Start: South end of Ueno Park (station: Ueno)
Finish: Ameya Yokocho flea market, along the tracks of the Yamanote Line (station: Ueno or Okachimachi)
Time: Allow approximately 2 hours, not including stops along the way
Best Times: Weekdays, when museums and shops aren't as crowded
Worst Times: Monday, when the museums and zoo are closed
Located on the northeast end of the Yamanote Line loop, Ueno is one of the most popular places in Tokyo for Japanese families on a day's outing. Unlike sophisticated Ginza, Ueno has always been favored by the working people of Tokyo and visitors from Tokyo's rural north. During the Edo Period, the area around Ueno was where merchants and craftspeople lived, worked, and played. Ueno was also the site of the enormous Kan'eiji Temple compound, which served as the private family temple and burial ground of the Tokugawa shoguns. Today, Ueno's main drawing card is Ueno Park, the largest park in Tokyo. It's famous throughout Japan for its cluster of historic monuments, zoo, and excellent museums, including the prestigious Tokyo National Museum. If you wish, time your visit to coincide with free, 90-minute walking tours of Ueno every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10:30am and 1:30pm. Tours depart from Ueno Green Salon, located between JR Ueno Station and the National Museum of Western Art.
You will probably arrive in Ueno by either subway or the JR Yamanote Line. Regardless, make your way via underground passage to the main entrance of Keisei Ueno Station (terminus of the Skyliner train from Narita Airport and home to a Tokyo Tourist Information Center, open daily 9:30am-6:30pm). Outside Keisei Ueno Station's main entrance to the left are two steep flights of stone stairs leading up to an area of trees. This is the south entrance to:
1. Ueno Park
Located atop a broad hill, this was once part of the precincts of Kan'eiji Temple, a huge, 120-hectare (297-acre) complex consisting of a main temple and 36 subsidiary temples. Unfortunately, most of the complex was destroyed in 1868, when 2,000 die-hard shogun loyalists gathered on Ueno Hill for a last stand against the advancing forces of the Imperial army. In 1873, Ueno Park opened as one of the nation's first public parks.
Although quite small compared to New York City's Central Park, this is Japan's largest city park and Tokyo's most important museum district, making it a favorite destination for families and school groups in search of culture, relaxation, and fun. With its 1,000 cherry trees, it's one of the most famous spots for cherry-blossom viewing in the country. It's also a popular hangout for Tokyo's homeless population, which has grown markedly since the recession. You'll see their makeshift cities -- cardboard, blue tarp, and even clothes drying on lines -- in among the trees.
A landmark near the south entrance to the park is a bronze:
2. Statue of Takamori Saigo
This is the best-known monument in Tokyo, if not all of Japan. Born in 1827 near Kagoshima on Kyushu Island, the samurai Takamori Saigo rose through the ranks as a soldier and statesman. He helped restore the emperor to power after the Tokugawa shogunate's downfall but later became disenchanted with the Meiji regime when rights enjoyed by the samurai class were suddenly rescinded. He led a revolt against the government that failed and ended up taking his own life in ritual suicide. The statue was erected in the 1890s but later became controversial when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, leader of the U.S. occupation forces in Japan after World War II, demanded its removal because of its nationalistic associations. Saved by public outcry, the statue depicts the stout Saigo dressed in a simple cotton kimono with his hand on his sword.
Ironically, behind the statue of Saigo and slightly to the left is a memorial dedicated to those very men Saigo originally opposed. Here lie the:
3. Tombs of the Shogitai Soldiers
These were the die-hard Tokugawa loyalists who resisted Imperial forces on Ueno Hill in 1868. Tended by descendants of the soldiers, the grounds contain small paintings depicting the fierce battle.
Behind and to the left of the war memorial, on the other side of the pathway, is:
4. Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple
Completed in 1631 as a miniature copy of the famous Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto and one of the few buildings left standing after the battle of 1868, this is one of the oldest temples in Tokyo. The temple houses the protectress of childbearing and child-raising, thereby attracting women hoping to become pregnant or whose wishes have been fulfilled. To the right of the main altar is a room full of dolls, left by women to symbolize their children in a gesture they hope will further protect them.
Take a Break -- Located between Kiyomizu Temple and Toshogu Shrine, Grill Fukushima opened in 1876 as one of Japan's first restaurants serving Western food. It remains Ueno Park's most upscale place, serving pricey but quite good classic French cuisine. To the right behind the tombs of the Shogitai soldiers is Tokori, serving Korean barbecue at reasonable prices.
Walking north from Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple, you'll soon pass orange torii (made, horrendously enough, out of plastic) and Grill Fukushima on your left. Following signs that say UENO ZOO, turn left at the Lions Club totem pole. Soon, to your left, you'll see the stone torii that marks the entrance to:
5. Toshogu Shrine
Ueno Park's most famous religious structure -- dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate -- was erected in 1651 by Ieyasu's grandson. Like Nikko's Toshogu Shrine, it is ornately decorated with brilliant red, blue, green, and gold ornamentation. The pathway leading to the shrine is lined with massive stone lanterns, plus 50 copper lanterns donated by feudal lords from throughout Japan. To the right of the pathway is a five-story pagoda (located on zoo grounds), covered entirely in lacquer and constructed in 1639. The shrine grounds are also famous for their peonies, which bloom both in spring and in winter.
