Ueno (上野) is a MUST on any tourist’s agenda. Located conveniently to the north of the city (connected by numerous JR and Metro lines), Ueno is a visitor’s dream come true. Its park and pond boast many beautiful walks, its shrines and temples are amazing, and its museums are well worth a visit. Let me take you on a mini-tour focusing on just a few of these places.
The first thing that greets you upon exiting Ueno Station (上野駅) is the famous Ameya Yokocho (アメヤ横丁) markets or Ameyoko (アメ横) for short. Created after the World War II as a place for people from outside of Tokyo (東京) to come and sell their goods, the market is now an area to sample “downtown Japan.” With stalls selling a range of goods, from exotic food to cheap clothing and shoes, Ameyoko is a bargain seeker’s paradise. There are also plenty of bars and cheap eateries where you can sample sake, look at the people, and just enjoy the bustle that surrounds you.
However, if you get tired of all the activity, then tranquility awaits a few streets away in the shape of the Tokudaiji Temple. Located above the market shops, the entrance to this wonderful temple can be found, slightly hidden, off the main market street.
The Tokudaiji Temple is a wonderfully small and elegant temple which enshrines the Buddhist goddess of vitality, strength, and good fortune. Never affected by either the World War II bombs or the Great Kanto earthquake, it sits above the market noise as a testament and a contrast to the haphazardness of its surroundings. At set times, a temple priest beats one of the two taiko drums to greet stallholders and call them to prayer. The temple sells hanko temple seals, as well as other charms; and as you can see, the place is a photographer’s dream.
Walking to the famous Ueno Park (上野公園), you feel yourself slipping back to a more traditional time as trees, black crows, and historic buildings greet your every step. Ueno Park boasts many great places.
The next stop on our Ueno tour is the famous Shinobazu Pond within Ueno Park. The pond is especially wonderful in late summer when the lily flowers start to bloom. There’s wildlife including birds, turtles, and of course, carp; and exploring the pond is fascinating.
A walk around the whole thing takes about 15 minutes, but there are so many sights that will catch your eye so you better give yourself a good hour. You can even rent a small boat and explore the side of the pond where there are no water lilies.
At the center of the Shinobazu Pond is the beautiful Shinobazunoike Bentendo Temple dedicated to the goddess of wealth and happiness. The goddess is linked to water and thus, the temple was built in the middle of the pond to give her the greatest honor.
The temple has a very interesting and turbulent past. Founded to honor and becoming very famous as a place for luck, it was used during the Meiji-Tokugawa conflict as a fort and watchtower. It suffered from bombing during World War II, and it was only through the support of the government and locals that the temple was rebuilt to its former glory.
One of many Benzaiten (弁才天) temples across Japan, the Bentendo Temple is a very impressive structure with an equally beautiful interior. Often crowded on weekdays, it is also a place where you can buy good and cheap food at one of the many stalls that line the path approaching the main entrance.
During the Edo period, a giant statue of Buddha stood in Ueno Park, however, it suffered significant damage during the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. The face was saved, but the rest of the statue was then melted into metal for the war effort. In the early 1970s, the face was put back on display within the confines of a small temple. The Buddha’s closed eyes and peaceful look, as well as the small natural forest that surrounds the temple, give visitors a serene experience – a far cry from the downtown feel of the nearby markets.
Very close to the Buddha’s face are two national landmarks that are often featured on tourist brochures promoting Ueno – the Toshogu Shrine and the Kaneiji pagoda.
The Ueno Toshogu Shrine is the spiritual resting place of the first Tokugawa (although his actual grave is in Nikko [日光]). The similarities between the Nikko and Ueno shrines are strong. The Tokugawas made their last stand against the Emperor (Meiji) forces in Ueno and hence, the shrine has important historical and cultural significance.
Behind the golden gate of the Toshogu lies the main hall which is hidden from view. However, for 500 yen, you can get access to the garden which overlooks it.
The Toshogu, one of a handful of shrines to survive the allied bombing, also has a kagura-den (神楽殿) stage for performances and a line of bronze lanterns to guide you to the main gate. The golden facade of the beautiful structure, as well as the pathway lined with trees and stonework, make for a pleasant insight into the shogun and his reverence for Japanese culture.
Finally, next to the Toshogu Shrine is the Kaneiji, a five-story pagoda and all that remains of the original Ueno Toeizan Kan’eiji Temple.
There are many other shrines and historical places dotted around Ueno Park. You could easily spend a day just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere – and that’s before you even think about entering one of Ueno’s many museums and art galleries.
So if you want to see some downtown styling and history, a stark contrast to the western glitz of Ginza (銀座) or Omotesando (表参道) and the subculture of Harajuku (原宿) or Akihabara (秋葉原), Ueno is the place to see. What are you waiting for?