Japan is home to a large array of museums catering to nearly every possible taste, from enormous Tokyo collections of art and ancient artifacts to specialty museums all over the country honoring everything from bonsai to beer, natural disasters to instant ramen, kites to socks…there’s even a museum dedicated to artwork created out of sand.
Japan being a large, densely-populated country, most (but by no means all) of its museums are clustered in its biggest and most-visited cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and their environs, such as Nara. We have addressed the biggest national museums of Tokyo in a separate post; what follows is a sampling of nine museums around the country that may be of particular interest. But if none of these museums appeal, not to worry: Japan is said to be home to more than 5,500 museums, so a visitor is bound to find something of interest.
The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama, a small, new city in the highlands off the west coast, was built near where dinosaur skeletons began being unearthed in 1989. With 30 full skeletons standing in the main, egg-shaped building, the museum is considered to be one of the three top dinosaur museums in the world.
Not all museums need be in buildings, and the Hakone Open-Air Museum makes that argument beautifully, its 17 landscaped acres of land being home to about 400 20th century sculptures by France’s Rodin, Spain’s Picasso and Britain’s Henry Moore, whose (indoor) collection here ranks as the greatest collection of his distinctive, revolutionary work. In addition, Hakone is home to an enormous collection of Picasso paintings, also housed safely inside. And when your feet get tired, Hakone is home to some delightful onsen.
Also situated outdoors, the Museum Meiji Mura around Nagoya is a gorgeous homage to one of Japan’s most crucial ages, the Japanese renaissance known as the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). More than 60 structures, including a brewery, churches, homes, a prison and even a hotel built by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, are among the structures laid out in an attempt to give the sense of what the Meiji was all about.
The Ohara Museum of Art in Okayama, between Hiroshima and Kobe, is the oldest private museum in Japan, and a remarkable collection of Western, Chinese, Oriental, and Japanese art. Established in 1930 with paintings by Degas, Chagall, Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet and Pissarro – there are even Monet haystacks and waterlilies, and an El Greco – this museum rivals or even surpasses any number of better-known Western institutions, making for an unexpected surprise for lovers of the Impressionists.
By contrast, the paintings in the Otsuka Museum of Art are all repricas, and proudly so: This is a museum dedicated to displaying reproductions of European art masterworks from antiquity (including cave paintings!) to the modern era. Built for nearly half a billion dollars by industrialist Masahito Ōtsuka, the museum sounds impossibly ersatz and kitschy, but Otsuka’s idea was to give Japanese who can’t travel abroad the chance to see the whole context of Western art history in one place; as an educational experience, it has a lot of fans.
The Kyoto National Museum was built in 1897, and ranks with the best of Tokyo’s museums, with its large collection of pre-modern traditional Japanese and Asian art from calligraphy to painting to ceramics to sculpture. And although Kyoto is almost entirely associated with classical Japanese art, the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (MOMAK) is well known around the country and around the world for its fine collection of 20th and 21st century artwork. There is a special emphasis on the Kansai region (Western Japan), but this museum is anything but provincial, and its exhibitions rotate on a monthly basis. Recent exhibitions featured modern Buddhist painting, post-war German film posters and contemporary Japanese jewelry.
In nearby Nara, home to the Todaiji Temple (with its enormous Buddha statue, the Daibutsu) and the world-famous Deer Park, the Nara National Museum is a repository of Buddhist art and artifacts that is well worth seeing while you’re visiting the area.
Finally, no list of museums would be complete without a mention of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Built to commemorate the August 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II, the Museum is split into two wings, one of which explains Hiroshima before the bombing, as well as the details of the decisions that led to the bomb’s use, while the other wing explores the devastating aftermath of the bomb. A similar memorial is in Nagasaki to the south, the other site of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Japan. Both are counted as highlights of any trip to Japan, and Hiroshima’s is said to draw more than one million visitors a year.