Tokyo National Museum (http://www.tnm.jp/) was established in 1872. It is comprised of five buildings: Honkan (Japanese gallery, built in 1937), Hyokeikan (1908), Toyokan (Asian gallery, 1968), Heiseikan (1999), and Horyuji Homotsukan (1999). The collection includes more than 110,000 items including 88 national treasures and 610 important cultural properties (as of March 2006). Not all of these items are on display at once, of course. The focus of the collection is on Japan, but there are also many items from other parts of Asia.
I can't speak with any amount of authority on the entire complex because I ran out of steam after just seeing Honkan. I was in Tokyo for a wedding and I had intended to make a side trip to Hamarikyu (a garden near Shiodome station) on Sunday morning before heading back to Tsukuba. However, nature interfered with this plan, as it ended up being too cold and rainy to enjoy a walk through a park. I decided to leave Hamarikyu for another day. However, when I went for breakfast at my hotel on Sunday morning, I happened to start talking to another hotel guest who was a Canadian living in Hong Kong. She had come to Japan on business, but she had one day to explore Tokyo before heading back to Hong Kong and she thought that she might go to the National Museum. She said that she hated to travel alone, so I offered to join her. The problem was that I was rather tired from the wedding the previous night and really only had enough energy to walk through a park for about an hour (or two at the absolute maximum), not spend an entire day walking through a museum looking at little cards with cryptic descriptions of antiques. So, I fear I did not give the museum the attention it needs.
In any case, I should give the museum credit for doing what it sets out to do quite well. If you want to see the full range of Japanese art and antiquities, this is the place to go. At Honkan alone, you will get your fill of ceramics, lacquerware, swords, military costumes, kimonos, folding screens, paper doors, palanquins, hair ornaments, Buddhist images, scrolls, and much more. There are English explanations at the entrance to each room, and every item has a card with at least a name on it. Occasionally, a second card will be available with a more detailed description.
My only criticism of the gallery is that it doesn't do a good enough job of helping the average person understand these historical pieces in their greater context. The descriptions are riddled with the names of "famous" writers, actors, military figures, and imperial family members -- which I think probably helps Japanese people put the items into some sort of historical context, but the average foreigner is not able to glean very much information from these names alone. Reading these descriptions is like looking at snapshots of scenes from movies that you haven't seen. You can see who is involved and what seems to be happening in that instant, but you don't come away with a sense of the overall story that is being told. Don't get me wrong, after many years of visiting museums with no English titles let alone descriptions, I am thankful to have anything at all, but I do wish the museum would hire someone who could bring it all together for people who don't already have a highly developed sense of Japanese history. This is "the" national museum, after all.
My day ended after only seeing Honkan, so I hope to go back one day to visit the special exhibit and the remaining buildings. I think you have to go to this museum with the intent to make a full day of it. Also, to enjoy the museum to its full extent, I would recommend bringing along a friend who can fill in the gaps for you as you take in the collection.
The museum is located in Ueno Park, a short walk from Ueno, Keisei Ueno, or Uguisudani stations.
The fee is 600 yen for adults, 400 yen for university students. There is also an extra fee associated with special exhibits. The regular exhibits are free for school-aged students and for people over 70.
The museum is generally open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30am to 5pm, but there are certain times when it is open as late as 8pm. (Please see the website for details.)
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