A Complete Guide to Tokyo National Museum, Japan’s Largest Museum!
Tucked in a forest in Tokyo’s Ueno area, Tokyo National Museum is the oldest museum in Japan. This article will showcase the appeals and attractions of this museum, also called “Tohaku,” that is also considered as the gateway to Japan’s culture.
What is Tokyo National Museum (Tohaku)?
The Tokyo National Museum, fondly referred to as "Tohaku," is the museum with the longest history in Japan, having been opened roughly 150 years ago. It collects, stores, researches on, and displays various cultural assets, such as art works and antiquities from Southeast Asia, especially Japan. Housing 117,000 artifacts, 89 of which are national treasures and 643 are important cultural properties (as of March 2018), this museum boasts the largest and best collection in Japan in terms of quality and quantity. Its exhibitions include Regular Exhibitions (with about 3,000 items constantly on display) that are made up of works from the museum’s collections and deposited articles from temples/shrine, and Special Exhibitions (held 3-5 times per year) that are large-scale exhibitions based on a certain theme. First-class cultural properties from all over the world are sometimes gathered at this museum, too, depending on the theme of exhibitions.
Exterior of the Honkan (Japanese Gallery)
Entrance of Honkan
Approx. 10-minute walk from JR Ueno Station’s Park Exit and Uguisudani Station’s South Exit
Approx. 15-minute walk from Ueno Station on Tokyo Metro’s Ginza Line/Hibiya Line and Nezu Station on the Chiyoda Line
Approx. 15-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station of Keisei Electric Railway
Hours: 9:30 am – 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
*Open until 9:00 pm every Friday and Saturday
Closed: Monday (or the following Tuesday if Monday is a national holiday)
Regular Exhibitions: Adults: 620 JPY, University students: 410 JPY, persons under 18 and over 70 years old: Free
Special Exhibitions: Varies depending on the exhibition
Services for Foreigners
At the Main Gate Plaza, there are audio guides (Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean) for the regular exhibitions that can be rented. Guided tours are also given in English by museum volunteers at Honkan’s 2nd floor.
Signs and other guides, along with some explanatory panels inside the museum, are shown in three languages (English, Chinese, and Korean). The individual item descriptions are written in Japanese and English, so you can admire the works without worries even if you do not understand Japanese.
*English guided tours are held about three times each month. Please go to the museum’s official homepage for details.
Highlights at Tohaku
Tohaku boasts a large collection of important cultural properties that trace the history of Japan, and these collections are displayed in six exhibition areas inside the museum premises. Every exhibition is packed with works, and if you intend to look each piece closely, then a day might not be enough to check out all of them!
With that, here are the overviews of the museum’s exhibition halls where permanent exhibits are held.
Honkan (Japanese Gallery)
The first area is the Honkan (Japanese Gallery) that was opened in 1938. Boasting an especially majestic appearance within the compound of Tohaku, this building has been designated as a national important cultural property for being a representative of the “Emperor’s Crown Style” that is characterized by Japanese tiled roof on a concrete Western-style building. The 1st floor houses sculptures, ceramics, and swords, and the exhibits are made up of planned exhibitions and genre-specific exhibitions that will let you look closely at works in one specific genre. Meanwhile, the 2nd floor is designed based on the theme “Highlights of Japanese Art,” and features the development of art in the country from around 13,000 to 400 years ago. Here, you can trace the history of art in Japan through famous works that include national treasures and important cultural properties.
Room 2 (National Treasures Room) in the Honkan
Room 11 (Sculptures) in the Honkan
The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures
Next up is the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. This gallery houses and displays over 300 treasures that were donated by Nara’s famous Horyuji Temple to the Imperial Household in 1878. One of its main characteristics is that the collection includes numerous valuable objects from the 7th century. You can admire the cultural properties that have earned acclaim as a collection of ancient art.
Exterior of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures
Room 2 of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures (Photo: Hikaru Sato)
Toyokan (Asian Gallery) is based on the concept of “journey around art in Asia.” It is the largest gallery dedicated to Asian art in Japan, showcasing artworks and archaeological artifacts from China, the Korean Peninsula, Southeast Asia, the western regions of China, and India, as well as Egypt and other countries. This building offers a wide array of famous works such as sculptures, bronze statues, Buddhist statues, and ceramics. Items included in the exhibitions are changed several times each year.
Exterior of the Toyokan
Room 5 in the Toyokan (Chinese Bronzes)
This is a new exhibition area that was completed in 1999. At the Archeology Gallery on the 1st floor, archeological antiquities from the stone age until the modern times are on display. Meanwhile, the 2nd floor serves as a gallery dedicated to special exhibitions that are held a few times each year.
Kuroda Memorial Hall
The Kuroda Memorial Hall was built to house and showcase the estate and works of Kuroda Seiki, known as "the father of modern painting in Japan," that were bequeathed to the country. Inside, there is a permanent exhibit on his oil paintings, sketches and other works that were donated posthumously by his surviving family, as well as a special gallery where you can take a closer look and appreciate the representative works of Kuroda that have been designated as important cultural assets (the special gallery is open for two weeks each in the New Year, spring and autumn).
