A guide to Tokyo's unmissable museums

From noble institutions to anime icons and digital immersion, Tokyo’s museums go beyond the normal stately duties of a capital to give full vent to the city’s cultural fever dreams...

5 mins

Tokyo’s museums are defined by eclecticism. More than 100 institutions scatter the city, and while the Tokyo National Museum will be the starting point for many, it shouldn’t be the finale. From the stern Le Corbusier-designed National Museum of Western Art to the park-set villa of the Ghibli Museum, even their settings offer something to ponder. It’s certainly no surprise that a buoyant contemporary arts scene has found its feet in the city’s surfeit of glassy spaces.

There is no one district for museums in Tokyo, though the big nationals tend to cluster around Ueno Park. The Roppongi Hills ‘Art Triangle’, consisting of the National Art Center, Suntory Museum of Art and Mori Art Museum (recognisable for Louise Bourgeois’ giant Maman spider sculpture outside) offers a counterbalance. The rest are scattered across suburbs, parks, skyscrapers and malls, running the cultural gamut from anime to ramen but united by one thing: a shared distaste for opening on Mondays.

Inside teamLab's Borderless museum (Shutterstock)

Inside teamLab's Borderless museum (Shutterstock)

More common ground lies in the need to book in advance. Last-minute spaces at the likes of the Ghibli or Yayoi Kusama museums are rare, and unthinkable at weekends (both strictly limit visitor numbers). If you’re here a while, it’s worth getting a Grutto Pass, which offers free admission or discounts at a host of places; also bear in mind that many museums open late on Fridays.

Spare a thought too for what’s currently missing. The irrepressible digital art collective teamLab shuttered its Borderless museum in Odaiba in 2022, instantly reducing Japanese Instagrammers to fits of frustration. Its Planets exhibition at a temporary venue in Toyosu runs until the end of this year; however, by then, teamLab’s highly anticipated permanent space in the Azabudai Hills will be open.

Another big name currently excused from itineraries is the stately Edo Museum in Ryogokyu, which is likely to be closed until 2025 for a major renovation and refit. It’s a big miss, but as you can see, there’s plenty to fill the gap.

Tokyo National Museum

For the old stager

Edo-period art of Okamoto Shuki at the Tokyo National Museum (Alamy)

Edo-period art of Okamoto Shuki at the Tokyo National Museum (Alamy)

The oldest museum in Japan turned 150 in 2022. It is not only a national treasure itself, but among its 120,000-strong collection are artefacts deemed actual ‘national treasures’ – last year’s anniversary exhibition collected together 89. The museum takes up a large chunk of Ueno Park, which explodes with cherry blossoms in late March, and its gardens and historic teahouses are well worth a stroll. Meanwhile, exhibitions (temporary and permanent) are spread across six buildings, thinning visitors to an easy trickle.

You’ll need a day to take everything in, so don’t be in too much of a hurry. If stuck for time, head for the main Honkan building, which exhibits artwork and artefacts up until the end of the Edo period (1603–1867), including the ever-popular ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Look out too for the Hyokeikan building, which only opens for special exhibitions; it was built in 1909 to mark the emperor’s wedding, just as Western-style architecture seeped into Japan. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Gallery of Horyūji Treasures, which delves into exquisite gilt Buddhist artwork from the 7th and 8th centuries.

More information: tnm.jp

National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT)

For an arts primer

The 20th-century art of MOMAT saw Japan’s artists wrestling with modernisation and the loss of tradition (Alamy)

The 20th-century art of MOMAT saw Japan’s artists wrestling with modernisation and the loss of tradition (Alamy)

MOMAT’s setting, amid the lush Kitanomaru Park, might clash with its blockish design, but it’s a fitting loosener for the most comprehensive collection of Modern art in Japan. This is a more contemplative experience than the brasher contemporary art havens of the Roppongi Hills; visits start from the top down, sliding through the history of late Japanese expression, drawn from a collection of 13,000 works (prints, paintings, sculptures). It finds its sweet spot in the era of the late masters of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and up until the 1960s, when a modernising post-war Japan sought new ways to frame itself and its past. Afterwards, drop by the top-floor ‘Room with a View’ for panoramas of the nearby Imperial Palace East Gardens.

More information: momat.go.jp

Ghibli Museum

For the local favourite

A Laputa robot trooper on the rooftop garden of the Ghibli Museum (Shutterstock)

A Laputa robot trooper on the rooftop garden of the Ghibli Museum (Shutterstock)

When considering the cultural impact of the animated films of Studio Ghibli on Japan, many reach for its Western equivalent, Disney. But whereas its US rival went ever bigger and more CGI, Studio Ghibli, which was co-founded by a pair of Japan’s most celebrated directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, doubled down on their vision: hand-painted animations rooted in everything from Japanese myth and obscure Welsh books to complex tales of war and loss. Yet they still managed to create three of the top-ten highest-grossing Japanese films ever. Its museum is a similarly singular effort, part-designed by Miyazaki, who envisioned an Italian-style villa in a leafy park in Mikata. Visitors can browse storyboards, see an exclusive film and pose gleefully with giant Laputa robot statues (pictured centre). Both culturally and visually, it is unmissable – but you will need to book far ahead to get tickets.

More information: ghibli-museum.jp

More of Tokyo's best museums

Visitors wander inside Mori Art Museum (Shutterstock)

Visitors wander inside Mori Art Museum (Shutterstock)

Mori Art Museum

As the boldest museum in the Roppongi Art Triangle, the glossy setting of this contemporary art giant (floors 52 and 53 of Mori Tower) belies how edgy it can be. Late hours (until 10pm) and views from one of Tokyo’s tallest buildings make it a great after-dark treat. mori.art.museum

Yayoi Kusama Museum

With just 200 visitors allowed in each day, the polka-dotted fever dreams of Japan’s favourite avant-garde artist, Yayoi Kusama, are a coveted sight. But there is weight behind the whimsy, and it’s worth booking ahead to see why. yayoikusamamuseum.jp

National Museum of Western Art

The imposing Le Corbusier design of its main building aside, this is the go-to for fans of late-19th-century Japonisme – Western takes on Japanese art – by the likes of Degas, Rodin and Van Gogh. nmwa.go.jp

National Museum of Nature and Science

Once you’re done at the Tokyo National Museum, drop by its neighbour in Ueno Park. Expect cultural background and a great exhibition tracing modern tech through Japanese inventions. kahaku.go.jp

Sumida Hokusai Museum

Dedicated to the works of the influential ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Katsushika Hokusai – of The Great Wave fame – the location of this striking mirrored building in Ryogoku makes it a good companion piece for when the nearby Edo Museum eventually reopens. hokusai-museum.jp

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