Some of the best museums in the city such as Tokyo National Museum, Museum of Western Art and Edo-Tokyo Museum charge an admission fee, and they are worth it. But fact is, visiting all the museums in Tokyo – and there are many, including the weird and the wonderful ones – can get pricey.
The good news is, our capital has a large variety of institutions which are completely free to enter. From vintage fire trucks and original police cars to picture books and chocolate, there are lots to see without paying a single yen. So spend some fun yet educational hours at these free museums, and save your budget for a cheap Michelin-starred meal. And if you're still contemplating on whether to fork out that admission charge for the city's major museums, you'll be glad to know that they offer free-entry on selected days.
RECOMMENDED: 88 things to do in Tokyo
Tokyo's best free museums
Run by the Tokyo Fire Department, this free museum is dedicated to firefighting and disaster prevention throughout the centuries in Japan. While the basement houses some of the most stunning vintage fire trucks in Japan’s history, kids will likely prefer exploring the third floor. Here they can dress up as little firefighters, explore the cockpit of a fire truck equipped with working sirens and participate in a virtual rescue mission while being seated in a helicopter.
After exploring a large diorama outfitted with lights, sounds and videos showing an emergency fire demonstration, children can practice their skills in extinguishing a fire in the simulation corner. You can also head up to the tenth floor, which provides great views of Tokyo Sky Tree, the skyline of Shinjuku and even Mt Fuji on a clear day.
Echoing the long arm of the law, the Police Museum stretches across six floors, informing visitors about the history and the work of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Kids will find this an adventurous place to visit as they get to change into (mini) police uniforms upon arrival and pose beside a real patrol car, sit on an authentic Honda police motorcycle with flashing lights, or in the cockpit of a Harukaze helicopter. On the second and third floors, kids can learn about traffic safety in a cycling simulator and tips on crime prevention through a diorama. Through the many interactive exhibits, children and parents alike are able to understand a police officer’s work, particularly by taking a look inside the replica of a small neighbourhood police station. Most of the exhibits have English captions, and audio guides in a number of languages (English, Korean, Mandarin) are available as well.
People’s lives changed drastically for the better at the beginning of the Edo period under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the development of the city’s water networks soon followed. This museum traces and explains the more than 400-year history of Tokyo’s waterworks.
First, head up to the second floor where you’ll find ancient maps of the original water system (known as ‘josui’ in Japanese) and its wooden pipes. You can even walk through a recreation of traditional homes in the Edo period which features a replica well (a system used to access groundwater in the olden days). The exhibits on the first floor depict the history and the technical aspects of the modern waterworks from the Meiji era until now – they feature various public wells and a sample of Japan’s largest cast-iron pipe.
This museum was opened in 1953 by Satoru Kamegai, a doctor who was overwhelmed by patients afflicted by parasites caused by the poor sanitary conditions which were widespread in post-war Japan. This unusual venture displays some 300 samples of 45,000 parasites he collected. The second floor has a display of an 8.8m tapeworm taken from the body of a 40-year-old man, with a ribbon next to it to emphasise just how long 8.8m really is.
Better yet, the shop sells parasites preserved in plastic keyrings − we are not kidding. Entrance is free, but the museum encourages donations. Go ahead and drop your contribution into the clearly marked donation box.
Get the full chocolate 101 at this new multi-purpose establishment inside Chinatown’s amusement facility Yokohama Daisekai. You can follow all the steps of the factory’s skilled chocolatiers through large windows, enjoy freshly-made treats and drinks in the café, shop for some original goods, or catch up on culture and history in the chocolate museum.
To really nuture your inner chocoholic, why not participate in one of their workshops (reservation required), and make your own under the guidance of patient patissiers? Otherwise, their rose-shaped chocolates or chocolates with stunning marble design make the perfect present for a loved one with a sweet tooth.
Run by the Bank of Japan, this museum traces the long history of money in the country, from the use of imported Chinese coins in the late Heian period (12th century) to the creation of the yen and the central bank in the second half of the 19th century. See beautiful, Edo-era, calligraphy-inscribed gold oblongs, occupation-era notes from Indonesia and the Philippines, Siberian leather money and Thai leech coins. Or get the feel for some serious dosh by lifting ¥100 million (about the size of two phone books), safely stored inside a perspex box.
This fab museum is devoted to Japanese advertising, from fascinating 17th-century woodblock prints to modern product-placement techniques. Although English explanations are limited, the images largely speak for themselves. Inspired technology allows touch-screen browsing of historic ads and on-demand viewing of award-winning commercials from the past three decades. The museum also contains a library of over 100,000 digitised images.
This earthquake-prone city is long overdue for a devastating trembler, so the Tokyo Fire Department has created this ‘life safety learning centre’ in its HQ to simulate a real emergency. There’s first-aid training and survival tips, but the real fun is the shaking room, the smoke maze and the only chance you’ll ever have to play with fire extinguishers without getting reprimanded. The whole thing takes around two hours, and while you can just drop in and take part, it’s advisable to reserve a place.
Any fan of Japanese candy should know the tastes of Glico (Pocky, Pretz etc). But how much do you know about their origin and production? If you're interested in that kind of thing, Glico Group has opened a museum that lets customers take tours to observe the manufacturing process of Pocky and Pretz, and even take a bash at making your own original candy (tours are free but you'll have to pay a small fee to make the candy). The tour includes 70 minutes of adventure during which you can look around the factory, enjoy a video clip showing how the chocolate is made, and browse booths that teach you interesting facts about the history of Glico. The museum is just a 45-minute train ride from Shinjuku Station and you can make reservations via their website or by phone.
This photo gallery is located next to Hanzomon Station and hosts a variety of photography exhibitions. Housed in the same building as the Japan Camera Museum and the JCII Library.
Exhibits range from flints and a tablet from Mesopotamia through Egyptian papyrus to abacuses and typewriters with interchangeable kanji keys. One highlight is a 14kg (31lb) brush made from the hair of over 50 horses. Descriptions are in Japanese.
This community centre for kids is found on the spacious premises of Mitaka's National Astronomical Observatory, and occupies a Taisho-era building that used to house leading astronomers' offices. A wide range of picture books can be viewed and browsed, while fun workshops for the young 'uns also take place regularly. Adults will want to check out the nearby observatories and a museum documenting the facility's history.
Learn about the history of Japanese animation at this Nishi-Ogikubo museum, where you can immerse yourself in a number of exhibits. It's not all standing and staring, mind – if you're the sort who wants to get involved, you can join one of the museum's anime production workshops or pick up tips at the regular talks given by industry professionals (all in Japanese, natch). The museum also boasts a library stocked with DVDs and comics that fans can enjoy, as well as an anime theatre.
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