Famous for its park, museums and markets, Ueno is the eastern-most hub of central Tokyo.
With cherry blossoms that bloom in spring and lotuses that flower in summer, Ueno Park, the oldest and largest park in the city, is regarded as being one of Tokyo’s most beautiful. Inside there are temples, shrines, and pagodas, also a pond, a zoo and some of Japan’s finest museums.
Begin by leaving JR Ueno Station via the Ueno Koen exit (“koen” means “park”). Once in, head straight for the information kiosk up on the right. Here you can pick up an English map – an absolute essential when it comes down to being able to identify most of the buildings.
The building opposite the information kiosk is Tokyo Culture Hall, the home of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. It’s an eye-saw. With the modern, western design standing as a symbol of Japan’s progression since the days of global isolation (1603 – 1867) the building, finished in 1961, commemorates the 500th anniversary of the city. Inside too, it’s mostly western music that’s performed.
The National Museum of Western Art is the next building on the right. It houses sculptures and paintings collected by business tycoon Kojiro Matsukata as he toured Europe in the early 1900’s. Amongst the collection there are works by Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Rodin. Behind this building and slightly to the left you’ll find the National Science Museum. A huge model of a killer whale stands outside.
Tokyo National Museum is opposite the Grand Fountain. With an emphasis on art and archaeology, five buildings house over eighty six thousand exhibits! This makes it the largest museum in Japan. The buildings themselves are architecturally significant. With the museum facing you, notice that the building on the far left has been designed to look like a western building. It was completed in 1962. Next to it, completed earlier in 1937, is a building constructed in the era when it was fashionable to use modern, “western” materials but at the same time retain a traditional Japanese look. Finally, the building on the right, built in 1968, manages to combine both modern, “western” materials with modern day Japanese architectural ideas.
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art is the large red brick building next to Ueno Zoo. It displays the work of Japanese contemporary artists. As for the zoo? Well it’s famous for Giant pandas and its five storied pagoda which dates from 1631, ( and it ‘s cheap – 500 yen for adults and 200 yen for children) but if animals in cages are not for you, then it’s best to leave it out. (Open: 9:30 am to 4:30pm. Closed: 29th December to 3rd January inclusive.)
Toshugu Shrine is just along from the zoo. It’s dedicated to Toshugu the first Shogunate. Completed in 1651, the gold and green roof still holds some beauty, but the rest no doubt has seen better days. In winter the peony garden is open from the 1st January to the end of February. (Hours 9:30 am to 5:30 pm. Adults: 600 yen. Age 15 – 18: 400 yen. Under 15’s: free).
In late April to early May, the tree-lined promenade that runs southwards through the park is a very popular place for “Hanami” parties (cherry blossom watching parties). With karaoke machines under every tree and thousands of drunken “salarymen” letting their hair down, the atmosphere can be quite incredible.
Shinobazu Pond dominates the southwestern side of the park – six hundred yen will hire you a rowing boat; seven hundred – a swan pedal boat.
Today Shinobazu Pond is famous for lotuses, but in the past it nearly didn’t survive at all. Just after World War II it was turned into a field for growing vegetables. Then, when that was no longer needed, rather than have it re-instated, many businessmen felt a carpark or baseball stadium would be better. Needless to say, the water was put back in, in 1949. A few years later however, out it came again. But this time the cause was a hole. The hole was accidentally drilled through the bottom during the construction of a new subway line.
The temple on the man-made island in the middle of Shinobazu Pond is Bentendo Temple. It’s dedicated to the goddess of prosperity and the arts. This particular building dates back to 1958. The 17th century original was destroyed in the air raids of 1945.
In the skyline beyond the pond it’s difficult not to notice the tall, thin building with floors branching off at every angle. Designed by Japanese architect, Kiyinori Kikutake and completed in 1994, this is Hotel Sofitel.
Moving round the park, and close to the Keisei Ueno Station Exit you’ll find Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple. Modeled after the famous Kiyomizu Temple in the historic city of Kyoto, couples who want to have children traditionally pray here. Also next to the exit, the large statue you see is that of Saigo Takamori (1827 – 1877). During the Meiji Restoration Saigo Takamori was an important samurai warrior.
Ameyayokocho Black Market
Ameyayokocho Black Market sprung up just after World War II. Traditionally it supplied sweet foods and American goods. The name in fact is a clever pun – “Ame” is a Japanese simplification of the word “America”; “ameya” means a shop which sells sweet food; “yokocho” means “alleyway”. So in English, “American Shop Alley” or “Sweet Food Alley”.
Today, Ameyayokocho is no longer “black” and although some stalls still sell food and American goods, the majority are now given over to casual clothes, bags and shoes. The entrance to the market is opposite the Shinobazu Exit of JR Ueno Station. The stalls run under the tracks of the JR Yamanote Line.
How to get to Ueno:
Ueno Station is on the Ginza Subway Line, the Hibiya Subway Line, the JR Yamanote Line, the JR Joban Line and the JR Keihin Tohoku Line.
Keisei Ueno Station is on the Keisei Lines 1 and 2.
A double decker bus runs between Ueno and Asakusa. From 10:00am it runs every thirty minutes on weekdays and every fifteen minutes on weekends. The bus stop is close to Ueno Keisei Station. Adults: 250 yen one way. Children: 130 yen one way.
From Akihabara, Ueno is about a 10 minute walk up Chuo Dori Avenue. From Asakusa, Ueno is about a 15 minute walk along Asakusa Dori Avenue.
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Featured image in this article by Stu.Brown, CC 2.0