Best heritage museums in Tokyo

Tokyo's history museums are a good portal into the city's glorious past: walk into heritage buildings and discover how life was like back in the Edo period

Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
Photo: Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum
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Originally a fishing village, Edo was the foundation of modern-day Tokyo. It started to prosper in the early 17th century and later went through a modernisation phase in the Meiji era (1868-1912), which paved the way for the city to become the megalopolis we know today.

With contemporary Tokyo’s edgy glass-and-steel outlook, it’s hard to imagine how Tokyoites of yore once lived and worked. It’s a good thing then that there are museums dedicated to documenting and preserving the old Tokyo. Through their faithful recreations, you now get to walk down the narrow alleys of Edo, enter old tenement houses, learn about the famous ukiyo-e (a traditional genre of Japanese art) artists, discover how the city developed its infrastructure and more.

Also see: Unusual museums in Tokyo

Walk down memory lane

Museums

Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum

icon-location-pin Ryogoku

Towering over the Ryogoku neighbourhood, this unique building, designed after a raised-floor-type warehouse, houses the largest collection of exhibits covering Tokyo’s history in the Edo period (1603-1868). Stroll across a life-size model of the former Nihonbashi bridge and admire the large-scale replica of the Nakamura-za kabuki theatre facade from above. The painstakingly researched large dioramas of city quarters will make it easier for you to understand the different lifestyles and occupations of the city’s former residents.

The exhibition is not only visually stunning, it also offers many hands-on experiences: how would you like to climb into a traditional palanquin (a box-shaped form of human-powered transport) used by the Tsuyama domain, or hold a standard used by Edo’s firefighters? Make sure to grab an audio guide or participate in a guided tour to truly immerse yourself in everything this large and comprehensive museum has to offer.

Museums

Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

icon-location-pin Koganei

Take a stroll through a lush green park while taking in the landscape of bygone days at this picturesque offshoot of the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Over seven hectares, the land is divided into three areas, which house 30 carefully reconstructed and preserved buildings, covering architectural designs between the 17th and 20th centuries.

Walk through a merchant’s town in the eastern area and discover flower, stationery and umbrella shops, as well as a traditional public bathhouse. The central and west zones of the park showcase the homes of the upper classes, such as part of the villa of former politician Korekiyo Takahashi and the residence of the 11th head of the Mitsui family, Takakimi Mitsui. All of them are accessible, but prepare for lots of slipping in and out of shoes.

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Art, Galleries

Sumida Hokusai Museum

icon-location-pin Ryogoku

This metallic structure houses the Sumida Hokusai Museum, dedicated to Sumida ward’s most famous son, the artist Katsushika Hokusai, who was an ukiyo-e painter and printmaker in the Edo era. Admire high-quality replicas of his fabulous woodblock prints, including the internationally renowned and now iconic ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ as well as ‘A Mild Breeze of a Fine Day’ – both are part of the print series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’.

The permanent exhibition is set in a single room and displays works organised according to Hokusai’s different stages in life – they are accompanied by videos and multilingual touchscreen panels. The highlight is a life-size diorama of Hokusai’s atelier, showing the master painter in his early eighties together with his daughter.

Don’t miss the temporary exhibitions on the third and fourth floors as well, which are bigger and boast original artworks of Hokusai (additional entrance fee required).

Museums

Fukagawa Edo Museum

icon-location-pin Kiyosumi

Step into a life-size reproduction of the streets of Fukagawa’s Sagacho area during the late Edo period between 1830 and 1844. Located at the banks of Sumida River, Fukagawa was a typical neighbourhood lined with tenement houses and narrow alleys.

Walk through the replica town and enter the many different homes to get a feel of what life was like more than 150 years ago. Your experience is accompanied by sound effects − calls from traders, meowing cats or chirping birds − and don’t be surprised when it suddenly gets dark, since this museum demonstrates a full day in the residents’ life.

As soon as you enter the grounds, friendly English-speaking volunteers will be more than happy to guide you through the ‘streets’ of Sagacho. You’ll learn how to stow away futons, see how commoners earned their living and more.

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Museums, History

Tokyo Waterworks Historical Museum

icon-location-pin Hongo

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.

Museums

Shitamachi Museum

icon-location-pin Ueno

With almost 40 years in business, this museum, located by the Shinobazu pond in Ueno, may not be the fanciest in our selection but its nostalgic charm adds perfectly to the experience.

It focuses on life in Tokyo’s Shitamachi (an old name referring to the city’s former working-class area in the east) between the pivotal Meiji restoration of 1868 and the Great Earthquake of 1923. Here you’ll find life-size replicas of a merchant’s house as well as a small tenement building of the Taisho period (1912-26), which sports a candy shop and a coppersmith’s workshop.

Upstairs you can play with some traditional toys, sit down in a fully furnished model of a living/dining kitchen (a typical layout of a Japanese home from around 1955), take on the role of an attendant at the entrance to a public bathhouse, or gaze at everyday objects from the early to mid 20th century.

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