But the most important thing here is the shrine, with murals by a famous Edo artist, Kano Tan-yu, and armor worn by Ieyasu. Note the lions decorating the arched, Chinese-style Karamon Gate -- legend has it that when night falls, they sneak down to Shinobazu Pond for a drink. On a lighter note, you'll see signs asking you to refrain from making a bonfire, in case you are contemplating a cookout on these sacred grounds.
Across from Toshogu Shrine is a miniature amusement park for young children. Walk through it or around it to Ueno Park's main square, marked by an artificial pond with a spouting, dancing fountain. Keep walking straight, past the people feeding the pigeons, the koban police box and National Museum of Western Art on your left, and the Metropolitan Festival Hall on your right. Soon, on your left beyond an information kiosk and small square, is the:
6. Ueno Green Salon
Free 90-minute walking tours of Ueno depart from here every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10:30am and 1:30pm. All you need to do is show up.
Just before the Ueno Green Salon, to your left, is the very good:
7. National Museum of Western Art (Kokuritsu Seiyo Bijutsukan)
Built in 1959 with a main building designed by French architect Le Corbusier, the museum features works by such Western artists as Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Manet, Delacroix, Cézanne, Degas, El Greco, and Goya; but it's probably most famous for its 50-some sculptures by Rodin.
North of the National Museum of Western Art is the:
8. National Science Museum (Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsukan)
This is a great attraction if you're traveling with children.
The most important museum in Ueno Park, however, is the one farthest to the north, the:
9. Tokyo National Museum (Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan)
Japan's largest museum and the world's largest repository of Japanese art is the place to see antiques from Japan's past, including lacquerware, pottery, scrolls, screens, ukiyo-e, samurai armor, swords, kimono, Buddhist statues, and much more. If you go to only one museum in Tokyo, this should be it.
Assuming you don't spend the entire day in museums, backtrack south from the National Museum past the dancing fountain, turn right, and follow signs for:
10. Ueno Zoo
Opened in 1882, this is Japan's oldest zoo. Although it seems small by today's standards (with miserably cramped quarters for many of its animals), it's famous for its giant panda, donated by the Chinese government. There are also Japanese macaques, polar bears, California sea lions, penguins, gorillas, giraffes, zebras, elephants, deer, and tigers. Be sure, too, to see the five-story pagoda mentioned earlier in the walk.
End your tour of the zoo by taking the monorail to:
11. Shinobazu Pond
(You can also get to Shinobazu Pond without entering the zoo by retracing your steps to the orange plastic torii, or the road to the left of the torii, then walking downhill toward the pond, passing Gojoten Shrine along the way.) This marshy pond was constructed in the 17th century; teahouses once lined its banks. Now part of the pond has literally gone to the birds: It's a bird sanctuary. The pond is filled with lotus plants, a lovely sight when they bloom in August.
There are small boats for rent, and on an island in the middle of the pond, connected to the bank with walkways, is the:
12. Benzaiten Temple
This temple is dedicated to the goddess of fortune.
At the southeastern edge of Shinobazu Pond is the:
13. Shitamachi Museum (Shitamachi Fuzoku Shiryokan)
Shitamachi means "downtown" and refers to the area of Tokyo where commoners used to live, mainly around Ueno and Asakusa. Displays here include a shitamachi tenement house, as well as everyday objects used in work and play, all donated by people living in the area.
From the Shitamachi Museum, head south on Chuo Dori and turn left on Kasuga Dori, passing Matsuzakaya department store and Ueno Center Mall. Here, at Okachimachi Station, is:
14. Ameya Yokocho
This narrow shopping street is located under and along the west side of the elevated tracks of the Yamanote Line between Ueno and Okachimachi stations. Originally a wholesale market for candy and snacks, and after World War II a black market in U.S. Army goods, Ameya Yokocho (also referred to as Ameyacho or Ameyoko) today consists of hundreds of stalls and shops selling at a discount everything from fish and vegetables to handbags, cosmetics, and clothes. Early evening is the most crowded time as workers rush through on their way home. Some shops close on Wednesday, but most are open from about 10am to 7pm.
Winding Down -- For drinks with a view and piano music (music charge: ¥700/$5.80/£2.95), head to the south end of Shinobazu Pond where, on the 10th floor of the Hotel Park Side, 2-11-18 Ueno, the Sky Lounge is open daily 5 to 11:30pm. Attracting a younger crowd is Warrior Celt, 6-9-2 Ueno, a friendly bar with a nightly happy hour and free live music; it's just a stone's throw from Ameya Yokocho. Also, Hard Rock Cafe Ueno is in JR Ueno Station.