Kyoto National Museum features traditional Japanese art and rich culture associated with the early capital of Japan. In this post, we’ll share tips for visiting this museum, photos from around the museum, and basic info on what to expect from the rotating gallery of exhibits in Kyoto National Museum.
If you’re only going to visit one traditional museum in Kyoto, this should be it. (We say “traditional” because the one topical museum you should visit, without question, is Kyoto Railway Museum.) Kyoto National Museum is a good primer for the arts, culture, and history you’re likely to encounter in Kyoto, and is a beautiful museum.
What it’s not is a history museum of Kyoto. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to find a good option for English-speakers in that regard, which is too bad given that the city has an incredibly fascinating history. Rather, Kyoto National Museum offers vignettes of the city–from which you can ascertain certain things about its history–through art and artifacts.
As with many other museums in Kyoto (at least 75% of the ones we’ve visited), photography is not allowed inside Kyoto National Museum. Hence this review being populated largely by photos of the exterior of the museum and its gardens. Those gardens are nice, but they’re not exactly the main draw of this museum.
Info & Tips
The museum is located directly across the street from Sanjusangendo Temple, which is a spot in Kyoto that we highly recommend visiting. As with that temple, the museum is near the Hakubutsukan-Sanjusangendo-mae bus stop (bus numbers 100, 206, or 208 from Kyoto Station) or is a 5 minute walk from Shichijo Station on the Keihan Line.
Kyoto National Museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., with last admission 30 minutes before closing. Like many other museums in the city, Kyoto National Museum is closed Mondays.
Note that Kyoto National Museum is open until 8 p.m. on weekends, which is a great time to visit. Since most temples close around 5 p.m., this is a convenient option for after you end your temple touring. Grab dinner in Gion, then head over to the museum.
Regardless of what time of day you visit, expect to spend 1-2 hours at Kyoto National Museum. We typically read every placard and find that it’s a full 2-hour experience for the general exhibitions. Be sure to also watch the film, which is currently an interesting look at the restoration (and meaning) of one of the museum’s pieces. English headsets are provided free of charge for that.
For the general exhibition, English audio guides are available for rental, but you need not bother with them. Unlike many other museums in Kyoto that only offer Japanese placards, almost everything here is bi-lingual.
Admission to Kyoto National Museum costs 520 yen for the general collection galleries, plus extra (depending upon the exhibit) for the special exhibitions.
If you do opt to visit Kyoto National Museum, consider either the 3-day or 3-month Kansai Grutto Museum Pass. These passes offer free access to a multitude of museums in Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and beyond. If you visit even 2 museums on the 3-day pass, you come out ahead. If you visit 3 museums on the 3-month pass, you come out ahead. (We’ll have more on these passes in a later post.)
We enjoy Kyoto National Museum a lot. I wouldn’t quite put it on par with the larger Tokyo National Museum, nor would I consider it a must-visit in Kyoto. If you have spare time on a weekend evening or find yourself templed-out, it’s definitely a strong option.
It does zero good to go through the museum’s exhibits in this review, as by the time this is published, the most recent ones we saw will already have ended. Generally speaking, the exhibits relate to the Kansai region, which encompasses Kyoto and Osaka.
You’ll find statues from temples, art that either depicts or was created in Kansai, and heirlooms owned by affluent families from Kyoto that shed light onto life in the region. Beyond that, there are a number of Cultural Properties of Japan on display, which more often than not pertain to Kyoto since it’s the cultural capital of Japan.
With that said, the biggest selling point of the museum–and one you’ll see consistently–is the Japanese sculpture galleries. It’s really unfortunate that we cannot illustrate this with photos, because these are absolutely breathtaking. Not only are the statues beautiful, but the dramatic lighting juxtaposed against the dark backdrop makes it truly a sight to behold.
You’ll see statues like these at some temples in Kyoto, but never is the presentation this impressive. Thanks to the excellent lighting and the close proximity you can get to these statues, you can see every little detail, and truly appreciate them. The exact statues that are on display in the Japanese Sculpture gallery rotates, but you’ll usually find buddhas from temples in the Kansai region.
Quite often, statues of this importance that are housed in Kyoto’s temples are only viewable if you pay to enter a subtemple, premium hall, or attend a special opening. More often than not, the admission to see those is around 500 yen, and that’s a pretty quick one-and-done experience. Kyoto National Museum is an enhanced version of that, plus several other galleries.
The final selling point of Kyoto National Museum is another biggie, and that’s the museum’s mascot, Kogata Rinnojo. Or Torarin, for short. Torarin was born from an 18th century painting done by the Rinpa school painter Ogata Korin called Toranozu.
It’s an ink painting that depicts a sitting tiger in front of a bamboo grove, and it the mascot depiction of that mischievous tiger is uncanny. You’re likely to spot this mascot in the museum’s lobby, and (fortunately) that’s the one spot where photos are allowed!
Overall, we are fans of Kyoto National Museum. It’s a place we revisit with regularity because its exhibitions change frequently and the main galleries offer a solid two hours worth of entertainment. However, this is our perspective as people who have spent a lot of time in Kyoto and have already been to every major temple, some numerous times. If it were our first visit to Japan and we were light on time, we’d likely skip this museum (seeing its counterpart in Tokyo) and instead focus our attention on Kyoto’s many temples.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kyoto National Museum, or any of the other national museums in Japan? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? 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!