Spring is in the air, and there's nothing like a sake-fueled day of cherry blossom viewing
under the trees to mark the occasion. The most famous hanami spot in Japan is Ueno, open
24 hours, home to 1300 cherry trees and, for one Bacchanalian weekend each year, a million
blue mat-toting merrymakers along the central avenue. But before you roll out your mat and
sit down to drink yourself into hanami oblivion, have a look around. Ueno Park, with the
highest concentration of cultural attractions in Tokyo, is more than just a hanami
hothouse. This week Francois Trahan takes you on a quiet stroll through
the other side of Ueno Park.
In the early years of a
little swampland called Edo, Ueno Hill sat at the unlucky northeast direction. The second
Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada, ordered the construction of the temple Kanei-ji to protect the
city from evil spirits. Kanei-ji became the guardian shrine of the Tokugawa shogunate, and
by the end of the seventeenth century the grounds had 36 temples and 36 subsidiary
buildings, in addition to Kanei-ji.
In May 1868, almost 200 years later, the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, peacefully
handed power back to the Emperor. But as the Imperial army came to Edo, a group of some
2000 staunch Tokugawa loyalists, the Shogitai, fought a last desperate battle at Kanei-ji.
The Shogitai fell quickly and with them went most of the buildings on the hill.
Five years later, in 1873, the new Meiji government made Ueno Hill the first public park
in Tokyo. With the museums and zoo coming soon after, Ueno Park started a new life and has
been a popular spot ever since. Here's a selection of what to see and do before you go
stake out a spot among the revelers under the trees.
CLICK HERE FOR A MAP TO THE FOLLOWING LOCATIONS: 1 Tokyo Culture Hall is the
park's music center. Inside are halls for performances and dancing, as well as two
auditoriums for classical music concerts. It is presently closed for renovations but will
reopen in June. Open 9am-9:30pm. Tel: 3828-1111. 2 The Japan Art Academy supports talented artists, some of
whose works are in the exhibition room. There are only a few pieces on show at a time, but
it's free. Open 10am-4pm (closed Wed and weekends). Tel: 3821-7191. 3 There are two floors for
exhibits of Japanese art in the Ueno Royal
Museum. The shows change regularly and so does the entry fee (usually around
JY500). Open 10am-5pm. Tel: 3833-4191.
4 No cherry trees here, but the Asahi Beer Express beer garden is
open 11am-5pm (closed Sun). Hours are extended to around 9pm in the summer. 5 The statue of Saigo Takamori has been placed here
for his role in the surrender of Edo, though his reputation is mixed. In 1873 he led the
abortive Satsuma Rebellion against the young Meiji government. His memory is only
rehabilitated to the extent that his statue wears hunting clothes instead of the military
uniform. Next to the small white building behind the statue is the tomb dedicated to the
Shogitai. There are a couple of prints of the fighting and a map of the temple grounds
before the battle. 6Kiyomizu Hall is one of the few buildings left
standing after the battle of 1868. It has been renovated and is a pleasant spot to sit and
look out on the main avenue. 7 The ground floor of the Shitamachi Museum recreates the
interior of traditional Edo-period houses and shops. Shitamachi, or "low city,"
were the vibrant parts of the old city where merchants, craftsmen and other "common
people" worked and lived, as opposed to yamanote, the higher grounds inhabited by
samurai and rich merchants. The museum has explanations of its displays in English and a
book offering a translation for omikuji (fortunetelling by numbered sticks), so
try your luck.
On the second floor are old maps, photos, tools, toys and more. The train section has
memorabilia and pictures of Shinjuku and Shibuya stations at the end of the Meiji era-it's
a shock to see they were once only small suburban stations. Open 9:30am-4:30pm, closed
Mon, JY200. Tel: 3823-7451. 8Shinobazu Pond is divided into three sections. One for
the zoo, one for boating and the last for lotus, ducks and cormorants, although pigeons,
crows and even sea gulls call it home. On the island across the bridge is Benten Hall,
dedicated to Benten or Benzaiten, goddess of wisdom and the pursuit of knowledge, as well
as money. Walk to the back to reach the boathouse where you can hire rowboats and pedal
boats from JY300 for 30 minutes. Open 9am-5pm.
