Japan is a vast country with a myriad of things to do. One could spend their entire life trying to experience it all and never begin to scratch the surface. Between ancient shrines, temples, or the ultra modern, there is always something to do. Nevertheless, if someone had a single day to spend in this wonderful country there is one place I would wholly recommend — Ueno Park.
This answer both surprises and puzzles many Japanese yet despite this reaction I have not found a better smorgasbord of options in all of my travels. Wish you could get to see the Fushimi Inari Shrine but can’t make it to Kyoto? Ueno has you covered. Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine just too far for you? Don’t worry! Ueno has a little of that too.
During the Edo period (1603–1868), the Ueno Park grounds were originally part of Kan’ei-ji . The temple maintained strong connections with the Tokugawa shogunate and was one of the city’s biggest shrines. In 1868, most of the original structures were burned down to restore Emperor Meiji during the war. The area was transformed into the nation’s first Western style park in 1873 following the commencement of the new government.
Getting to Ueno Park & the Ueno Area
Finding your way to Ueno is easy from any major train station in central Tokyo. In most cases, all you need to do is just hop on the Yamanote Line in whichever direction happens to be closer and you’ll be there in short measure. There are many other train lines that pull into the area (including subway lines) so check Hyperdia to see the best route from your location.
As one might expect, given the vast amount of converging lines, Ueno Station is one of the larger hubs in Tokyo. This means that it can be quite difficult to navigate, especially if you’re coming from the subway. If you follow my recommendations you should you should head toward the Hirokoji Exit of the station. Don’t hesitate to ask any of the staff if you get lost!
Begin by Shopping at Ueno’s Ameyoko
Before heading off into the park, I highly suggest you take a look at the shopping street known as Ameyoko. It’s located under the train tracks and has been around for over seventy years. Getting to Ameyoko from the Hirokoji Exit is pretty simple. Just cross the street directly in front of you and head right. It will be on your left hand after making the turn but just follow the crowds of people if you get lost.
The name “Ameyoko” is actually short for Ameya Yokocho meaning candy store alley. The area’s name also has a hidden second meaning in Japanese as “Ame” can alternatively also be a shortened version of America. What’s the connection? Well it turns out that following the devastation of World War II, Ameyoko was actually a black market for highly sought American goods from the bases. There are stories of Japanese girls dating GIs for the sole purpose of access to things like cigarettes and chocolate. These rarities would then be turned around and pawned off in Ameyoko.
Today the area looks like a temporary ram-shacked shopping strip with merchants peddling all varieties of goods. Even now it definitely maintains its black market vibe and I highly suggest that you check it out. Goods here can be acquired quite cheap but don’t buy too much as there’s a lot of walking to do still.
Visit Ueno’s Shinobazu-no-Ike Bentendo
After doing some shopping it’s best to make your way to the park. I suggest starting on the far side of Ueno Park and making your way back towards the station. This eliminates as much walking as possible and streamlines the experience down to a few hours. You’ll be wanting to make your way to this point. Cut through the park and then head left. Be on the lookout for a vermilion temple situated at the conflux of several interconnected ponds. There are usually some street vendors on the bridge to the central island so grab a snack if you’re hungry.
The shrine before you is known as Shinobazu-no-Ike Bentendo or just “Bentendo” for short. It is dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten, the patron deity of elegance, wealth, and good fortune. It is said that the island and the temple were built as a mirror to Chikubushima’s on Lake Biwa. Originally the shrine could only be reached via boat but bridges were later constructed to make the temple more accessible.
After checking out the temple, be sure to also explore a bit of the lake. If you happen to be traveling during the warmer months, you are in for a treat. The lotuses are native to the pond and cover the entire surface, completely hiding the water. On the far side of Betendo you’ll also find some self-propelled boats that can be a fun activity if you’re willing to part with 700 yen.
Experience “Kyoto” While in Ueno Park
After exploring Bentendo, and maybe even doing a lap around the pond, it’s time to head back to the park. From there we will be making our way to Kyoto. Kyoto you say?!?! Well, not the city itself, but there is a region within Ueno Park that has many of the trappings of the ancient capital. This is one of the main reasons I highly suggest visiting the park if you do not have the time to visit Kyoto.
Our first destination will be Kiyomizu Kannon-do which can be found here. Originally built in 1631, the temple used to be park of the sprawling Kan’ei-ji complex. The shrine’s design reflects the original Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto and has a similar balcony overlooking a cliff. As the name suggests, the temple is dedicated to the Buddhist goddess Kannon who is the deity of conception and is particularly appealing to women who are expecting to give birth.
