Tokyo's best museums blow the cobwebs away
Japan may not have a history of museums to rival the impressive tourist draws of Rome, London or Paris, but what it lacks in longevity it makes up for in scale and innovation.
From vast labyrinths of Japanese art from throughout history to ultra-modern galleries and institutions dedicated to anime or science, Tokyo has a museum to satisfy even the most voracious culture vultures. Read on for our pick of the top five.
5. Edo-Tokyo Museum
If you’re able to ignore the fact that the whole thing exists inside a huge, modern building, then a visit to Edo-Tokyo Museum is almost like a trip back in time.
Several floors of permanent and temporary exhibits aim to give visitors an idea of what Tokyo was like in the past, starting from the Edo period and going up to present day.
The focus is on the politics, culture and lifestyle experienced by Tokyoites over the city’s 400-year history.
What make Edo-Tokyo Museum one of Tokyo’s best museums are the original artifacts and replicas of Edo-era buildings and landmarks, along with several large-scale models.
Visitors of any age or background will enjoy wandering through the exhibition galleries, imagining what life would have been like in Tokyo before it became the sprawling neon and concrete metropolis it is today.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum is located near Tokyo’s sumo stadium in Ryogoku, so those with plans to take in a match may want to arrange a visit to the museum at the same time.
1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku; +81 (0) 3 3626 9974; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Friday, until 7:30 p.m. Saturday, closed Monday (except on national holidays, then closed the following day); admission ¥300-¥600. www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp
4. Tokyo National Museum
Japan’s oldest museum is arguably also its most important, housing a bafflingly large collection of Japanese art and artifacts.
Located across Ueno Park from JR Ueno Station, the Tokyo National Museum can easily occupy an entire day. But don’t feel discouraged if you don’t manage to see everything -- the compound is so vast that even the most dedicated museum-goers can get exhausted.
When this happens, simply head outdoors for a stroll around the gardens or the park for some fresh air and a change of scenery before heading back into one of Tokyo’s best museums.
While the museum is divided into several different buildings, the majority of the collection is housed in the Main Gallery, or Honkan.
Everything from kimono and samurai armor to lacquerware and woodblock prints is on display, and the collection spans several thousand years.
Archaeological artifacts are housed in the Heiseikan, which also hosts several large-scale special exhibitions each year.
Another building worth a visit is the modern structure housing the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, which is home to one of the oldest and most renowned collections of cultural properties in Japan.
13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku; +81 (0) 3 5405 8686; 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., later on weekends during spring and summer months (check website); admission ¥300-¥600. www.tnm.jp
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3. Ghibli Museum
Children of all ages (really) and grown-up fans of the animated films by Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki will have a blast exploring this quirky, colorful wonderland of a museum.
All of the rooms and exhibits are inspired by and dedicated to characters, locations and scenes from works made by Studio Ghibli.
A large statue of the popular forest creature Totoro greets visitors as they walk along Kichijoji-dori from either Mitaka or Kichijoji stations.
Once inside, there is plenty more to explore, from rooms illustrating the animation process to a huge, natural light-filled central hall and even a plush recreation of the Cat Bus where young children can jump and play.
A small screening room shows original Ghibli animated shorts that cannot be seen anywhere else.
The Ghibli Museum is located on the edge of Inogashira Park, a super-popular green area with a huge boating lake and plenty of open space that is perfect for relaxing with a picnic after a visit to the museum.
1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka-shi; +81 (0) 570 055 777; 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; admission ¥100-¥1,000, tickets must be purchased in advance from Lawson convenience stores or select travel agents (see website for more information). www.ghibli-museum.jp
Officially called the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, the Miraikan is a large, modern glass structure full of interactive exhibition rooms that belie the slightly dull name.
That’s because, unlike other science museums around the world that can seem somewhat dated, the Miraikan focuses exclusively on cutting-edge science and technology -- truly one of Tokyo’s best museums.
Permanent exhibits cover a wide range of topics including the brain, medicine, Earth’s environment, space and time, robots and the Internet, with several special exhibitions held each year.
An enormous globe made from hundreds of small panels hangs between the third and fifth floors of the museum, making a stunning focal point.
After exhausting both their energy and their creativity, visitors to the Miraikan can sit back and take in a 2-D or 3-D film in the spherical dome theater on the sixth floor. The program changes every few months, with three to four nerdy, but gripping films showing at various times each day.
2-3-6 Aomi, Koto-ku; +81 (0) 3 3570 9151; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Tuesday and year-end holidays; admission ¥160-¥600. www.miraikan.jst.go.jp
1. The National Art Center, Tokyo
Although it’s a relatively new addition to Tokyo’s museum scene and has no permanent collection, the huge layout and well-organized temporary exhibits here make this one of Tokyo’s best museums and our top pick for a cultured day out.
With over 14,000 square meters of exhibition space, the National Art Center, Tokyo is one of Japan’s largest museums.
The impressive curved glass facade and giant inverted concrete cones of its Kisho Kurokawa-designed structure lure visitors in, while exhibitions on everything from Impressionism to modern photography and Japanese art keep them there.
The NACT is conveniently located near Nogizaka Station and is part of Art Triangle Roppongi, a trio of museums in the area that also includes the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown and the Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills.
Visitors who hit up any two (or all three) of the museums in one day are entitled to discounted admission prices at all but the first one. Just keep your ticket stubs and ask at the reception desk.
7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 5777 8600; 10 a.m.-6 p.m., until 8 p.m. on Friday, closed Tuesday; admission varies depending on exhibition. www.nact.jp
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