Like the rest of the country’s culture, Japan’s museum scene has something for everyone. Whether you’re a conventional museophile looking for a survey of Japanese heritage, a history geek wanting to delve into Japan’s past, or an eclectic explorer seeking something unique, you’ll find what interests you in the Land of the Rising Sun. Here are some ideas to guide your journey.
Housing more than 110,000 objects of art work and antiquities from Japan and other Asian countries, the Tokyo National Museum is Japan’s oldest and largest museum. Inside 5 themed exhibition buildings, you can see spectacular paintings, woodblock prints and sculptures dating as far back 538 A.D.; samurai swords and armor sharing space with kimono and other textiles; and sculptures, lacquer work and calligraphy from the Horyu-ji Temple that are considered national treasures.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb ever used as a weapon was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, killing more than 70,000 Japanese people. Ten years later, the Peace Memorial Museum opened, with the goal of memorializing the horror of the event and working to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. The museum draws as many as 1 million visitors a year from around the world.
If all you know about Tokyo is the glitz of Roppongi and the fashion of Ginza, then this museum will show you how a little fishing village named Edo became one of the largest cities in the world. Scale models and full-size replicas, including a miniature working kabuki theater and an actual-size reproduction of the historic Nihonbashi Bridge, show what life in Japan’s capital city was like from the Edo feudal period to present day.
The gorgeous grounds of Japan’s first open-air museum, opened in 1969, are home to more than 100 sculptures by contemporary artists like Rodin, Miro and Picasso. Close to Tokyo and Mount Fuji, the museum balances the beauty of art and nature in a 17-acre setting that features stunning mountain views and a garden maze. And when your feet get tired from all the walking, you can dip them in the Footbath Spa "Hot Foot."
While Japan might not come to mind when you think of art from Western masters like van Gogh, Monet and Picasso, Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art ranks among the world’s top art museums. The permanent collection boasts more than 4,500 paintings, drawings and other works, housed in a building designed by famed Swiss architect Le Corbusier.
Located atop the Mori Tower building, the Mori Art Museum focuses on 21st-century art that is both contemporary and international. Rather than housing a permanent collection, the museum uses temporary exhibitions to showcase the newest art. And if the art itself is not enough of a visual treat, admission includes access to the Tokyo City View 360-degree observation deck.
Part theme park, part architectural museum, Meiji Mura features more than 60 historic buildings that have been relocated to the hills above Lake Iruka. The museum’s goal is to preserve historic buildings from the Meiji era, when Western architectural styles mixed with Japanese materials and techniques. The most famous example is the lobby and entrance of the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Other buildings include a church, bathhouse, theater and even a lighthouse.
Packed into 3 rooms on the fifth floor of Taimeiken restaurant, you’ll find 3,000 of Japan’s most beautiful kites. Exhibits display examples of traditional Japanese kites from nearly every region, such as those in the Edo Kaku style, which resemble folkloric paintings of mythical heroes.
If you’re in the mood for something more offbeat, check out the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where you can see a 28-foot-long tapeworm taken from the stomach of a Japanese man. Or visit Yokohama’s Sock Museum, where the social and cultural changes of the past century are reflected in more than 20,000 pairs of socks.