There are few nations in the world with as vivid a global identity as Japan. When we think of Japan, we have very clear images that flash up in our minds: geisha and samurai; Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; works of calligraphy and ukiyo-e paintings; tea ceremonies and sushi; and surely several more. The Tokyo National Museum is a museum dedicated to all that makes Japan the country it is today and houses the largest collection of Japanese art in the world. It is a place of history and art and a celebration of every era of Japanese history and everything created along the way. To explore the Tokyo National Museum is to discover Japan. Here is a complete guide to the museum, tips for making the most of it, and how to get there.
History and Background
Open for about 150 years, since 1871, Tokyo National Museum, also known colloquially as Tohaku, is Japan’s oldest art museum and holds more than 116,000 artifacts that trace the history of Japan. Of these pieces, 89 are national treasures of Japan, and 650 are items of cultural importance. These artifacts are spread across six buildings within the grounds, with each building to be considered a museum in its own right. Because of its sheer size, this a museum you’ll want to dedicate at least half a day to if you can’t make repeat visits, and prioritize areas you are particularly interested in.
The gardens of the Tokyo National Museum are also extensive and open for visitors in the spring and fall for leaf-peeping and admiring the cherry blossoms. Special points of interest are present in the garden such as the five-storied pagoda, the gravestones of the Arima clan, and the remains of the Jurin-in Azekura Storehouse.
What to See and Do
Being so extensive, the museum provides plenty of insight and inspiration for whatever period of Japanese history you’re interested in, and it covers all regions and epochs of the country including the Kingdom of Okinawa and Ainu of the North.
The first area to explore is the Honkan Building (or Japanese Gallery), which opened in 1938. The building itself is an important cultural property due to the western architectural style paired with a Japanese tiled roof. The multi-floor building houses Japanese artwork from thousands of years ago to the present day including ceramics, shoji screens, maps, clothing (including samurai armor and kimonos) as well as weapons. It’s an impressive and inspiring collection that will leave you eager for the next building. If you only have time for one of the museum’s buildings, make it this one.
Another must-visit part of the museum is the Tyokan building, known as the Asian Gallery, to the right of the Honkan. Inside, you’ll find art and historical pieces from around Asia, Central Asia, and Egypt including ancient textiles, sculptures, ceramics, and Buddhist statues from the second century onwards.
For special exhibitions, make sure to catch the Heiseikan building, which has four galleries dedicated to temporary exhibitions as well as the Japanese Archaeological Gallery where you can see ancient artifacts including Paleolithic and Neolithic tools and pottery.
Another unmissable part of the museum is The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures with items donated to the Imperial Household from the Horyuji Temple in 1878. This includes 300 valuable objects from the seventh and eighth centuries, including paintings, calligraphy, textiles, lacquerware, and woodwork. There’s also a restaurant on the ground floor of the building.
Descriptions are in both English and Japanese for individual items, with broader descriptions for each room in multiple languages so there’s no missing out if you don’t speak Japanese.
Audioguides can be picked up from the main entry point in a number of languages and they also offer volunteer-based guided tours in English on Honkan Building’s 2nd floor several times a month with more details on their website.
How to Visit
Tokyo National Museum is open between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily and until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The museum closes on Monday or the following Tuesday if Monday is a national holiday. Entry is 620 yen with special exhibitions priced separately; they take both cash and international credit cards. Last entry to the museum is 30 minutes before closing. You can also book your tickets online in advance.
The easiest way to reach the Tokyo National Museum is on the subway; get off at one of two stations within a 10-minute walk: Ueno and Uguisudani Station. The green Yamanote ring line to Ueno Station is the most common and easiest route. The museum is situated in northern Ueno Park and entry is via the main visitor gate.
Tips for Visiting
- Make sure to set aside some time to explore Ueno Park, a stunning natural space, which features several other museums, statues, and shrines to explore including the following: National Museum of Science and Nature, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Western Art, Kaneiji Temple, Toshugu Shrine, Shinobazu Pond, and a statue of war hero Saigo Takamori.
- If you are visiting in the spring make sure to catch the museum’s cherry blossom viewing event, a popular spot that is often missed by visitors. Running from early March to late April, you’ll be able to enjoy sakura themed exhibitions and enjoy entry to the museum garden to see the blossoms.
- During the spring and fall, the museum opens a traditional Japanese-style garden and teahouse to admire the foliage. It can also be rented out for tea ceremonies and haiku gatherings.
- There are restaurants and cafes right around the museum so there’s no need to plan lunch ahead of time, though Ueno park is a popular picnic spot with benches if you want to eat outside.
- If you’d like to plan your visit before arriving you can download the English guide in advance and also explore the Tokyo National Museum website.
- Keep an eye out for International Museum Day if you are arriving in May as the entry is fee is waived.