What to Do: National Science Museum

We had a great afternoon here with the kids, now ages 7 and 10. We spent about four hours at this museum, including a quick lunch in the cafeteria, so that makes this a pretty good rainy/cold afternoon place. You get dinosaur skeletons (T-Rex, et al), lots of hands-on science experiments and a location about 10-15 minutes walk from the subway and/or the Ueno Zoo.

The museum has two primary areas to explore, the Main Building and the New Building. In addition, there are two outdoor exhibits worth checking out.

Outdoors

You can't miss the gigantic, life-size steel blue whale, held aloft in a diving position by sturdy steel posts. The eyes are about the size of basketballs, and the mouth is near ground level. Seeing whales on the Discovery Channel is cool enough, but to confront the unbelievable size of the thing in real life is w-a-y cooler. About 100 feet worth of mammalian fun of the largest animal alive in the world today.

The other outside exhibit worth seeing is a real steam locomotive, about whale-sized and quite nicely kept up. Climbing is not allowed, but you can walk around and put your hands on the beast.

The New Building (Shinkan)

The New Building is where you'll spend most of your time. The basement has dinosaur skeletons, including a T-Rex, a Brontosaurus, a Stegosaurus and many others. All are posed life-like (though I am not sure all the bones are real). There's a cool nest exhibit with little mini-me dino skeletons. You can go up on a raised platform and look at the displays eye-to-eye as it were. Almost all the signs are in Japanese only, but if your kids are into dinosaurs that won't matter.

The first floor is a semi-cheesy display of the oceans' diversity of life. There are a lot of English signs and explanations, though the plaster-of-Paris renditions of sharks and other big sea animals are a bit lame. This is best for kids old enough not to be scared by big fake sharks but young enough not to say “Dude, it is sooo lame”.

Floor 2 is the best of the bunch, with all sorts of hands-on science experiments. There's a room with tilted floors and mirrors to illustrate how our sense of space works, an audio room with sounds coming from different places, a helicopter-bike thing that rises a bit off the floor if you pedal hard, a sound parabolic mirror thingy and much more. The exhibits are labeled in English, but the longer explanations and the docents are only in Japanese. If you remember some high school physics you can probably fill in enough for younger kids.

The third floor is set up as a wooded area, with stuffed deer, a wild big, a raccoon and some birds. The animals are floor-level so the kiddies can touch them (allowed and encouraged). There are some exhibits and explanations (mostly in Japanese). The part our kids really liked was crawling through a short tunnel and surfacing through a gopher's hole. There is even simulated gopher poop as well, visible only from the tunnel.

The Main Building (Honkan)

The exhibits here are more traditional natural history stuff: meteor fragments, preserved animals and butterfly collections, many animal skeletons, a long evolution display with more skeletons and a few more dinosaurs. This side of the museum will appeal more to older kids who have run across this stuff in science classes, though our 7 year old liked the displays of animals and, of course, the dinosaurs.

There is also an OK cafeteria where lunch is between Y600-Y1100. All your fave Japanese industrial foods are here (curry, tonkatsu, curry with tonkatsu, ramen, etc.) as well as things like spaghetti and sandwiches. You must pay first, and then hand your receipt/ticket to a server. The selections are all shown as wax models at the entrance. It is all quite noisy and child-friendly and we had a good-enough lunch.

How to Get There

The Museum is located in Ueno Park. Take the Hibiya Subway Line or the JR Yamanote Line to Ueno Station and follow the crowds to Ueno Park, about five minutes' walk from Exits 7 and 8. The Museum is another 10 minutes or so on foot; follow the signs. Ueno Park has a so-so zoo and several nicely done art museums. The area around the park is sort of decay-o' rama, and there are a bunch of homeless people who live in the park itself. None of this is too big an issue, but you or your kids may prefer something different.

Admission is Y420 for adults and Y70 for kids in grades 1-12. For more information, visit www.kahaku.go.jp.

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