Experience Kyoto: Museums

Kyoto is a city of many layers of Japanese culture accumulated through time. The cultural experience of the people in each historical layer can be found chronicled in every corner of the city. However, we cannot help but see that modern society’s infatuation with technology and economic growth is causing the abrupt loss of these myriad memories ingrained within the city and its architecture. They are contained in fragile elements like paper, wood, and clay walls and their succession to future generations is by no means assured. We need to redevelop the mind-set and spirit with which to appreciate these qualities that make up the true nature of our culture.
— Kinoshita Ryoichi, KJ 27
Kyoto has a wealth of beauty which is not surpassed anywhere in the world. Once more we touch on one of the fundamental differences between Europe and the Far East. Florence is Western beauty displayed for all to see; Kyoto is Eastern; its beauty is concealed, a secret to be wrested from it little by little. …the things that matter at Kyoto are tucked away in little valleys, in green alcoves between the folds of the hills. Its beauties do not present themselves, but have to be sought out.
— Fosco Maraini from Meeting with Japan, I960

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Here we list Kyoto museums, some well-known / some less so, but nevertheless well worth knowing about, and visiting according to your particular interests while in the city. If you plan to visit many Kansai museums, consider the Museums Grutto Pass which offers 57 Kansai museums free or discounted, valid for 3 months (Museum of Kyoto is free). Available as iPhone app.

Kyoto National Museum
Fabulous permanent collection, but that wing is now being rebuilt, to reopen 2013 — hopefully with proper illumination, sorely lacking in the previous building.  Its Special Exhibition Hall, one of Kyoto’s classic Meiji Western-inspired edifices, is itself designated an Important Cultural Property, dating from 1897. Rodin’s Thinker graces a central plaza, and the museum is renowned for well-curated special art shows, mostly historical, providing fascinating insights into Kyoto’s cultural traditions. Their online gallery is presented in five languages.

Located just across the road from Sanjusangendo, close by teahouses & gardens of Chisakuin temple.

Museum of Kyoto
Three sections: a historical museum with an excellent model of the original Rashomon gate, among other informative displays; an art gallery showing contemporary Japanese and Western-style works; and a hall based on Kyoto’s film history, with regular showings (notably, Ozu as quintessential Kyoto director). Part of the museum is in the former Bank of Japan building, one of the distinctive Meiji-period buildings on Sanjo.

Kyoto International Manga Museum
A joint project of Kyoto City and Kyoto Seika University, the Kyoto International Manga Museum was established on the site of the former Tatsuike Primary School; has fascinating ongoing exhibitions and events, and houses a unique research collection, also the “Wall of Manga” for simply browsing Japanese and international publications.

“To commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Manga Mmuseum, we are offering a discount of 20% to citizens of the city of Kyoto between November 25, 2011 and March 31, 2012 (please show an official document with your address to the entrance staff).”

Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art
In Okazaki, beside Heian-Jingu’s humongous red  torii gate.

“The Collection Gallery exhibits selected works of nihonga (Japanese-style painting), yōga (Western-style painting), prints, sculpture, crafts (ceramics, textiles, metalworks, wood and bamboo works, lacquers and jewelry) and photography from the museum collection. Also shown are outstanding and monumental works of modern art in Japan, as well as modern and contemporary European and American art.”

Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
Originally “Kyoto Enthronement Memorial Museum of Art” (celebrating the accession of Emperor Hirohito in 1928), which opened in 1933 as the second large public art museum in Japan. Hosts important special shows, plus a wide variety of exhibitions often by local or national art associations (and art universities’ graduation shows, in February).

Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts
The Fureaikan — in the basement of tradeshow venue Miyako Messe building, introduces 67 highly-evolved crafts of Kyoto. The space itself is not exactly a traditional context, but the museum has informative step-by-step examples of processes, videos of craftspeople at work, superb items of each craft, and a library and shop — and admission is free.

Hosomi Museum
An excellent private museum in Okazaki, close by Heian Shrine

“Based on the collection of the late Osaka industrialist, Hosomi Ryo (first generation Kokoan), and features some 1000 works of Japanese art representing almost all major time periods and categories. Notable items include Heian and Kamakura Buddhist/Shinto art, Muromachi ink painting, Negoro lacquer ware and tea ceremony kettles, Momoyama ceramics and cloisonne, as well as Edo painting such as Rimpa and Ito Jakuchu. In all genres, world-class pieces can be found.”

