Anyone who’s been in Tokyo for any length of time knows Ueno Park. Established in 1873, it is one of Tokyo’s oldest public parks.
Famous for its spring-time cherry blossoms and the drunken parties that take place in their shadow, Ueno Park offers much more, making it a popular place that can be enjoyed in any season.
Most of the park sits on the hill that was the site of Kan’ei-ji temple. The temple was founded in 1625 on this site, northeast of Edo Castle (the modern-day Imperial Palace), in order to protect the city (bad things come from the northeast). It was a major religious center comprised of more than 30 structures, until most of the structures, including the central worship hall, were destroyed in 1868 during a battle between those loyal to the Edo Shogunate and those loyal to the young Emperor Meiji. There is a statue of Saigo Takamori, the general who led the victorious Imperial troops, at the south entrance to the park, which was once the gateway to the temple grounds. A memorial to the defeated Shogitai Shogunate forces is nearby.
Kiyomizu Kannon, supposedly a smaller version of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, sits in the southwest of the park, not far from the Shogitai memorial, and houses a thousand-armed Kannon statue popular among women hoping to become pregnant as well as expectant and new mothers. Unwanted dolls can be discarded there and are given a “funeral” every year on Sept 25.
Just down the hill slightly north and west from Kiyomizu Kannon, through a “tunnel” formed by multiple red torii shrine gates, are two shrines: Hanazono Inari Shrine and Gojo Tenjin shrine. Inari shrines are dedicated to the god of the harvest, whose messenger is the fox, so pairs of fox statues figure heavily. Gojo Tenjin is a god of medicine. Special rites are performed to this god on the 10th of every month.
If, instead of going down the hill to the shrines, you continue north along the central pathway through the middle of the park, on the left you’ll see signs for the Ueno Daibutsu (上野大仏). Climbing the stairs up the rise, you’ll find a stupa and, on the left, a “mask” face embedded in a wall. This is all that remains of the Great Buddha of Ueno, a 2.8-meter statue of a seated Buddha. The original statue was cast in 1631 and sat atop this small rise, facing south. It was destroyed four times, most recently during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. At that time, the statue’s head fell off. It is the face from that head that remains on the site today, the remainder of the statue having been melted down for its metal during World War II. (According to the local priest, the face was saved because it contains the “spirit” of the Buddha.)
A few remnants of the old splendor of the temple grounds can be found if you look for them. There is still a Kan’ei-ji temple, but it now sits in the far northwest corner of the park, housed in a structure moved to this site from Kawagoe’s Kitain Temple in 1879. The Ken’ei-ji pagoda is more centrally located in the park just next to the Toshogu Shrine and graves of several Tokugawa shoguns. The presence of a Toshogu Shrine (the main Toshogu Shrine is in Nikko) and Tokugawa graves, further demonstrates the significance of this location to the Edo Shogunate.
Several major national museums surround the fountain pool and central open square of the park that was the site of the original Kan’ei-ji worship hall. These include the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science (the sculpture of a blue whale just outside the museum is great!), the National Museum of Western Art, and the recently-renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
The National Museum is quite large and could take you an entire day to explore thoroughly. The special annex buildings, Heiseikan and the Horyuji Gallery, are especially worth some time. With so many museums to choose from, all of them containing substantial collections and nearly always hosting special exhibitions as well, you can surely find something to interest you whenever you visit.
Two cultural facilities in the northeast section of the park, just south of Kan’ei-ji, are the International Library of Children’s Literature and the Tokyo University of the Arts. The Tokyo Bunka Kaikan is a concert hall on the eastern edge of the park, just across the street from the “koen-guchi” exit of JR Ueno Station. The Ueno Royal Museum is just south of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan.
And speaking of culture, there is now a Starbucks located at the very center of the park. Restaurants and concession stands are dotted around the park. Particularly noteworthy is Seiyoken, one of the first restaurants to offer Western food in Japan. Although now housed in a modern building — with a rooftop beer garden in summer — the restaurant has been operating on this site since 1876.
Just south of the Starbucks is an equestrian statue of Prince Komatsu Akihito, another key military figure in the Meiji Restoration and also the first president of the Japanese Red Cross. Just behind this statue, and nearly overwhelmed by an amusement park for small children, is a monument commemorating trees planted by former U.S. President Ulysses S Grant and his wife, Julia, during their visit to Japan in July-August 1879. The monument was erected by Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa in 1929 due to his concerns that people were unaware of the history of the trees.
Ueno Park is also the site of the Ueno Zoological Gardens, the oldest zoo in Japan. Interestingly, the best views of the Kan’ei-ji Pagoda are from inside the zoo.
The Ueno Zoo is one of only three zoos in Japan with pandas. The current pair of pandas, which arrived in Tokyo in early 2011, are among the most popular creatures in the zoo. The gorilla and tiger exhibits also rate highly. The zoo is divided into east and west sections which are connected by a monorail.
In the southwest of Ueno Park, at the foot of the hill, sits Shinobazu Pond. The top portion of the pond is inside the west section of the zoo and forms the habitat for the marshland birds. The pond is pleasant to stroll around at any time of year, but is at its finest in the cherry blossom season. Because of causeways you can also short cut across the middle. On one section of the pond it’s possible to rent paddle boats and actually get on the water. Another section is well known for its lotus blossoms in summer.
The causeways lead to an island in the middle of the pond housing a shrine to Benten, the only female of Japan’s 7 lucky gods. Benten, the goddess of music and the arts, is always depicted surrounded by water. The shrine is popular and busy. It can be a fun little stop, but be warned that the building itself is a post-war reconstruction, the earlier structure having been destroyed during World War II.
At the southeast corner of the pond is small museum deserving of a little of your time. The Shitamachi Museum offers depictions and explanations of the life of the common people of old Edo.
Ueno Park sits right next to Ueno Station, making it easy to get to. On JR, the Yamanote line and the Keihin Tohoku line stop at Ueno. For subways, both the Ginza Line and the Hibiya Line stop at Ueno.
Ueno Onshi Koen (in Japanese): http://www.kensetsu.metro.tokyo.jp/toubuk/ueno/index_top.html
Tokyo National Museum (in English): http://www.tnm.jp/?lang=en
National Museum of Nature and Science (in English): http://www.kahaku.go.jp/english/
National Museum of Western Art (in English): http://www.nmwa.go.jp/en/
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (in Japanese): http://www.tobikan.jp/
International Library of Children’s Literature (in English): http://www.kodomo.go.jp/english/
Ueno Royal Museum (in Japanese): http://www.ueno-mori.org/
Seiyoken (in Japanese): http://www.seiyoken.co.jp/index.html
Ueno Zoological Gardens (in Japanese): http://www.tokyo-zoo.net/zoo/ueno/
Shitamachi Museum (in English): http://www.taitocity.net/taito/shitamachi/sitamachi_english/shitamachi_english.html© Japan Today