Ueno is also home to an Inari Shrine that follows in the footsteps of the main Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Known as the Hanazono Inari Shrine, it is no where near the same size. Nevertheless, it does feature the trademark vermilion Torii gates that are a rarity in Tokyo. The Hanazono Inari Shrine is located only a few minutes away from Kiyomizu Kannon-do, right next to the Gojoten Shrine. It can be a little tricky to navigate given there are few signs so refer to this map if you get lost.
Check Out the Toshogu Shrine in Ueno Park
When the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate passed away in 1616, his legacy was lavishly enshrined. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s final resting place at the Nikko Toshogu Shrine is by far the most ostentatious display of architecture in the country. While indeed stunning, it is located quite a ways out from Tokyo making it hard to fit into a day’s itinerary. Nevertheless, those looking to enjoy its splendor are in luck! Ueno has its own Toshogu Shrine that is FAR easier to get to.
Located here towards the rear of the park, the Ueno Toshogu Shrine is perhaps one of the best attractions in the area. Initially built in 1616, the shrine was originally part of Kan’ei-ji before being separated. The shrine can be reach at the end of the long pathway lined with stone lanterns pictured at the start of this article. Be sure to keep a look out for a multi-storied pagoda hidden among the trees on the right hand side.
The Toshogu Shrine’s location in Ueno park is ironic as it was the site of the final resistance of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Here, on these very grounds, the revolutionary forces seeking to restore power to the imperial line traded blows with shogunate loyalists. While not yet officially a public park, the temple courtyards of Ueno provided an ideal location for a last ditch fight to preserve over three hundred years of samurai rule under the shogun. Though they failed, a statue to Saigo Takamori, the real last samurai, can be found nearby to commemorate this battle.
While the interior of the building is closed to the public, visitors can marvel at the gold leaf coating that covers the outside. Getting past the gate will cost you 500 yen but it’s totally worth it. Be sure to marvel at the decorative craftsmanship as well as the insane level of detailed craftsmanship featured in the woodwork.
Should you opt to pay, enter the gate and follow the stone path. Before going inside though, make sure to take a peek at the tiny shrine on your left. Inside you’ll find a tanuki (a raccoon dog) statute. According to folklore, tanuki are lying, cheating, wryly things that should never be trusted. The statue is meant to be a homage to Tokugawa Ieyasu who earned the nickname “Tanuki” among rivals for his patient, calculating, and crafty leadership style.
Visit Ueno Park’s Famous Zoo
While not really my thing, Ueno is also home to a pretty famous zoo as well. If you happen to be traveling with small children or are a fan of animals yourself, it’s worth a look. The zoo originally opened in 1882 and is Japan’s oldest zoo. Since 1972 the zoo has been famous for its giant pandas. Following the restitution of Sino-Japanese relations, China sent the Ueno Zoo several pandas and they have been a popular allure ever since. Adult tickets are pretty cheap and will cost you only 600 yen. Be well warned though, there are a lot of families visiting the zoo and accompanying small amusement park on the weekends.
That said, even if zoos aren’t on the top of your list there’s a good reason to enter. Why risk the crowds and noise you might ask? Well the pagoda visible from the walkway up to the Toshogu Shrine is only accessible from the zoo and anyone looking to check it out will need to pay to enter. You’ll find it on your left after entering the zoo, right by the Japanese deer (which you should say hi to if you’re not going to hit up Nara).
Pursue One of Ueno Park’s Museums
Lastly, Ueno is also home to a plethora of museums. I won’t go into too much detail about each but here’s a list with a short description of each. Feel free to choose whichever museum piques your interest at leisure.
- Tokyo National Museum
This one is the oldest and largest museums in Tokyo and home to the greatest number of cultural artifacts and treasures. The complex is actually comprised of a series of buildings that integrate into one single mega-like museum.
- Shitamachi Museum
Shitamachi is an area where the majority of the merchants were relegated during the Edo period (1603–1868). After the end of the shogunate, the area became a popular alternative to central Tokyo. This nostalgic tribute depicts everyday life typically observed during first half of the twentieth century.
- National Museum of Nature Science
If science and natural history is your thing, this hands-on museum complete with everything from robots to a 360 theater will be a place you will want to consider. Be warned, this museum comes with all the kiddies one would expect in a place like this…
- Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
Though it is home to no permanent collection, the six art galleries in this museum showcase a wide variety of art. If you’re in town for more than a short while it might be worth coming back here to see if anything has been refreshed.
- National Museum of Western Art
While I wouldn’t suggest you make the trek out here just to view some European art, the museum maintains an intriguing rotation of exhibitions and specials. Perhaps more so than the museum itself, the building is Japan’s only structure by Le Corbusier and is expected to become a World Heritage site in the near future.
Until next time travelers…