Shinjuku Samurai Museum: Tokyo Highlight or Gimmick?

The Samurai Museum is located in Shinjuku, Tokyo, with exhibits featuring swords & armor, and a sword battle experience. In this review, we’ll cover whether it’s worth the money and time. Most importantly, we’ll offer feedback as to whether this attraction in Tokyo’s notorious Kabukicho district is actually a bona-fide museum, or just a tourist trap.

Its location near the awesome Robot Restaurant (something we recommend to everyone visiting Japan) makes the Shinjuku Samurai Museum convenient for a pre-show option, but it’s not exactly reassuring for a museum experience. Kabukicho is considered Shinjuku’s red light district, and it doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a place of culturally authentic experiences. Reading that this is located in the red light district may make this a non-starter if you’re traveling with a family, but it’s not nearly as shady as you might expect. During the day, you’ll see a ton of families in this area.

What made me apprehensive about Samurai Museum was the ~$16/person admission price. This is expensive by Japan museum standards, as even the best museums in Tokyo tend to charge around $5 for the permanent exhibits, and I assume it’s due to the location in a very touristy area, and the subject matter of the museum. I questioned whether this was a gimmick and cash grab to exploit Western tourists who would be lured by the “exotic” appeal of the topic.

Figuring I could write about the museum from this angle even before visiting, that’s ultimately what made it easier to stomach that high admission price. Nevertheless, I went in with an open mind, hoping that this wouldn’t be substantively hollow or, worse yet, a kitschy experience to reinforce tourist preconceptions about samurai.

Upon entering the museum, we were advised of the next guided tour time, and asked to wait for that in the lobby. This area was nicely presented, and created a good initial impression. After a few minutes our group filled with around 10 people, all tourists.

This was expected, but it’s something I mention because this is absolutely what you should expected. If you’re looking for the kind of museum that attracts locals and Japanese school groups, you’re barking up the wrong tree. In fact, you’re barking up the wrong tree with this area of Shinjuku, in general. Aside from late-night locations catering to salarymen, Kabukicho caters to tourists.

If this is not what you had in mind, our strong recommendation would be to head to Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park instead. That museum is exquisite, and highly recommended irrespective of whether you do Samurai Museum. Its samurai exhibits offer more educational insight and showcase a number of gorgeous, authentic armaments. And samurai are just one topic there in a broad survey of Japan’s history and culture.

Our tour of the Samurai Museum began by taking us through several different rooms featuring armor, helmets, and swords. Most of these are reproductions, accurately modeled after genuine articles from Kamakura and Edo periods. On the one hand, it’s a bit disappointing to learn what you’re viewing isn’t the real deal. On the other hand, it’s probably for the best that national treasures of Japan aren’t being stored in a Kabukicho location nestled in the midst of love hotels.

The display I found the most fascinating was that of guns used by samurai in Japan. The presentation here explained how guns were introduced by Portuguese traders in 1543, replicated by Japanese sword-smiths within a short time thereafter, and how this altered the trajectory of battle and Japanese martial arts thereafter. In particular, this exhibit felt nuanced and was more than I expected from the museum.

The tour was satisfying and reassuring to the extent that it didn’t simply glamorize samurai and tell tourists what they wanted to hear. To the contrary, it seemed like an effort was made to clarify some misconceptions about samurai, and our guide presented a fairly good amount of history. He was passionate about the topic, friendly, and kept things engaging. (There was even a joke about Tom Cruise!)

A lot of ground is covered during the tour, and what I most appreciated about the tour is that it offered historical context about what was happening in Japan at the time. The samurai dynamic mirrored changes at large in Japan, and our tour managed to cover a span of 700 years of Japan and samurai history within only 45 minutes. If you’re looking for an accessible way for your kids to learn about Japan’s history, this makes the Samurai Museum a pretty appealing option.

Halfway through our tour, we paused to see a sword demonstration/battle, which occurs sporadically–frequently enough that every tour gets a chance to see it at the beginning, middle, or end of their experience.

The sword battle is exactly what you’d expect it to be. An actor demonstrating sword-handling techniques before an over-acted ‘battle.’ This was mildly amusing for us as adults (and that seemed to be the general reaction among adults in the room), but would be a huge hit with kids.

There was also an opportunity to put on samurai armor and helmets and take photos. This was totally cheesy, so of course we all did it. I think it’s worth noting here that many other locations (castles and other museums, mainly) in Japan offer similar photoshoot experiences and every singly one I’ve ever seen has been an up-charge of 500 to 1000 yen. So there’s definitely some potential value in this if you want a dorky (but FUN!) photo.

All told, we ended up spending a little over an hour in the Samurai Museum, including the guided tour, sword battle, and costume photoshoot. While I don’t consider that a ton of time at the museum, the whole package of the experience made me feel satisfied with the 1,800 yen admission fee. When you compare that to the Tokyo Grutto Museum Pass, which is 2,200 yen for free and discounted admission to dozens of museums, that’s tough to justify.

Nevertheless, I’m not willing to unequivocally say the Samurai Museum was “not worth it” for that price. I think it really depends upon what you want from the visit, your itinerary for Shinjuku, and whether you’re planning on visiting other museums that tread a bit of the same ground. If you want more dynamic entertainment than a regular museum, value having a guided tour, and seeing the sword demonstration, I think it’s arguably worth the cost.

Ultimately, the Samurai Museum is a touristy experience, but it should not necessarily be dismissed out of hand as a result. The presentation is very good, and it is not as kitschy as I feared. If you are a family with kids or simply want a more approachable introduction to the topic, Samurai Museum provides an experience that balances education with entertainment. While we’d recommend the superior and topically diverse Tokyo National Museum for adults wanting a deeper dive into Japan’s history, Samurai Museum offers something far more visual and less dry. Given the interactivity and demonstrations, it’s also probably not overpriced for what it is. Check your preconceptions at the door and you’re likely to have a good time.

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.

Your Thoughts

Have you visited the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku? Did you think it was worth the money, or a bit too touristy? Would you recommend it to first-timers? 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!

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