Visiting Tokyo National Museum: Tips and Photo Gallery

Ancient Japanese Art at Tokyo National Museum
Ancient Japanese Art at Tokyo National Museum

The First Tokyo Attraction That I Visited

Tokyo National Museum (TNM) was the first museum I visited in Japan.

If you disregard an overpriced breakfast at Narita Airport and lumbering across Ueno Park as travel highlights, then Japan’s largest national museum was also the first attraction on Japanese soil that I visited.

This inaugural visit happened on an early Friday morning way back in February 1998. (Wow! That’s almost 30 years ago!) After dropping off my bags at Ryokan Katsutaro in Nezu, I walked down Dobutsuen Street to Shinobazunoike Benten-Do, then cut across Ueno Park to reach the museum.

I was jet-lagged and exhausted. Earlier on, it had taken me nearly an hour to locate the Ryokan; these were pre-Google Maps days. Worse, the night before, I didn’t sleep a wink on the ANA overnight flight from Changi to Narita.

Despite my condition, I was all excited and hyped up about the visit. Finally, I would visit the museum I’ve spent weeks reading (physical guidebooks) about! More importantly, I would be having up-close-and-personal encounters with all the legendary armours and Japanese katanas I’ve been fascinated by since young! Yatta!

Dang. The visit didn’t quite go the way I expected.

You see, while I wasn’t completely clueless about Japanese history and culture back then, what I then knew barely scratched the surface. Had anyone asked, I wouldn’t have been able to even name any famous warlord beyond the most notable three.

At the museum, this resulted in me being overwhelmed by the hundreds of displays and the many, many unfamiliar names. Yes, the swords, armours, art, and relics were all very pretty and exotic, but wait a sec, who owned what and at where? Who was this emperor who commissioned this whatever painting? Who’s this monk that keeps being referred to in so many rooms?!?

Repeat: the visit didn’t go the way I expected. I almost fell asleep in the museum. When I made it back to the Ryokan, I slept for four hours.

Over 15 years later in 2015, I revisited after finally getting over my first visit. This time, thanks to Wikipedia and an evolved Internet, I was more mentally prepared but the many unfamiliar names in the Honkan still bewildered me. I ended up enjoying the Asian Buddhist statues and art in the Tōyōkan (東洋館) far, far more.

Buddhist Art at Tōyōkan | Tokyo National Museum Photo Highlights
Buddhist sculptures and statues at the Tōyōkan (東洋館).

Tips for Visiting Tokyo National Museum – What to Expect and Do Beforehand

If you’re wondering whether I’m sharing unhappy travel memories as a way of saying, nope, please don’t visit Tokyo National Museum, the answer is a big NO. “TNM” is still one of the best museums I’ve ever had the pleasure of stepping into. If I were to write a list of top must-visit Tokyo attractions, the museum would rank among the top five entries.

But to truly enjoy this attraction, I strongly feel certain preparations beforehand are necessary. There are various things to be aware of too. This is especially so for the permanent Japanese exhibits in the Honkan, or main building.

  1. You need to read up beforehand. You don’t have to study, of course, but you should at least be acquainted with certain terms and the different periods of Japanese history.
  2. Further on (1), the collections section of the official website is quite a trove of information. A little dry in presentation but nonetheless informative and educational.
  3. Like the case for any museum, a visit is far more enjoyable if you are on the lookout for specific exhibits. Plan your itinerary using the official website.
  4. Tokyo National Museum is nowhere near as large as, say, the British Museum. But the permanent galleries are still expansive. Be ready to walk!
  5. Language is mostly not an issue; you probably wouldn’t need an audio guide unless you want in-depth information. Nearly all exhibits are accompanied by well-written descriptions in Japanese, English, Simplified Chinese, and Korean.
  6. I can’t remember for sure but I think the permanent exhibition has evolved over the years. For a start, non-flash photography is now allowed at many displays. The permanent galleries, which follow a chronological and thematic route, also feel more accessible nowadays.
  7. As the largest and oldest national museum in Japan, Tokyo National Museum consists of various buildings and galleries. You can breeze through all, of course, but a normal visit, with careful readings of descriptions and all that would require at least half a day. More, if you do not want to mentally exhaust yourself.
  8. The museum largely focuses on pre-modern history. While special exhibitions might introduce culture and artefacts from the Taisho Era, the early Showa Era, etc, this is not the attraction to head to if you’re interested in post-war Japanese history.
Tokyo National Museum Honkan
This is the Honkan (本館), i.e., the “main” building where the permanent Japanese galleries are. The Honkan is also connected to a lovely Japanese garden that is exceptionally beautiful during the cherry blossom season and autumn.
Hyokeikan, Tokyo
This is the Hyokeikan (表慶館), which is to the right of the Honkan. Special exhibitions are held here so there are sometimes long queues before this classic Meiji Era building.
Tokyo National Museum Honkan Grand Staircase
Rebuilt in the 1930s in the Imperial Crown Style, the Honkan has a palatial interior with neoclassical touches and a magnificent grand staircase. The décor also reflects the preference for Western styles in buildings back in those days.
Japanese Tea Ceremony Masters
An introduction to four legendary Japanese tea masters, and through them, the history of the Japanese tea ceremony. As you can see, exhibit descriptions are terse and presented in four languages. The quality of translation is also great.
Timeline of Japanese History
When I last visited in Nov 2023, there was a projection introducing the main periods of pre-modern Japanese history. This is incredibly useful for visitors if you ask me.
Tokyo National Museum Honkan Gallery
The Honkan galleries are laid out in a circuitous route over two floors. Many are large too. To repeat, be prepared to walk when visiting!

