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Explore Royal Artwork at The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozokan


Located within Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds, The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozokan, is home to a substantial number of cherished artworks that were donated to the nation by Japan’s imperial family. Thanks to the museum’s meticulous preservation efforts and curated exhibitions, visitors can take a glimpse into the imperial family’s history and heritage through incredible and rare artwork.


Artistic imperial treasures from the world’s oldest royal family

Japan’s Imperial Household is the oldest continuous monarchy in the world. Naturally, there have been many gifts to the family including paintings, calligraphy and sculptures to celebrate numerous occasions. Instead of keeping this collection private, the Imperial family donated a number of pieces to the Japanese government, and in 1993 the Sannomaru Shozokan was established. 


Sannomaru Shozokan rotates displayed works to maintain preservation. After a piece goes on display, it will be returned to storage for at least one year.
Photo credit: Melanie Sweeney


Home to over 6,100 works, Sannomaru Shozokan is the only museum dedicated to preserving and displaying these imperial treasures. Since 2021, the museum had been temporarily closed for renovations, and in 2023, Sannomaru Shozokan partially re-opened with new exhibition rooms and storage facilities. In commemoration, Sannomaru Shozokan is currently holding an exhibition titled “The Aesthetics of the Imperial Court: Beauty Passed Down through the Ages.” This exhibition is broken into four phases featuring different themes and items, and will be held until June 23, 2024. 


Phase three: View artwork passed down through time


Although phases one and two of the exhibition have already ended, phase three of Sannomaru Shozokan’s exhibition – “Artworks that Adorned the Early Modern Imperial Palaces” – is scheduled from March 12 to May 12, 2024. Due to the large number of pieces to be included, part three will be broken into two periods: the first from March 12–April 7, and the second from April 9–May 12, 2024.


During the first part of the exhibition (March 12–April 7), folding screens featuring scenes from “The Tale of Genji”, the world’s oldest novel written by Murasaki Shikibu, an 11th century court lady, will be on display. The story, known as “Genji Monogatari” in Japanese, follows the life of Hikaru Genji, exploring the complexities of aristocratic society and relationships during the Heian period (794–1185) in Japan, with a focus on themes of love, beauty and the fleeting nature of life.


Although set against a very different time period and culture, The Tale of Genji explores many themes common in modern dramas and movies.


An incense set also displayed in the exhibition is thought to have been a bridal gift from the 18th century. This particular set features the chrysanthemum – the symbol of the imperial household – and is intricately crafted using a technique known as “maki-e,” where pictures or patterns are drawn in lacquer and embellished with sprinkled gold or silver powder. Incense sets like this are used during a traditional “kodo” ceremony, which is the art of appreciating incense in Japan. During the ceremony, a game called “kumiko” is performed where participants identify the scents of the incense being burnt.


Both pieces will be displayed during the first half (March 12–April 7) of phase three, but keep in mind that there are plenty of unique pieces to see at the museum in the second half (April 9–May 12) as well.


For further information, please check the exhibition’s website.


Phase four: Enjoy Sannomaru Shozokan’s finest imperial masterworks


Phase four of the exhibition is planned for May 21 to June 23, 2024: “Selected Masterworks of Sannomaru Shozokan.”


Visitors to Sannomaru Shozokan during this period will encounter a piece known as “Chinese Lions,” a pair of six-panel folding screens that depict three mythical Chinese-style lions known as “karashishi.” While the pair appears to be created by a single artist, surprisingly Kano Eitoku (1543–1590), one of the most prominent painters in the history of Japanese art, was only responsible for the right screen depicting two Chinese lions. The left screen was added by Kano Eitoku’s great-grandson Kano Tsunenobu (1636–1713), and it has been presented as a set ever since. Both Eitoku and Tsunenobu are artists of the Kano School, one of the most famous schools of Japanese painting and home to the official painters of the shogunate.


Karashishi are mythical creatures thought to have the power to repel evil spirits.


Another set of famous pieces to be featured during phase four is Ito Jakuchu’s (1716–1800) “Doshoku Saie” (Colorful Realm of Living Beings), a thirty-piece set of hanging scrolls featuring highly detailed animal and nature paintings. Originally started around 1757, it took Jakuchu nearly ten years to complete all thirty scrolls, which he then gifted to Shokoku-ji Temple in northern Kyoto Prefecture. While the museum houses all thirty pieces, four will be on display during the exhibition.


The curators at Sannomaru Shozokan hope to be able to display all thirty hanging scrolls simultaneously one day.


For those interested in visiting Sannomaru Shozokan, tickets for the date and time of your visit must be purchased in advance via the official ticketing site.  Keep in mind that due to the popularity of some pieces, tickets might sell out quickly, so make sure to check when they go on sale to secure your ticket.


For further information about the exhibition, operating hours and other information concerning Sannomaru Shozokan, please check their official homepage.


Introducing Tokyo National Museum, Sannomaru Shozokan’s sister museum

For visitors interested in Sannomaru, the Tokyo National Museum – also home to artwork from the Imperial Collections – is another great destination. Established in 1872, the Tokyo National Museum is the oldest national museum in Japan and one of the largest in the world, with an extensive collection of artworks, artifacts and historical documents. Located in Ueno Park, the museum is easily accessible from Ueno Station. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket booth by the Main Gate on the day of your visit, but keep in mind that special exhibitions may require a separate ticket.

Tokyo National Museum boasts a huge collection that includes 89 national treasures.

Even if you missed out on Sannomaru Shozokan’s “The Aesthetics of the Imperial Court: Beauty Passed Down through the Ages” exhibition, don’t worry – the museum holds different exhibitions regularly. Please remember that because different works are featured in every exhibition, each one is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so be sure to check the museum’s website well in advance. Finally, as the museum's renovations continue toward completion and full re-opening in 2026, the curators eagerly await the day that they can display even more wonderful artworks for visitors to enjoy.

*All works featured in this article are the national property of Japan, housed in the Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozokan.



    About the author


    Author: Melanie Sweeney
    Profile: Born and raised in the United States, Melanie moved to Japan in 2014 and has stayed ever since. You can often find her exploring the city, enjoying afternoon tea with friends or investigating the latest cultural event nearby.





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