Most people come to Japan for its shrines, temples and food, but if you’re here, you shouldn’t miss the museums. Most of the “must-sees” are mentioned in the guidebooks (ie the National Museum in Ueno) but here are a few that are far less publicized but no less worth tracking down.
1. Amuse Museum (Tokyo) – This museum sits right outside the east gate of Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple. Some travelers in the know come here at night to take advantage of the excellent views from the building’s Bar 6. Come in the daylight, however, and you’ll be able to enter the exhibit floors, which feature rotating collections of textiles and ukiyo-e. Even the temporary displays have excellent English signage.
2. The Sea-Folk Museum (Toba) – It’s hard to get to this sprawling museum outside of Toba (on the Ise Peninsula in Mie Prefecture) without your own set of wheels but it’s worth putting out the taxi fare. Seven sections of exhibits take visitors through various aspects of Japan’s cultural links with the sea, from the ama (women pearl divers) who work the local coasts to the step-by-step process of drying bonito and seaweed. The English signage is fairly decent for a museum so far off the beaten track.
3. Rural Toy Museum (Kurashiki) – This tiny, two-floor museum won’t take you long to go through and the English signage is virtually non-existent. But it’s a fascinating look at Japan’s traditional toy culture, from daruma dolls to spinning tops to kites used for special occasions. You’ll hear a lot of Japanese uttering “natsukashii” while you’re here, and while you might not appreciate the “nostalgia” factor as much, the hand-crafted works are beautiful to peruse. The on-site gift shop has a wide selection of goodies.
4. Bashofu Center (Okinawa) – Less a museum than a working craft mill, the Bashofu Center is hidden among groves of banana trees in Kijoka Village, perfect to take advantage of the plant’s stringy fibers which are used to weave the island’s signature kimono. The entire process is explained in one of the best dubbed movies I have ever seen in a Japanese tourist facility. Downstairs, the small front room doubles as both an exhibit hall and gift shop (as well as video viewing lounge). Upstairs, you can see the women at work dyeing and spinning the banana fibers.
5. Doburoku Festival Museum (Shirakawago) – Alright, the attraction here is admittedly the alcohol, as your admission gets you a free taste of doburoku, unrefined sake used in the local festivals. But the process of making the sake itself is rather interesting and is shown to visitors (by video, dubbed in English) upon entrance. The hall itself holds colorful materials used in the festivals. The staff here doesn’t speak much English themselves but they’re extremely enthusiastic and welcoming. Perhaps they’ve been drinking a bit of the doburoku … 🙂