Tokyo National Museum: The best place to see Japanese art

2 Sep
TNM3 (2) (640x480)

Tokyo National Museum (東京国立博物館, Tōkyō Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan)

Are you interested in samurai swords, ukiyoe (woodblock painting), Buddhist sculpture, or Jomon artifacts?  If so, Tokyo National Museum is the place to visit.  It has an impressive collection of art works and archeological objects of Japan raging from 10,000 BC up to the late 19th century.

When I was in Tokyo a few months ago, I stopped by there for the first time.  The museum is located inside Ueno Park, a large public park in central Tokyo.  Bright colors of hydrangea were in full bloom, while the trees provided much needed shade on the humid summer day.  After a nice walk in the park I entered Honkan, the main building of the museum, and headed to the section that interested me the most -art works from Edo Period (1603 – 1868).

The first thing I found was ukiyoe (meaning “floating world”) by Hiroshige, one of the most celebrated ukiyoe artists.  As I looked at it, I thought of my friend, Mary, who loved his work.  She told me that the reason why she liked Hiroshige so much was because he captured the essence of the relationship between nature and humans. For instance, in his work the size of a person is very small compared to the surrounding nature as you can see in the ukiyoe below.

Hiroshige (454x640)

Ukiyoe by Hiroshige

Hokusai is another famous ukiyoe artist of the Edo period.  He is best known for the ukiyoe series, “Thirty Views of Mt. Fuji” which includes the masterpiece, “Great Wave off Kanagawa.”  You can find one of many prints of this masterpiece here.

One of his works on display that day at the museum was an ukiyoe of swimming turtles.  It was so vivid that I could feel the movement of the turtles in the chilly and pristine water.

Ukiyoe by Hokusai

Ukiyoe by Hokusai

The rest of the section consisted of decorative arts from the Edo period, such as ceramics, kimono, and metal work.  This was a period when arts flourished, because of the stable government and economy established by Tokugawa shogunate.  Artists cultivated traditional arts while exploring new styles and art forms.  It was also during this time Kabuki theater, a classical Japanese dance-drama, emerged.  One can imagine a rich and unique culture of Edo people through their arts.

By the time I finished with the Edo period section, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to see even half of the place in one day.  It was a quite large museum with over 110,000 objects.  Among them were samurai armors and swords.

samurai armor

samurai armor

samurai sword

samurai sword

Downstairs there was a large section dedicated to Buddhist arts. This Kannon (Guanyin) was particularly beautiful with her warm and open face.  Kannon is a symbol of compassion in Buddhism and usually represented in artwork as female.



After a few hours of stay I decided to head home.  As I was leaving, a middle-aged man gave me a brochure with information of upcoming exhibits and various facilities in the museum.   It showed that there was a tea garden behind Honkan, which seemed interesting but was closed on that day.  I thought of coming back again, possibly next spring during the cherry blossom season, to explore the rest of the museum.  That’d be a beautiful time to visit Tokyo.

If you’re interested in Japanese culture, Tokyo National Museum won’t disappoint you.  After all, what better way to learn about people than through their arts?  As my art therapist friend used to say, “Art is an expression of the soul.”


4 Responses to “Tokyo National Museum: The best place to see Japanese art”

  1. david October 23, 2015 at 10:11 am #

    Very valuable info. Good personal story too, which I encourage threading throughout the posts. Travelers lives are the most interesting.


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