The following is a summary of what to enjoy at Japan’s largest national museum.

6 Things to Enjoy at Tokyo National Museum

  1. Japanese archeological relics and cultural artefacts from the prehistoric to the pre-modern era. (Honkan) There is no larger display of Japanese national treasures and important cultural properties anywhere else.
  2. Asian cultural and religious artefacts at the Tōyōkan.
  3. A lovely Japanese garden at the rear of the Honkan. The Honkan itself is a magnificent, palatial building.
  4. The Gallery of Horyuji Treasures houses some of Japan’s most important national treasures.
  5. Special exhibitions featuring the best of relics and cultural treasures from across Japan.
  6. Japan’s largest and oldest public museum is surrounded by the restaurants, shops, and attractions of Ueno Park, Ueno Station, and Ameyokocho.

Photo Gallery of Highlights from My November 2023 Visit to Tokyo National Museum Honkan

My third visit to the museum was in Nov 2023 and once again, this happened on the first day of my holiday and with me rather dazed after an overnight flight.

I was much more “academically” prepared than my previous visits too; this is thanks to all the travel writing research I’ve done since 2018. Other than collecting information and photos for my Owlcation and WanderWisdom write-ups, I was also there to see one of the museum’s most legendary collections—the Dōjikiri Yasutsuna (童子切安綱). This legendary blade is one of Japan’s “five swords under heaven” and a mythical armament that frequently features in Japanese pop culture.

ALAS! Argg! For reasons I couldn’t uncover, the sword was not displayed! Worse, all the counter staff would tell me was that Dōjikiri was currently not on exhibition but there were other famous blades on showcase.

I was sorely, sorely disappointed. That being said, the visit was not at all a waste. I did get all the photos that I wanted for my articles. Going through the many galleries, twice, also inspired me on what next to write for the two abovementioned sites.

This inspiration delighted me and much more than made up for the Dōjikiri no-show.

Ancient Art Gallery | Tokyo National Museum
If you follow the recommended visiting route, which begins on the second floor, the first gallery you’d enter would bring you right to the start of Japanese history—the prehistoric Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun eras. This gallery also tersely highlights the difference in art and lifestyles during these ancient times.
Ancient Japanese Art Artefacts
These artefacts might not look very photogenic but seeing them made me felt like a relic hunter who had stumbled upon a repository. Pictures of these are invaluable for some of my Owlcation articles!
Buddhist Art | Tokyo National Museum Highlights
Buddhism is inseparable from Japanese history. There are thus lots of Buddhist arts through the Honkan exhibits. Many are priceless national treasures and important cultural properties too.
Japanese Standing Kannon Statue
In general, non-flash photography is allowed at most exhibits except the largest and most precious ones. I’m glad that photos were permitted at this copy of a Nara Era Bronze Kannon Statue.
Heian Era Peacock Wisdom King Silk Painting
A lovely silk painting of Mahamayura, the Peacock Wisdom King of Buddhism. You don’t often see iconology of him. For me, it’s a double treat, too, because of Kujaku Ō (孔雀王), one of my favourite mangas from the 1980s.
Nichiren Wood Sculpture
I was delighted to see this superb wooden sculpture of Master Nichiren. I’m not a Nichiren Buddhist and I have no intention of converting. However, I attended a Soka Gakkai prayer session a while ago and I found the chanting of the famous Nam-myoho-renge-kyo unexpectedly calming and empowering.
Minamoto Yoritomo Wood Sculpture from Kamakura Period | Tokyo National Museum Highlights
This one is for fans of the recent Disney+ Shogun series. No, this is not Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Shogun Yoshii Toranaga is based on. Instead, it’s Minamoto Yoritomo, the first Shogun in Japanese history and the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. Note the unusual sitting pose, which is described as the standard way nobles posed for portraits. (Try doing your selfies like this!)
Tokyo National Museum Art
Have you read The Tale of Genji? If so, you’d probably be thrilled by this artistic interpretation of the Butterflies chapter.