9Gojo shrine consists of
a few small buildings and is dedicated to the gods of medicine and learning. It's simple
and modest, but worth a quick look around. 10Toshogu shrine
is the historical pride of Ueno Park. Built in 1627 and remodeled 24 years later, it has
hardly been touched since. It was undamaged in the battle of 1868 - an irony as the shrine
is dedicated the memory of the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who wrested power away from
the Emperor and established Edo as the capital. On the left before the main torii (gate)
stands one of the three largest lanterns in Japan.
Toshogu is open to the public from 9am-5pm, JY200, and while it might appear neglected it
is one of the rare places preserved in its almost original state. The armor and sword of
the shogun are still there, along with maps and artifacts of the era. The two dragons
carved on the front gate are said to be so lifelike they go drink at the pond every night.
is an amusement park for kids. It's small but there's no entry fee; you only pay for the
12Ueno Zoo has enough to
keep you busy most of the day. It plays host to animals from around the world, but its
main attraction are the pandas, whose day off is Fridays. There's also an aquarium. The
pagoda, another battle survivor, is located inside the zoo. Open 9:30am-5pm (the ticket
office closes at 4pm), closed Mon, JY500. Tel: 3828-5171. 13 The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum contains six galleries,
five of which are rented by artists and organizations, and the last showing works selected
by the curator. Shows and fees vary. A note at the entrance states that is has no ancient
Japanese or oriental art. Go to the National Museum for that. Open 9am-5pm, closed third
Mon. Tel: 3823-6921. 14 The Sogakudo was the first full-scale music hall in Japan.
A timber building dating from 1890, today it is part of the nearby Tokyo University of
Fine Arts. It's open to visitors 9:30am-4:30pm, on Sun, Tue and Thu, JY200. Concert days
are Wed, Sat and Fri. Closed Mon. Tel: 3824-1988. 15 The Kuroda Memorial Hall is the first brick building in
Tokyo designed by a Japanese architect. Ginza already had brick buildings, but all were
the work of foreign architects. You can see works of Seiki Kuroda, father of modern
Japanese oil painting. It's a small collection, on view Thu 1-4pm only, free. Tel:
16 After the destruction of the original Kanei-ji temple, this temple was
brought from Kawagoe since it was by the same builder. A few stones, lanterns and
monuments dot the grounds. This temple is only a shadow of the original Kanei-ji which
stood where the grand fountain is. The path behind the temple and past the school leads to
Chokagakumon gate, the entrance to the cemetery where six shogun are buried.
Unfortunately, it's closed to the public. 17 The Tokyo National Museum is the largest museum in Japan
and you could spend days trying to see everything. The collection is divided between three
buildings: the main gallery for Japanese and applied art; Hyokei-kan for Japanese
archeological relics and Ainu ethnological objects; and Toyo-kan, displaying oriental
antiquities. Open 9:30am-5pm, JY420, closed Mon. In summer (Apr-Sept) it's open until 8pm
on Fri. Free second Sat of the month. Tel: 3822-1111. 18 The National Science Museum has been in the park since
1878. You can recognize it by the steam locomotive and life-size whale in front. The
museum has exhibits and hands-on displays of physics, chemistry, geography, zoology and
more. Two sections are currently being renovated. Open 9am-4:30pm, closed Mon, JY400. Tel:
3822-0111. 19 The National Museum of
Western Art usually shows a museum collection and a special exhibition. The special
exhibitions change every two months or so and the fee varies. The museum collection
concentrates on nineteenth century French and Renaissance works, JY420. Open 9:30am-5pm,
until 7pm on Fri, closed Mon. Tel: 3828-5131. 20 The Tourist Information Desk is open 9am-6pm, 7 days
(except on New Year holidays). They have maps and park information, but speak only limited
English. Tel: 5685-1181.