Kohan (Lakeside) – Kuroda Seiki’s representative work
Recommended Courses If You Only Want to See Certain Things
Getting to see everything in the massive collection of cultural properties in a single day is an undertaking that is next to impossible. With that, here are some recommended courses for visitors who have a limited time and want to see the works in an efficient manner, and for visitors who only want to look at the things they want to see. There are just three courses available at the moment, but the plan is to increase the number of courses slowly over time.
Highlights of Japanese Art (Time required: Approx. 30 minutes)
At the exhibition on the Highlights of Japanese Art on the 2nd floor of the Honkan (Japanese Gallery) that showcases the developments in Japan’s civilization and culture in every era from the Jomon period (around 14,000 B.C – around 400 B.C.) up to the Edo period (1603 – 1867), you will find various famous items that represent the characteristics of Japan’s society and culture from each period. With this course, you will be able to glimpse into the general flow of developments in Japan’s culture through the appreciation of the works in the exhibition. Further, the National Treasure Gallery (Room 2) that displays just one national treasure at a time is popular as a luxurious space where you can admire the national treasure at a more relaxed pace.
TMN Architecture Walk (Required time: Approx. 60 minutes)
This course is recommended to those who have a thing for buildings. Tohaku has various types of buildings, from those whose structures have been designated as national important cultural assets, such as Honkan and Hyokeikan, up to modern buildings that were designed by architects that are currently active in the world stage, and these buildings hold impressive collections of works. You can also enjoy important cultural assets such as the Kuromon (Black Gate) that had been the main gate of the Edo residence of the Ikeda family, a feudal lord in the Tottori Domain, before it was transferred to the museum, and the Old Jurin-in Temple Treasury (Azekura), a repository that was moved from Nara’s Jurin-in Temple. There are also outdoor sculptures and other features, so you can admire the works while walking around the museum premises.
The Hyokeikan that adopts a Neo-Baroque style is a building that represents Western-style architecture at the end of the Meiji era (1868 – 1912)
The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures was designed by architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who also designed New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
For Buddha Statue Lovers (Required time: Approx. 150 minutes)
It was in the 6th century that Buddhism, which had been passed on to China from India through the western regions, crossed the seas from the Korean Peninsula and reached Japan. In this course, you will learn the history of how Buddhism came to Japan while admiring Buddhist images that were made in various eras and regions, as well as the history of the developments of Buddhist art in Japan and around Asia. You will be moving a lot between the Toyokan, the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures and the Honkan, so this course takes more time than the other courses. It will be worth your time, though! It would be best to compare the different things you see and then search for the one that you like.
Standing statue of Bodhisattva that was made in Northern Qi (550 – 577) during the period of Northern and Southern Chinese dynasties
Standing statue of Virupaksa that was made during the Heian period (794 - 1185)
Have Fun at the TNM & TOPPAN Museum Theater, Too
The TNM & TOPPAN Museum Theater inside Toyokan is a facility where you can enjoy VR shows based on various themes. Ultra high-definition 4K videos are shown on a giant 300-inch screen, and a live performance is held using a navigator. Here, you can have a unique digital experience as you get to see how the cultural properties looked in the past, something that you cannot do with the actual thing. You can even enlarge their details, among other things.
Admission fee (once per program): Set with ticket for Regular Exhibits – Adults: 1,000 JPY (incl. tax), University students: 800 JPY (incl. tax)
※Cutoff of reception is set at 15 minutes before each program. Entry will not be allowed once the show has started.
Toyokan Museum Theater
Don’t Miss the Well-stocked Museum Shops!
With multiple locations on the 1st floor of the Honkan, 1st floor of the Toyokan, and at the Main Gate Plaza, the Museum Shop carries catalogs of the Tohaku collections, illustrated books on past exhibitions, and technical books related to art, archaeology and history, as well as postcards featuring the collections, clear files, stationery, accessories, and a huge variety of other museum merchandise. The cookies that come in a can with beautiful gold lacquer decoration and miniature folding screens are especially perfect for a souvenir!
Tired? Take a Break at the Restaurant and Cafe
Being in a museum involves a lot of walking from one area to the next, and looking at works can be surprisingly tiring. At Tohaku, there are restaurants on the 1st floor of the Toyokan and the 1st floor of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures where you can dine. Both restaurants are run by the upscale Hotel Okura, so they have the highest level of taste and quality of service. The Hotel Okura Garden Terrace at the 1st floor of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures is enclosed in glass, giving it a bright and expansive atmosphere inside. You can also get a seat at the terrace and relax while marveling at the surrounding greenery and the water basin in front of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures.
Aside from the spots and events featured above, there are various events in Tohaku, including seasonal events such as an outdoor cinema and concerts, New Year’s Day celebrations, cherry blossoms, and autumn foliage. So, make sure to visit several times!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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