Stay for an hour or spend the whole day, the Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館 Tōkyō Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan) gives visitors an insight into the rich and unique history of Japan.
The museum contains some fascinating artifacts and exhibitions: Japanese Paleolithic 30,000+ year old polished stone tools (the earliest known in the world); modern thematic exhibitions; traditional Japanese gardens; special international exhibitions like ‘China: Grandeur of the Dynasties’ including statues from the Terracotta Army; treasured Buddha statues; millennia-old samurai swords and warrior armour; and much more.
On a cold winter’s day shortly after New Year, I spent the afternoon in the Tokyo National Museum’s Honkan (本館) Building which is the Japanese Gallery, 1 of 5 buildings in the museum. The view from entering the gates of the museum looks towards the grand Honkan across a large pond.
To the left of the pond is the Asian gallery, which as of December 2011 is temporarily closed.
Traditional and Ancient Japanese Art and Artifacts
The first display encountered upon entering the Honkan was this brilliant carved wooden statue.
Many paintings in various formats on various materials are found in the Honkan, depicting scenes of life in Edo period Japan (1603 – 1868) and earlier.
While some criticise Japanese portraiture from the Edo period as lagging behind the rest of the world – plain line drawings compared to the detailed and life-like art of the western world, like the Mona Lisa – the craftsmanship of the artificacts found in this gallery are simply stunning. From 1500+ year old samurai swords which look brand new, to glimmering and intricate illustrations on stone and wood, you are constantly in awe of the ancient artwork on display in the museum.
A special Japanese mask exhibition was in the Honkan during my visit. The exhibition contained masks from the 10th century BC to the Edo period. Used in ceremonies at shrines and temples, as well as “Noh” plays, Japan has one of the largest collections of ancient masks in the world.
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Japanese Swords and Samurai
One of the classic symbols of Japan – the samurai sword – is on display in a Japanese Swords section. The collection includes the earliest straight swords from the 5th century, curved “tachi” swords from the 11th century and the superior “katana” sword from the 14th century.
Stunning lace and gold warrior armour are on display after the sword section. The display contains a few “gusoku” – full armour sets – which look quite regal and likely from a very high ranked warrior. Most of the armour is from the Edo period.
It’s said that Japanese sword making reached its pinnacle in the 14th century, and the Honkan contains many pristine blades from this period. This “tanto” – a samurai’s short sword – is centuries old, but looks like it was made yesterday.
Ancient Japanese Clay Artifacts
Artifacts from ancient Japan can be found in the Honkan. These are thousands of years old and have been excavated from all parts of Japan.
Visit the Tokyo National Museum
Time can fly inside the museum. Allow yourself at least half a day. I entered just after lunch and spent at least 3 hours inside the Honkan. I could have stayed longer, but I wanted to get to Asakusa and see the famous main gate, shopping street and temples, as well as Sky Tree Tower, before it became dark.
Below the Honkan is a souvenir shop, with lots of goodies to remember your visit by. You can also pick up some photo books, the only way to take home photos of some of the National Treasure artifacts, which are not allowed to be photographed by museum visitors.
Situated in the northeast of Tokyo – near Ueno, north of Akihabara and west of Asakusa – the museum is adjacent to Ueno Park which contains Ueno Zoo and several other museums.
How to get to the Tokyo National Museum:
Accessing the museum by train is very easy, there are several stations which are a short walk to the museum:
- JR Uguisudani is the closest, about a 5 minute walk to the museum. Take the south exit and follow the signs to the main gate of the museum.
- JR Ueno station is also very close, a 5 minute walk to the museum. Take the Park Entrance Exit (confusing name!) and follow the signs.
- Keisei Ueno and Tokyo Metro Ueno stations are about a 10 minute walk to the museum. I got off at the Tokyo Metro Ueno station and enjoyed a nice walk through Ueno Park on the way to the station. I recommend this route.
Opening hours and admission cost:
- 9:30AM to 5PM with last admission at 4:30PM.
- Closed Mondays and New Year holidays (December 25 to January 1).
- Admission fee is 600 yen for adults.
There are exceptions on opening times, additional special days and prices for special exhibitions. For detailed information visit Tokyo National Museum’s Getting Here, Admission & Hours page.