The Edo-Tokyo Museum offers an interactive walk-through of Japan’s history via exhibits that present a hands-on timeline of the city from the Edo Period through modern times. In this post, we’ll review the Edo-Tokyo Museum, offer tips for visiting, and share photos from the museum.
Simply put, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world. Definitely one of my top 10 museums in the world, and my #2 museum in Japan after the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park Museum in Nagoya. We’ve done a lot of museums in Tokyo, and this is definitely our favorite, surpassing even the exceptional Tokyo National Museum and the Miraikan (both of which are dramatically different in nature, but still).
The Edo-Tokyo Museum accomplishes the rare feat of being information-dense, highly educational, and also incredibly entertaining thanks to huge models and hands-on exhibits. These make the informational placards (all of which have English translations) easier to digest. In execution, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is like a children’s museum…but for adults.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum participates in the Grutto Pass program for free/discounted museum admission, and is nearby both the Ryougoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium and Sumida Hokusai Museum, both of which are also popular points of interest in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. If you don’t purchase the Grutto Pass, admission costs 600 yen. You find more info about visiting on the museum’s official site.
To begin, we’ll do a quick walk-through, starting with the exterior of the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The building itself has a striking design, and the most succinct way I can describe it would be if Optimus Prime were an ocean-liner instead of a semi-truck. It’s sort of a brutalist with abstract post-modern style; an interesting design, but I can’t say I’m a fan.
The colossal structure enables Edo-Tokyo Museum to house full-size replicas of the Nakamura Theater and Choya Newspaper Publishing Building, plus a replica of the original Nihonbashi Bridge. Beyond that, there are homes from various era and other buildings, plus a variety of huge models. All of these give the Edo-Tokyo Museum impressive wow-factor, but that just scratches the surface on what’s contained in this museum.
The top floor of the permanent exhibit transports you to the early Edo Period, and offers a look at the city of Edo that would become Tokyo. The experience starts with gigantic, meticulously-designed models that show various districts of Edo, how these were oriented around Edo Castle, and provides context for who lived and each area, and what their lives entailed.
Against this backdrop, the Edo Zone of the museum offers insights into daily life via a display case containing a historical timeline, more models and re-creations, and a variety of artifacts. Interspersed through this section are hands on items that you can touch, lift, and even get inside (no joke!).
Proceeding on to the larger lower level, you see full-scale homes and businesses that would’ve been frequented by citizens of Edo at the time. The most fascinating of these is the newsstand/bookstore, which provides an incredibly illuminating segue into how publications and woodblock prints were made.
The step-by-step of the nishiki-e creation process is one of the most fascinating areas of the museum–despite being familiar with these woodblock prints, I had no idea how this was done prior to this exhibit.
Describing everything on 5F would make this post drag on forever. There’s a lot of interesting stuff, from a full-scale model of one of the summer festival floats to model scenes from kabuki theater to a model balloon bomb to replica Western style houses in Japan and so much more.
If you’re fascinated about what you might find, look at the Permanent Exhibition’s Highlights on the official Edo-Tokyo Museum site.
One thing I would caution against is going at too slow of a pace upstairs. The huge models are highly detailed, and it’s easy to get lost exploring their details, spotting various Easter eggs. This isn’t to say you need to race past these models, just don’t get hung up looking at stuff upstairs–the museum only gets better as you go further.
While the Edo-Tokyo Museum could absolutely be an all-day experience, the practical reality is that most tourists to Japan won’t want to budget that amount of time for it. That’s totally understandable, but it creates a potential problem if you linger in the Edo Zone.
It’d be easy to spend over an hour up there, but if you only budget 2 hours at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, that is way too much time up there. Realistically, you want to spend about 75% of your time on the lower floor (5F) of the Permanent Exhibit.
Personally, I think the lower floor’s exhibits are more fascinating and relevant to Americans (or any other English-speakers reading this). This is where you’ll find sections dedicated to the 20th century, including World War II, various natural disasters, and modern pop culture.
With several of these topics, there’s a lot of overlap between Japan and the United States. It’s interesting to see this, to learn about the Japanese perspective, and see how Japan’s culture has shaped our own. I write this not as an American who needs everything to be about America to make it interesting, but the converse: as an American who seeks broader perspectives, including how the rest of the world shapes us, and the impact of our actions on others.
Along these lines, there’s the question of how much time you should spend in the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Two hours is the bare minimum, and that will barely give you enough time to spend a decent amount of time with the hands-on exhibits (forget reading the placards). More ideally, we’d recommend 3-4 hours, which we know is a stretch for first-time visitors who may only have a few days in Tokyo.
If it helps with an itinerary, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is easy to hit after an early morning at Tsukiji Fish Market and before continuing on to Asakusa. Make Edo-Tokyo Museum your midday stop alongside Sumida Hokusai Museum before doing late afternoon at Sensoji Temple and continuing on to the Tokyo Skytree at night, perhaps.
With that as a rough itinerary, you should be able to spend ~4 hours at the two museums in the Ryogoku district. The Sumida Hokusai Museum requires significantly less time, so plan on around 3.25 hours at the Edo-Tokyo Museum and 45 minutes at the Hokusai Museum. You’ll still have plenty of time to explore Asakusa and Sensoji, so you shouldn’t feel too guilty about spending so much time at this museum.
One of the really nice touches of the museum is the free tour guide. I’m not talking a pamphlet or headset–these are volunteers who speak English (among other languages) and can offer deeper insight into what’s on display and how various events shaped Japanese history.
These guides definitely add to the richness of the experience, and can answer questions you might have about the exhibits or Japanese history. While touring the museum, we crossed paths with several guides, and their English was generally excellent. It’s remarkable that admission for this museum is only ~$5 and that cost includes a personal tour guide.
Overall, we cannot recommend the Edo-Tokyo Museum highly enough. This is really a museum for all ages and interests, and the variety of presentation methods highlights the material in a fascinating and engaging way. It’s odd to say that a museum has good pacing, but this really does–it has a way of maintaining your interest and even “tricking” you into learning. Even if you don’t care too much about the history of Japan or you’re “not a museum person,” there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It’s a Tokyo must-do.
For all of your planning needs–from places to stay to things to do and much more–please consult our Ultimate Tokyo, Japan City Guide. If you’re planning a visit to other cities, please check out my other posts about Japan.
Have you visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum? Did you think it was worth the time and money? How much time did you spend here? Would you recommend the Edo-Tokyo Museum to first-timers in Japan? Any additional tips or thoughts from your visit to add? If you haven’t been to Tokyo, does this interest you? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!