Tokyo houses a large number of popular museums, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can encounter a whole new world of independent spaces targeting niche interests. Explore everything from preserved parasite keyrings at the Meguro Parasitological Museum, slurp plenty of ramen at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, or marvel at the works of tattoo artist Horiyoshi III at the Bunshin Tattoo Museum. Here, we've collected some of the capital's most unusual museums for you to discover.
Tokyo's best unusual museums
Established in 1931, this museum in Tokyo’s business district Nihonbashi is located on the fifth floor of Taimeiken restaurant. The former owner of the restaurant has collected more than 3,000 kites, mostly from the Edo period (1603 - 1868), of which 300 are on display. The walls and ceiling are adorned with kites from around the world. See if you can spot the Indonesian kites made from dried leaves, the ones with printed samurai motives, or even those made from styrofoam.
Run by the Bank of Japan, the Currency 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 bullions, occupation-era notes from Indonesia and the Philippines, Siberian leather money, and Thai leech coins. Want to know how much ¥100 million weighs? You'll get to lift that pile of money here, which is as thick of two phone books, kept safely inside a perspex box.
Ikejiri Institute of Design is home to the world’s first – and only – art museum dedicated to snow globes, with around 1,000 samples from around the world on display. One of the biggest attractions is the regular series of workshops, where you can make a snow globe of your own.
Curated by Horiyoshi III, a renowned master of traditional Japanese tattooing, this private collection is packed with materials related to the culture, customs, history and present-day state of skin art. The word ‘bunshin’, which appears in some of the earliest official records of Japanese history, is the ancient word for tattoos. Prehistoric clay figurines discovered in the country testify to the fact that primitive pattern tattoos existed before the Common Era.
While the Edo period gave birth to a vivid tattoo culture described as ‘living ukiyo-e’, several factors led to skin art being viewed in a negative light (hence the banning of tattoos in onsen, or hot spring baths). These factors include the use of tattoos as a form of punishment, the assumed connection between tattoos and organised crime, and the influence of Confucian morality. Standing against such prejudice, the Bunshin collection shines a light on millennia of tattoo history, as well as on the global tattoo movement of today.
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.
FREE entry (but donations are encouraged).
Jointly operated by Japan Post and the museum of the University of Tokyo, this multifaceted museum inside the KITTE complex right next to Tokyo Station remains a hidden secret despite its superb location. The Intermediatheque is one of the city's few free museums and displays the academic achievements of Japan's most celebrated educational institution, along with an extensive – and occasionally creepy – collection of zoological specimens. Think complete skeletons and taxidermy models. There's some explanatory text in English, most of it quite informative.
The museum's first floor is devoted to the history of ramen, the noodle dish that has become a national obsession in Japan. However, the main attraction is the nine ramen shops in the basement. Each shop sells a different style of ramen, ranging from Sapporo ramen (miso-based soup) from the north, to Okinawa ramen (shio-based soup) from the south. We highly recommend the miso ramen at Sumire.
¥310, primary school students ¥100, free for children aged five or younger.
The rationale for this unique museum's pairing of themes is that both were once government monopoly commodities. Tobacco gets the most exposure, with much of the space devoted to the history, manufacture and culture of the killer leaf. A detailed life-sized diorama of a tobacco shop of the Edo period (1603-1868) adds to the nostalgic atmosphere. The salt section, on the other hand, has its own draws including an impressive 1.4 tonne piece of rock salt and a replica of St. Kinga, a two-metre high statue carved from two pieces of rock salt, originally located in Poland's Wieliczka's Salt Mine (also known as Wieliczka's Underground Salt Cathedral), a UNESCO World Heritage site. Look out for the rotating special exhibitions, too. Before you visit, download the audio guide app to make the most of your visit.
¥100, primary, junior high and high school students ¥50.
The interactive Tokyo Metro Museum is located directly under the Tozai line’s railway tracks. Here you can learn about the history of Tokyo’s subway system and latest rail technology. As well as the exhibits of actual trains, including a wagon from the Ginza line’s 1,000 series and the Marunouchi line’s historic 300 series, the train simulators provide an immersive experience by transforming you into a train conductor traveling along Tokyo’s railways. Don’t forget to drop in to the museum shop, which boasts an array of subway-themed souvenirs.
¥210, junior high students to children aged four ¥100, free for children aged three or younger.
This Love Doll Museum is the passion project of photographer and love doll enthusiast Yoshitaka Hyodo. After purchasing a two-storey building, he was finally able to immerse himself completely in his interest and create a life surrounded by dolls. The collection on display in his home now comprises more than 20 treasures, including mannequins and love dolls. Last year, the exhibition was divided into different themes: the first floor's concept was military secret service, and the second floor area was decorated with medical instruments and anatomical models from a former hospital. Because this is his home, it's only open to the public three times a year (check his blog for the dates) − but if you can make it, it's well worth a visit.
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