Lethal and Magnificent Japanese Swords

Yamato Senjuin School Tachi
Onward to Japanese swords! The counter staff was right. While Dōjikiri was disappointingly missing, there were tens of other blades to admire. All look worthy of use in an Anime action series. (This is a Tachi of the Yamato Senjuin school)
Tadahiro Blade
This shiny menace is a katana forged by the Hizen swordsmith Tadahiro in 1629. The sword motif on the blade represents Kurikara, the sword of Buddhist Wisdom King Acala. (Kurikara is also the magical blade that restrained Rin’s powers in Blue Exorcist!)
13th Century Masatsune Blade
This tachi blade by Masatsune was described as shortened for better use in close quarters. If you ask me, I don’t want to be in the same room as anyone wielding this.

Noh Masks from the Collection of the Maeda Clan

It was truly a stroke of luck that my visit coincided with this temporary exhibition. After seeing them so often in Japanese video games and Anime, few things are more representative of … classic Japanese horror to me than Noh masks.

Tokyo National Museum Noh Masks
Do you like Noh masks? To be honest, I do not know a single person who is not, to some extent, creeped out by them. I kinda like their macabre artistry, although I agree they tend to feel sinister.

If you’re curious, the top left Noh mask is called a Kantan Otoko (邯鄲男) mask and was originally used to represent ordinary men who came to realise the fleeting nature of life. However, the mask later represented male gods in general.

The truly macabre-looking one on the top right is a Ōakujō (大悪尉), while the one on the bottom left is a Myōga Akujō (茗荷悪尉). The former is used for foreign or wrathful gods. The latter represents gods with unusual demeanors.

The horrific horned one at the bottom right is a Shinja (真蛇). The “true snake” represents a frightening serpent-woman demoness who has almost completely lost her humanity—the outcome of intense jealousy.

(I got all these details from the text accompanying the masks. Sharing this to give an idea of what I mean when I mentioned that the English descriptions are uniformly well-written)

By the way, this Noh mask exhibition has long ended; the final day was Jan 14, 2024. However, this Japanese page has more pictures of these exotic artefacts.

Noh masks photography tip: Noh masks are unbelievable works of art because they deliver different expressions when viewed from different angles. Try photographing any you see in Japan from different perspectives—you’ll be stunned by the transformation. I can feel some of the masks shown above changing in nature when I tweaked the photos in Photoshop.

Other Permanent Exhibition Highlights

Striped Cotton Ainu Coats
There’s an Ainu gallery on the ground floor, with exhibits you’d be hard-pressed to find outside of Hokkaido. As an academic institution, Tokyo National Museum does its part to present a complete pre-modern history of the Japanese archipelago. (These are 19th-century striped cotton Ainu coats, by the way)
Japanese Yoroi Photo Booth
The ground floor also had a Yoroi (armour) corner. A treat for kids and adult fans alike.

FYI, the black yoroi on the left is based on that of Sakakibara Yasumasa. The red one will immediately be familiar to all Samurai Warriors players. It’s inspired by the set used by Sanada Yukimura, the poster boy of that enduring game series.

The helmet, or kabuto, is modelled after the one supposedly worn by Ashikaga Takauji, founder of the Ashikaga Shogunate.

I’ll just say it out loud, too, in case my message is still not obvious. If you’re visiting Japan for its pop culture offerings, DON’T skip Tokyo National Museum. Don’t assume it will be boring and stuffy. You’ll be surprised by how so many artefacts from this museum are found in Anime, Manga, and Japanese video games.

Emperor Meiji Imperial Palanquin
This incredible Edo Period Imperial Palanquin was displayed in an ornate room that looked to be some sort of function room. It was previously used by none other than Emperor Meiji.
Must-Visit Tokyo Attraction | Tokyo National Museum
There are really too many wonderful, informative, and exotic artefacts from the museum for me to even begin to show a fraction of. I’ll thus end this post here with the message, please visit this awesome museum and repository of Japanese cultural artefacts the next time you’re in Japan’s capital!

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Visiting Tokyo National Museum: Tips and Photo Gallery
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Are you visiting Tokyo National Museum soon? Get essential tips and explore my photo gallery of the permanent exhibition in 2023.

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