Taking A Side Trip To Japan's Museums

The museums of Japan, most of which are relatively new, may not be able to compete with the long-standing ones in Europe in terms of history but do have an edge over them in terms of innovation. Tourists who find museum visits boring are in for a treat in Japan with its labyrinths of traditional art, visually appealing walks through history, and special exhibits dedicated to science and anime, to name a few.

Eight Major Museum Types in Japan

Japan has quite a wide variety of museums that tourists can visit to better understand the country’s character. Before deciding which place to go to, tourists should first identify what they want to see in order to narrow down the list of museums. Japan has eight major museum types which are pretty much self-explanatory:

  1. Traditional Art
  2. Contemporary Art
  3. History
  4. War
  5. Science
  6. Railways
  7. Disasters
  8. Special Interests

Basic Preparations for a Museum Visit

The museum name often states the kinds of artifacts it holds, but there are some that may not be as blatant. Tourists are advised to do a bit of research and preparation beforehand to ensure a pleasant trip to the land of the rising sun. The four main things visitors should do at least a week prior are:

  • Booking a ticket
    For highly popular museums, tickets may not be sold at the entrance and may require visitors to book online weeks ahead of their preferred date. Tourists who will be booking tickets outside of Japan are advised to have it arranged by trusted local travel agencies as they are well-informed of the process.
  • Understanding the available transportation system
    Regardless of whether or not a museum visit is part of a tour package arranged by agencies, outsiders should research the different modes of transportation they can take to reach the site. It is always good to be over prepared especially when traveling to a foreign country where little English is spoken and understood.
  • Confirming the schedule and details
    At least two weeks before the planned visit, tourists should remember to confirm the schedule and details with the local travel agency or the museum itself. Some museums are quite strict when it comes to their schedules so visitors should arrive about 10 minutes ahead of the start time.
  • Reviewing the museum’s rules and regulations
    The rules and regulations for Japan’s museums are essentially the same to international ones. These include reminders for each visitor to avoid excessive noise, avoid touching the artifacts, and avoid making a mess. Tourists should also research if access to the museum’s facilities is limited to avoid any conflicts with management.

Most museums in Japan are closed on Mondays and days following a holiday. Tourists should allot more than an hour of their day to the museum visit. It is highly recommended that visitors have a reservation made for tours with a guide that can speak English to be able to fully understand the collections on display. The next slot available after the museum’s opening hour is ideal as not a lot of museums are open late at night.

The ticket prices for museums widely vary. Tourists may not have to pay a single yen or may have to shell out 3,000 per person. Admission fees for a student, child, senior citizen, or school trip are usually priced lower.

The Tokyo National Museum

For tourists who can only visit one museum, the Tokyo National Museum is one of the best places to go to.  It was initially situated at the Yushima Seido Shrine in the year 1972 but was later moved to Ueno Park, its current location. Its collection of traditional Japanese art and historical artifacts is one of the world’s largest, totaling to over 110,000 items. The museum complex is comprised of six buildings, each housing certain types of artworks and exhibitions.

  1. Honkan
    The Honkan was built in 1938 and serves as the main building of the Tokyo National Museum. It features Japanese art from pre-historic times up to the 19th century such as scrolls, maps, colorful sliding doors, ceramics, and Buddhist statues. Several cultural and historical artifacts including costumes, armors, weaponry, and masks are also stored and put on display at his building.
  2. Hyokeikan
    The Hyokeikan was built in 1909 as a form of merriment towards the wedding of the Taisho Emperor. Its architectural design carries a western style, making it a prime testament to the Meiji Period. As such, it is considered as one of Japan’s cultural properties and has undergone many repairs to maintain its original structure. The Hyokeikan is situated left of the Honkan and often hosts short exhibitions.
  3. Toyokan
    The Toyokan was designed by Taniguchi Yoshiro and was built in 1968. It is located on the right side of the Honkan and features several galleries showcasing different artwork and historical items from Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Central Asia, Egypt, and India.
  4. Heiseikan
    The Heiseikan was built in 1993 in honor of the Crown Prince’s wedding. It hosts exhibitions primarily about traditional Japanese culture but also holds special displays from time to time. The building is situated behind the Honkan.
  5. Horyuji Homotsukan
    The Horyuji Homotsukan, also known as the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, was designed by Taniguchi Yoshio, the son of Taniguchi Yoshiro, and is relatively new as it was just recently inaugurated in 1999. It houses religious artifacts donated by the Horyuji Temple.
  6. Kuroda Memorial Hall
    The Kuroda Memorial Hall was constructed through Kuroda Seiki’s donations and is situated on the outskirts of the museum proper. Kuroda Seiki is known to have founded contemporary western-style paintings in the country. Some of his work are displayed in a rotating assortment at the hall.

The Tokyo National Museum also features a Japanese-style garden, teahouses, cafes, and shops within its space. It is a walking distance away from the Ueno station and is open every day of the week, except Mon., from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM (until 8:00 PM on Fri.). Admission fees are priced at 620 for their permanent exhibition and 1,000-1,500 for special exhibitions. An adequate amount of signs and audio guides are available in English.

The Miho Museum

The Miho Museum was designed by I. M. Pei and is situated deep in one of Koka’s forest-abundant hills. It is named after its founder, Koyama Mihoko who is also one of Japan’s richest women. Both its interiors and exteriors feature a stunning combination of man-made and natural structures. Several artworks and historical artifacts from ancient Egypt, Rome, and Asian countries are housed in this museum, most of which belong to Koyama’s own private collection.

Tourists coming from Kyoto can take the JR Tokaido Line and get off at the Ishiyama Station. At bus stop three, travelers can locate a bus that says Miho Museum which goes straight to the site. The bus will stop at the reception building of the museum where visitors can purchase tickets for 1,100 per person.

