The Tokyo National Museum is Japan’s oldest, largest, and most important museum of art and antiquities. It is perfect for an overview of Japanese art through the centuries, or a deep dive into a particular period or craft. The museum is spread out over a couple of architecturally significant buildings in a section of Ueno Park.
The Tokyo National Museum was founded in the late 19th century, and today it is among Tokyo’s top attractions. All of the permanent exhibitions are accompanied by English text, and fortunately not too many crowds.
What should I see at the Tokyo National Museum?
If it’s your first time, and you don’t have a lot of time, start with the upstairs floor of the Japan Gallery, which is housed in the main building (called the Honkan).
The galleries on the upstairs floor of the Honkan are arranged historically, starting with Jōmon-era antiquities and ending up at 19th-century Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). Highlights in-between include: Zen Buddhism-influenced ink wash paintings, pottery intended for tea ceremonies, samurai swords and armor, and the kind of polychrome, gilded screens that once graced palaces. There’s a free brochure in English that provides enough context to appreciate the different works from different eras.
If you have more time, you can visit the ground floor, where the rooms are arranged by craft. So you can see more examples of lacquerware or ceramics, for example. The Buddhist sculpture gallery, on the ground floor near the entrance, is worth checking out — as you often can’t get this close a look at statues like these where they normally reside, inside temples.
Gallery of Horyūji Treasures
This is the coolest part of the Tokyo National Museum, in our opinion. Horyūji, located in Nara, is one of Japan’s oldest Buddhist temples. It was founded in the 7th century, not long after Buddhism was first introduced to Japan. Inside the Gallery of Horyūji Treasures, you can see dozens of small golden Buddha statues that belonged to the temple. Each one is different, something that is highlighted by the gallery’s high-contrast spot lighting. There are other important pieces of metalwork, masks, musical instruments, etc — all from the 7th and 8th centuries, and exemplary of early Buddhist artwork in Japan.
The Gallery of Horyūji Treasures is in its own building, all the way to the left, as soon as you enter the main gates. It was designed by famous contemporary Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi.
Japanese Archaeological Gallery
The Japanese Archaeological Gallery has lots more Jōmon era antiquities (what you get a taste of in the Honkan). Plus: pottery, metalwork (including some very early swords), Haniwa figures, and more pulled from digs around the country.
This section, which mostly focuses on the Jōmon, Yayoi, and Kōfun periods, is good if you want to learn more about Japan’s early history. The gallery is on the ground floor in a building called the Heiseikan, which you can reach via a corridor from the ground floor of the Honkan.
The Asian Gallery has Buddhist sculptures and ceramics from around Asia, and especially from China and Korea. It’s housed in the Tōyōkan, which was designed by Yoshirō Taniguchi (Yoshio’s father).
There’s other stuff to see on the grounds. Behind the Honkan, there is a garden with some historic teahouses that opens for a few weeks in the spring and again in the fall. Near the Gallery of Horyūji Treasures is an Edo-era gatehouse, Kuromon. There’s also the Hyōkeikan, built in 1909 (and an example of the Western-inspired architecture in Japan at the time), but generally closed to visitors.
Pro tip: Learn more about the architecture of the Tokyo National Museum and more on this private Ueno Park architecture tour, which conveniently finishes at the museum.
Special Exhibits at the Tokyo National Museum
The Tokyo National Museum has some excellent special exhibitions. Especially worthwhile are the ones that display artifacts, including national treasures, from temple and shrine collections — stuff that normal people rarely get to see. Exhibitions like these can, however, draw huge crowds. Unfortunately, when we’ve visited in the past, little of the exhibition text was translated into English (unlike the rest of the museum).
Special exhibits also require a separate admission ticket, which may not be covered by attraction passes like the Tokyo Pass.
Is there a gift shop? A cafe?
The museum shop is on the ground floor of the Honkan. It’s particularly good for books in English on Japanese art, history, and culture. It also has the usual t-shirts, totes, and postcards.
The posh Hotel Okura runs two restaurants at the museum, one on the ground floor of the Tōyōkan and another attached to the Gallery of Horyūji Treasures, which has terrace seating. The one in the Tōyōkan has a larger menu, but both serve lunch sets for around ¥1,500–¥2,500, as well as coffee and desserts.
How long should I spend at the Tokyo National Museum?
One of the nice things about the Tokyo National Museum is that it can fit into almost any itinerary. With just 30 minutes, you can pop in and check out the Gallery of Horyūji Treasures. It probably takes an hour to do the upstairs galleries at the Honkan, and maybe two hours to see all of the Japan Gallery. With a half-day, you could add the Heiseikan (Japanese Archaeological Gallery) or the Tōyōkan (Asian Gallery) and really get your money’s worth.
There are lockers on the ground floor of the Honkan, where you can store a small bag or a coat.
When should I go? Does it get crowded?
The permanent exhibitions usually aren’t crowded, especially in the mornings.
What’s near the Tokyo National Museum?
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Last updated in March 2023.
Has wheelchair accessible toilets
- 282 m from Uguisudani Station
- 0.7 km from Iriya Station
- 0.8 km from Ueno Station