Quite simply, this is the top museum in Tokyo, if not in all of Japan. It has the largest collection of Japanese art in the world, making it the single best place to see a vast variety of Japanese antiques and art, including lacquerware, metalwork, pottery, old kimono, samurai armor, swords, scrolls, screens, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), calligraphy, textiles, and ceramics. And that's just the main building (Japanese Gallery). Other galleries display Japanese archaeological finds, priceless treasures from Nara, art from other Asian countries, and frequent special exhibitions. As Japan's oldest museum, founded in 1872 and moved to Ueno Park in 1882, it has amassed an inventory of more than 113,000 objects, with about 3,000 items on display at any one time, which means that there's something new to see every time you visit. Schedule a morning or afternoon to visit. Barring that, concentrate on the 24 exhibition rooms of the Japanese Gallery, which you can see in 1 or 2 hours, depending on your interest. I also recommend browsing the museum shop, with its reproductions of museum masterpieces and traditional crafts by contemporary artists, including jewelry and miniature fans.
If time allows, I also highly recommend a tour of the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures (Horyuji Homotsukan), which displays priceless Buddhist treasures from the Horyuji Temple in Nara, founded by Prince Shotoku in a.d. 607. Although it seems incongruous that antiquities should find a home in a building as starkly modern as this, low lighting and spacious displays allow the bronze Buddhist statues, ceremonial Gigaku masks used in ritual dances, lacquerware, textiles, and paintings to shine.
The Asian Gallery (Toyokan) is the place to see art and archaeological artifacts from surrounding Asian regions, including China, Korea, Southeast and Central Asia, India, and Egypt. Chinese art, including jade, paintings, calligraphy, and ceramics—makes up the largest part of the collection, a reflection of China’s tremendous influence on Japanese art, architecture, and religion. Although exhibitions change, items on display might include Buddhas from China and Gandhara, embroidered wall hangings and cloth from India, Iranian and Turkish carpets, Thai and Vietnamese ceramics, and Egyptian relics.
The Heiseikan Gallery houses archaeological finds of ancient Japan, including pottery and Haniwa clay burial figurines of the Jomon Period (10,000 b.c.–1000 b.c.) and ornamental, keyhole-shaped tombs from the Yayoi Period (400 b.c.–a.d. 200). The Hyokeikan, built in 1909 to honor the wedding of Emperor Taisho, has occasional special exhibitions.