Kawai Kanjiro’s House
The eclectic former home and studio of ceramicist (also “calligrapher, sculptor, writer and philosopher”) Kawai Kanjiro, a key figure in the 1920s/30s Mingei (Folk Craft) movement, who refused “National Living Treasure” status. You can see his work on display as well as his 8-chambered noborigama (“climbing”  kiln). Drop by en-route to Kiyomizu Temple and “Teapot Lane” (Chawan-zaka).

Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum
“The first museum in Japan to take as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonné, makie lacquerware and Kyoto Satsuma Ware artworks of the late Edo and Meiji period.”

Namikawa Cloisonné Museum
The former home of the master Namikawa Yasuyuki in the Higashiyama district, close to Heian Jingu Shrine. Find out more about Japanese cloisonné enamels here.

Ryukoku Museum Part of Ryukoku University’s superb collection based on the Otani archaeological expeditions to Dunhuang and other sites in early 1900s.  Includes full-size original glowing color digital reconstruction of Bezeklik cave as featured in KJ 74, Silk Roads. Housed in a state-of-the-art building, opposite Ryu-dai’s mother ship, Jodo-shinshu’s World Heritage listed Nishi-honganji Temple (Otani Kozui was the temple’s 22nd Abbott).

Kyoto Seishu Netsuke Museum
Highly recommended. Collections of mostly contemporary netsuke in a wonderful old samurai residence. Only open certain times of the year so be sure to check the website.

Sumiya Motenashi Museum
Designated an Important Cultural Property, the Sumiya is one of the last surviving examples of ageya architecture in Japan (buildings that served as high-end restaurants where geisha and taiyu would perform).

Kyoto Museum for World Peace
Operated by the huge private Ritsumeikan University; a valuable local reminder of how fortunate Kyoto was, in being spared the wholesale destruction of WWII…

“While movements toward attaining a “world without nuclear weapons,” are gaining momentum, the extent of these movements has been limited to some arms reduction and strategic efforts, and we have not even reached global agreement on the issue. The desperate situation of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake has shown us that we have not even adequately addressed the “peaceful utilization of nuclear energy.””

The Koryo Museum of Art
In Kitaku, by the Kamo River: a superb collection of mainly Korean arts and crafts, including pottery and porcelain, furniture, wooden carvings, stone images, and paintings. (Website in Japanese)

Raku Museum
Four-hundred-and-fifty years of teabowl mastery, over 15 generations. Not far from the Ura Senke tea ceremony school/Chado Research Center, and Nishijin Textile Center.


Elsewhere in Kansai


Miho Museum
In Shiga, a unique architectural masterpiece designed by IM Pei, owned by Japanese “new religion” Shinji-Shumei-kai, true believers in the power of sheer beauty. Absolutely awesome collection, beginning with Japanese tea items but now extending all across the ancient Silk Road through Central Asia to Greece, Rome and even Egypt. Great food (the best tofu in the world according to a KJ associate editor), set in stunning surroundings. A very definite must-see.

Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park
Also in Shiga, near the Miho museum (though if you want to fit them both into one day you’d have to get to the Miho by 10am opening time – see Miho’s detailed access page). Includes The Museum of Contemporary Ceramic Arts, which often features international ceramic works “surveying new trends in ceramic art, with an international and contemporary spirit.”

Nara National Museum
Noted for an unparalleled collection of Buddhist sculpture, including National treasures, in its Meiji period building, and special exhibitions in its newer East Wing, including an annual show of treasures from the Shosoin, featuring unique items from the personal collection of 7th century Emperor  Shomu.

Museum collection online highlights, here.

The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka
Very modern, sensitively-displayed, on Nakanoshima island behind Osaka’s City Hall. Notable pages here for background on Japanese ceramics technique, and history of Chinese ceramics

Japanese Oni Exchange Museum
In Ooe, north-east of Fukuchiyama, Kyoto Prefecture. Difficult to access without road transport, but a fascinatingly eclectic/quirky collection that makes you realize oni (demons) are embedded in almost every culture’s roots. A few photos here, but not a comprehensive enough.