The Noguchi Museum in New York and The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Japan

The Noguchi Museum was designed and built by Isamu Noguchi, a famous Japanese-American sculptor, in 1985 and is located in New York. It is open to the public for limited periods of time to properly preserve Noguchi's stage designs, furniture designs, sculptures, and architectural models.

In 1969, Noguchi built a studio in Shikoku, Japan where he created many granite and basalt sculptures which spearheaded his career. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Japan was inaugurated in honor of Noguchi’s wish for his Shikoku studio to be an extension of The Noguchi Museum in New York. It is located in the Kagawa Prefecture and houses 150 finished and unfinished sculptures. The museum is especially stunning during November, which is Noguchi’s birth month.

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum is open on Tue., Thr., and Sat. with tours scheduled at 10:00 AM, 1:00 PM, and 3:00 PM. For tourists that will be coming from the Takamatsu Station, a bus at bus stop seven headed to Aji must be taken until the Inori Iwa Yoichi Koen-Mae bus stop. From there, the museum is less than a 10-minute walk away. Visits are by appointment and are priced at 2,160 per person.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is located in Ryogoku and features a unique exterior. It hosts exhibits that showcase old Tokyo, originally known as Edo. The museum is designed to provide an interactive way of experiencing and learning about the different aspects of Edo. It features several life-sized figures, detailed town models, and figurines as part of its permanent exhibit.

The museum also hosts special exhibits carrying a Tokyo theme from time to time. Guides, who can speak and understand English and other languages well, are available from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM.

It is a 5-minute walk from the Ryogoku Station and is open Tue. – Sun. from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM (until 7:30 PM on Sat.). An admission fee is charged at 600 per person with additional charges for special exhibits.

The Mori Art Museum

The Mori Art Museum is located on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower and houses a variety of contemporary art. It does not host any permanent exhibits but instead caters to contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei, Bill Viola, and Tokujin Yoshioka aiming to showcase their work.

It is a 10-minute walk away from the Nogizaka Station and is open every day, except Tue., from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM. Tickets are priced at 1,800 per person but are available for a lower price of 1,500 if bought in advance.

The Ghibli Museum by Studio Ghibli, Inc.

Studio Ghibli, Inc. is one of Japan’s famous animation companies. They produce a lot of animated films, short films, and television commercials. Of the fifteen top grossing anime films of Japan, eight are Studio Ghibli’s. Some of their films that have gained popularity worldwide include “Spirited Away”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, and “Princess Mononoke”.

The animation studio started the planning process for the Ghibli Museum in 1998 and was immediately executed in 2000 when construction started in Mitaka. The museum opened to the public during the last quarter of 2001. Its design was done by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli’s director, and reflects his film work. This was done by Miyazaki for the purpose of making the structure an integral part of the experience, as well. It features several spiral staircases, balconies, and bridges that either lead to exhibits or dead ends. It carries an ambiance similar to that of peculiar dreams which goes well with the Ghibli Museum’s slogan - “Let’s get lost together”. The museum is an absolute must-see site for fans of Studio Ghibli’s work.

Tourists can get off at the Mitaka Station and, from there, take a shuttle bus to the museum. Tickets can be purchased online or at Lawson convenience stores for 1,000 per person.

Other Recommended Museums to Visit

  1. The National Art Center
    The National Art Center is located in Roppongi and is one of Japan’s largest museums. It exists for three main purposes – exhibiting art expressions, collecting and dissemination information to the public, and providing educational and interactive seminars.
  2. Nezu Museum
    The Nezu Museum is located in Tokyo and features a stunning traditional Japanese-style garden, four tea rooms, and eight viewing sites within its vicinity. It houses over 7,400 artifacts such as sculpture, painting, metalwork, lacquerware, calligraphy, and historical items.
  3. Tokyo Kite Museum
    The Tokyo Kite Museum is located on the 5th floor of the Taimeiken Restaurant in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. It houses around 3,000 Japanese-style kites from the Edo Period.
  4. Cupnoodles Museum
    Cupnoodles Museum is located in Yokohama and is filled with all things noodle-related. Tourists are provided with information about Momofuku Ando, the founder of instant ramen, and with many fun activities such as creating ramen.
  5. Illusion Museum
    The Illusion Museum is located on the 2nd floor of the Kanda Crest building in Chiyoda, Tokyo. It provides visitors with a unique experience using different illusions uncovered by the Collaboration Research Center for Visual Illusion and Mathematical Science.
  6. Kubota Itchiku Art Museum
    The Kubota Itchiku Art Museum is located in Fuji Five Lakes and showcases a stunning variety of kimonos done by Kubota Itchiku through the traditional Tsujigahana silk dyeing technique, a lost art which he revived.
  7. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
    The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum is located in the Nagasaki Peace Park which pays tribute to the atomic bombing that occurred in 1945. It features exhibits showcasing Nagasaki’s state after the 2nd atomic bomb was dropped and also shows documentaries about the event.
  8. The Railway Museum
    The Railway Museum is located in Saitama City and presents the history of Japan’s railway system. It houses actual train cars, passenger cars, and freight cars which visitors can enter and view from below.
  9. Mount Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall
    The Mount Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall is located in the Shimabara Peninsula and was built in honor of the volcano’s eruption and subsequent disasters during the 1990s. The museum provides visitors with several informative displays and videos about volcanoes and their effects on people living nearby.
  10.  Omiya Bonsai Art Museum
    The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum is located in the Omiya Bonsai Village in Saitama and is the perfect place to visit to learn everything about bonsai.