Travel Through Japanese History at 3 Imperial Museums

  • SPOT
  • Over the years, Japan has been very successful in safeguarding its historical lineage. In fact, the country has 5,614 museums which are home to a growing collection of important Japanese cultural treasures. So, if you are planning to take a tour into some of these museums, make sure not to miss the National Imperial Museum of Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo.

    National Imperial Museums: A BRIEF HISTORY

    The development of museums in Japan began when the country opened its doors to the West during the Meiji era (1868-1912). It was during this period when the new word bijutsukan (art museum) emerged. The journeys of decorated Japanese officials both in Europe and the United States exposed them to the art of preservation and exhibition of art that represents the history and culture of a particular locality. Josiah Conder, the father of modern Japanese architecture, mentored Katayama Tokuma who would later become the architect of these imperial museums in Japan–the heart of the national art collection.


    Established in 1889, the Imperial Museum of Nara (Nara National Museum) is one of Japan’s national museums which houses important Buddhist art. Its collections include sculptures, paintings, writings, decorative arts, archaeological works, and Chinese ancient ritual bronzes.

    Every autumn, the museum holds the Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures which lasts for two weeks. Daigoji Temples alone contributed to the museum’s collection of 69,378 historical documents (designated as national treasures). In an exhibit featuring Daigoji, 62 pieces out of 189 displayed pieces are National Treasures while 85 are Important Cultural Properties.

    Nara National Museum


    The Imperial National Museum of Kyoto (Kyoto National Museum) was built in 1897. It features a vast collection of fine arts such as sculptures, paintings and calligraphy, handicrafts (i.e. pottery, fabrics, lacquerwares and metalworks) and archaeological pieces. There are 12,000 pieces of artwork of which 6,000 are on display and over 200,000 negatives and color transparencies in the photographic archives. About 230 pieces of the fine arts collection are considered as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.

    Kyoto National Museum


    Built in 1872, the Imperial Museum of Tokyo (now Tokyo National Museum) boasts more than 110,000 pieces of art works to include paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, and archaeological objects, which is a large number in Asia, particularly in Japan. Of the total number of collections, 87 are National Treasures which are showcased in various special exhibitions. Included also in the collection are 634 Important Cultural Properties.

    Tokyo National Museum

    Visiting the Imperial Museums in Succession

    Although Tokyo houses the oldest and biggest museum in the country, it is interesting to see the succession of capital cities from the Nara Period to the Edo Period. Nara was the oldest capital city of Japan from 710-794. By the 8th century, the capital city was moved to Kyoto as more powerful Buddhists became more involved in the affairs of the government. As war and calamities such as earthquake and fire became prevalent in Kyoto, Emperor Meiji decided to move to Edo (Tokyo) in 1869. Soon the emperor established the city as the capital of Japan in 1889–seventeen years later after the first museum was built in 1972. Thus, it is highly recommended to visit all of the imperial museums from Nara to Kyoto to Tokyo.

    Admission Fees

    It is a standard in all three imperial museums to waive admission fees to high school students and below. Furthermore, discounts are given to all university students and to those who are touring in groups. General admission fee ranges from 520 yen to 620 yen and a separate special admission fee is incurred during special exhibitions. Since it is pretty much impossible to look at all the collections in one whole day, annual passes and membership fees (about 10,000 yen) are offered to all museum enthusiasts.

    Related Articles:
    112 Things to Do in Kyoto, a City of Culture, Tradition, and Breathtaking Beauty, in 2018
    Travel to the Past with 4 Extraordinary Historical Museums in Tokyo
    A Trip to the Past: Visit a Samurai Town