Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan
Kan’ei-ji temple pagoda, Ueno Park, central Tokyo.
This picture was taken from Toshogu shrine approach but to get near the pagoda you have to enter Ueno zoo! And pay to get in there… and you can’t go inside the pagoda anyway.
Ueno Park Attractions
Shinobazu boat pond, Ueno Park.
Ueno Park is a massive green space dotted with interesting sights and attractions ranging from lakes full of lilies, trees full of cherry blossom (in the right week/month, of course), temples, shrines and Ueno Zoo.
On the cultural side the park encompasses a cluster of important museums e.g. Tokyo National Museum, National Science Museum, Daimyo Clock Museum, Asakura Museum of Sculpture.
Also major art galleries e.g.Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo University Arts Museum, Mori Art Museum.
That’s way too many museums and galleries in one place! I skipped through three of the Tokyo National Museum buildings and that took 4/5 hours.
Manage your precious time! Use the map below to plan a reasonable day.
Kiyomizudo Temple, Ueno
Kiyomizu-do Temple in an elevated position over Ueno’s Shinobazu lake. Note the circular tree trunk known as the Pine Tree of the Moon, a cute feature but possessing no special significance.
Overlooking Shinobazu lake this temple is the oldest large building in Tokyo, built in 1631 but moved to the current location in 1698.
In fact originally this temple – a downsized copy of Kyomizudera in Kyoto – was just a minor part of a huge 60 buildings complex.
Known more fully as Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple it came through two major wars undamaged, the Japanese civil war in the 1860’s and the Tokyo bombing in 1945.
Kiyomizu Kannon-do is dedicated to Kosodate Kannon, a goddess overseeing women wishing for children, pregnant women, mothers during childbirth and child-raising. Consequently Kiyomizu is very popular with the females of our species and markets a solid line of charms and amulets.
Shinobazu pond and Bentendo temple, west Ueno
The forecourt of Bentendo temple.
Bentendo sits at the centre of three lakes, or more precisely one lake – Shinobazu Pond – divided into three parts by walkways. The lily pad section in the picture is in the south (Hasu Pond) while the Boat Pond (see with ducks further up the page) is to the west and the Aquatic Zoo is in the north.
Bentendo didn’t seem very interesting inside though it was being re-decorated while we were there so we didn’t get a proper view. However, the location surrounded by water, lily pads and Cherry Blossoms in April, is splendid.
When you approach a temple or shrine and incense is burning, the proper Japanese etiquette is to either light an incense stick, waft the protective smoke around you and make a prayer, or just doing the wafting/praying if you don’t have incense.
The main Ueno path south-north
Gojoten Jinja multi-gate entry on the main path from Shinobazu Pond to Toshogu shrine or Metropolitan Art Museum or the zoo.
Nearby is the Daibutsu. Late March-early April is premium time here as this route is packed with cherry trees. In fact there are 1,200 cherry trees in Ueno Park, most of them around Shinobazu Pond and lining this path.
Ueno Daibutsu, or Big Buddha. Sadly no longer big as an earthquake dismantled his body leaving only his face intact. Still, it’s a pretty little hill with a mossy shrine and smoking incense.
Toshogu Shrine, Ueno’s finest
Toshogu shrine surrounds with Hiroshima memorial, Ueno Park.
This lovely avenue of stone lanterns, cherry trees, 5 tier pagoda peering over the fence and ending at the spectacular golden gate is one of Ueno’s highlights and only just off the main north-south drag.
The golden gateway – Karamon – into the Toshogu shrine, a memorial to Tokugawa and other shoguns. Built in 1651 it features gold foil, hand-carved flowers and birds and a rising dragon on one side and descending dragon on the other.
Tourists can enter the shrine but we chose not to as the price was quite high and on peering through the fencing the interior didn’t look very enticing. Still, maybe we should have paid the price.
Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park.
This is the biggest building in Ueno Park and the one you should visit if you have no particular preferences. It showcases 40,000 pieces of art in 3 or 4 buildings, the main building being of Japanese art and artefacts (Honkan); the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures (mostly buddhas) on the left side; the Toyokan building showing Asian art and artefacts from China, Korea, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, India and Egypt. Other buildings are for special exhibitions or limited to scholars and other visitors with special interest, so closed to tourists.
Personally I found the National Museum spacious and well organised but displays sterile and lacking in excitement and exhibits lacking in originality. It didn’t have the history or drama of Paris’ Louvre, for example, nor can it compete with the British Museum for historically famous or extraordinary exhibits. I also found the English translations dull and limited. To cap it all the entry fee was pretty steep at ¥1200.
I don’t know if the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures changes regularly but when I went there it was displaying about 100 small buddhas. Nothing else. Striking when you enter but the enthusiasm for buddha figurines wanes rather rapidly!
Closed on Mondays (or the following day if Monday is a holiday), New Year holidays
English signs and audio guides: OK but dull
Ueno Park Map
Planning your Ueno Park day
The Tourist Information Centre is at Kesei Ueno (see on map). They will provide information and maps in English and Asian languages.
Bike rental nearby is available but take passport or ID card if you wish to rent. It’s not expensive.
Tourists! Plan ahead, especially if you are bringing kids along.
The core of the park is the stretch from Shinobazu pond to the Tokyo National Museum. This includes practically everything you can see on this page – several great temples, museums, art galleries and zoo. That’s roughly half the park, easily accessible from Ueno stations (subway and overground).
Route Planning for a day:
If the weather is fine then it’s a no-brainer to head for Tourist Information first, pick up maps and current advice, then start at the south end, Shinobazu Pond. As the day progresses move north up the main path.
This way if/when you get too hot, or too cold, or it starts to rain you can flee to a nearby museum or gallery or restaurant (there isn’t a big selection of eating spots here).
If you arrive and it’s raining do the reverse, hang out in a museum/gallery until it goes away.
And a footnote….Kyu Iwasaki tei Garden
Kyu Iwasaki tei Garden, Ueno, just outside Ueno Park and near Shinobazu pond, is recommended by some publications, this is not a bad place to spend an hour or so, BUT NOT if you have Ueno Park available to you!
The garden would be fine for a short walk on a nice day though there’s nothing extraordinary about it. Likewise the southern colonial mansion, almost empty of furniture has pretty wallpaper and ceilings, and a nice terrace but it looks very weak alongside the lovely old temples and shrines scattered around the park. In addition because it’s off piste it really does add to the over-walking factor, and you don’t need that when there are so many ancient Japanese buildings you could visit. The Yanaka area, for example, north of Ueno Park, is loaded with temples, museums and cemeteries.