Tokyo National Museum: A Few Hours in the Japanese Gallery

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.

Honkan (Japanese Gallery) of the Tokyo National Museum

The Japanese Gallery (Honkan) of the Tokyo National Museum.

To the left of the pond is the Asian gallery, which as of December 2011 is temporarily closed.

Hyokeikan (Asian gallery) of the Tokyo National Museum

The Asian gallery (Hyokeikan) of the Tokyo National Museum

Traditional and Ancient Japanese Art and Artifacts

The first display encountered upon entering the Honkan was this brilliant carved wooden statue.

Ancient wooden carving of a shinto god riding a dragon - Japanese gallery of the Tokyo National Museum

Ancient wooden carving of a shinto god riding a dragon – Japanese gallery of the Tokyo National Museum.

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.

Historic Japanese painting

This painting shows an almost royal like scene in ancient Japan. If this was the emperor, the main man in the center of the stage would have been shrouded behind a screen, as most people were not allowed to see the emperor.

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.

Historic Japanese dragon tray

This photo doesn’t do this amazing piece justice. The colours glimmered and shone in the light – this would have been a spectacular piece in ancient Japan.

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.

Japanese devil mask

One of the many Japanese devil masks… watch out for an upcoming post on JapanTravelMate.com, with lots of photos and details of these Japanese masks from the museum.

Like JapanTravelMate on Facebook and be the first to know when the Japanese masks post and photos are published – plus I’m constantly posting lots of other cool stuff from Japan.

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.

Katana samurai sword scabbard

A red-lacquered scabbard – uchigatana style sword mounting for a samurai sword. Edo period, 16th – 17th 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.

Samurai warrior armour in the Japanese gallery of the Tokyo National Museum

Samurai warrior armour. Edo period, 16th – 17th century.

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.

Tanto samurai sword from Kamakura period of Japan, 1324.

A tanto sword – the samurai’s smaller blade – dated at 1324 (the Kamakura period). The maker’s name – Kunihiro – is still clearly visible on the handle almost 700 years after it was made.

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.

Clay Mask from the Jomon period of Japan

This ancient clay mask is dated to the Jomon period (2000 – 1000 BC) and was unearthed in the village of Kami Hata (today the town of Hata), a district of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture.

Dogu (ancient Japanese clay figurine)

This Dogu (ancient Japanese clay figurine) was excavated from Tatsugi Shell Mound in Ibaraki prefecture. It is dated to the Jomon period, 2000 – 1000 BC.

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.

Inside the Japanese gallery of the Tokyo National Museum

Inside the Japanese gallery (Honkan).

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.


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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.

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