Ueno Park:
A walk in the low city
Cherry Blossoms
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.


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.


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.

6 Kiyomizu 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.

8 Shinobazu 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.


Gojo 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.

10 Toshogu 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.

11 Kodomo-yuen is an amusement park for kids. It's small but there's no entry fee; you only pay for the rides.

Monkey in UenoZoo

Ueno 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: 3823-2241.


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.
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