a rich and layered contemporary arts scene that's brimming with energy and creativity. With the challenges faced by the arts sector globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these two North Asian centres seemed like the best places for me to seek new opportunities for collaboration and connection with the local arts communities and begin reconnecting with Asia. I wasn’t disappointed.


In Tokyo, I met with several organisations interested in developing deeper connections with New Zealand, including T3 Tokyo Photo Festival, whose director was a guest speaker hosted by Auckland Festival of Photography in 2022.

Watch a slideshow of images Craig took on the Japan leg of his visit

Another highlight of the Tokyo leg of the trip was visiting TeamLab's Planets installation, a fascinating example of digital interactive technology in an artistic context.

The real focus for my Tokyo visit, however, was to attend Japan’s premiere Performing Arts Meeting, YPAM, located close to the Yokohama waterfront.

The port of Yokohama was once one of the only ports in Japan open to the rest of the world, so it’s fitting that its now the key international entry point to the Japanese arts sector. The event has certainly suffered from the closed borders over the last three years. Nevertheless, at last it’s back and the organisers are keen to encourage attendance from New Zealand professionals at the 2023 meeting.

While Korea was next on my itinerary, thanks to the efficiency of the bullet trains and a highly-recommended Japanese Rail Pass, I managed to fit in a quick side visit south to Naoshima Art Island.

This tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea (between Honshu and Shikoku) contains no less than five stand-alone art museums and is rapidly gaining an international reputation as an iconic arts destination. This is a place of outstanding artistic and natural beauty and I have been inspired to explore what opportunities we can secure for New Zealand artists there.


In Seoul, I enjoyed a packed schedule of meetings and visits organized by the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture (SFAC).

One of the highlights of the trip was a reception dinner hosted by a New Zealand embassy and attended by senior figures from the Korean arts sector. SFAC invited me to Seoul as part of its international exchange program, and I look forward to hosting one of their staff members in New Zealand later this year.

Watch a slideshow of images from the Seoul leg of Craig's visit

One of the most exciting opportunities that I identified was with the new Frieze Seoul Art Fair, one of the art world’s leading Art Fair events showcasing contemporary work from Asia and around the world. Established originally in USA, it premiered in Seoul as its new base in Asia only last year, but it has quickly cemented itself as a major commercial and artistic success story. The event returns this year and I am convinced this is one of the leading events to watch in the future.


Throughout my journey, I was impressed by how both Tokyo and Seoul are showing a post-pandemic resilience and a desire to return to previous levels of activity. Both cities maintain a strong arts infrastructure across funding bodies, facilities, and artistic communities, confirming that the two countries are best placed to support a rapid reconnection for the New Zealand arts community with Asia.

Particularly in Korea, there is a palpable energy and hunger to connect. It's evident that the arts are regarded not just as a societal good, but also as a viable business and career option. And the international impact of ‘K-Culture’ is hard to ignore now, even in New Zealand. Who hasn’t heard of the Academy Award-winning ‘Parasite’, watched ‘Squid Game’ or listened to Black Pink or BTS?

So the opportunities for artistic collaborations are clear. For me personally, this was a fantastic opportunity to explore new avenues for cultural exchange and collaboration. With plans for future collaborations already underway, the trip was a real success, and it's clear that the New Zealand artistic connections in Asia are only going to grow stronger in the years to come.

But even for general travellers, no matter if you're a seasoned art lover or simply looking to expand your cultural horizons, Tokyo and Seoul should be at the top of your list.