Take a walk around Ueno Park and see the different temples and shrines. Enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring and the lotus flowers on Shinobazu Pond in the summer. You can add a visit to Ueno Zoo or one of the excellent museums exhibiting Japanese, Asian, and western art. If you want to focus more on food culture, have tea and sweets at a Japanese café, check the Ameyoko market for drinks, snacks, and food products, and have lunch or dinner at a traditional Japanese izakaya or restaurant. You can walk from Ueno to Yanaka.
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Ueno Station’s long history begins in the 1880s. The first private railway company in Japan, Nippon Railway, opened its first line in Tokyo between Ueno and Kumagaya station. Now Ueno is a major hub and Tokyo’s gateway for travel north, with many lines passing through and departing from here, including JR trains, Tokyo Metro lines, and the Tohoku and Joetsu shinkansen. You can also take a direct train to Narita airport from Ueno.
The National Museum of Western Art was built in 1959. The architect of the main building is Le Corbusier. The museum was created for the Matsukata Collection, a collection of French art with impressionist paintings and sculptures by Rodin. The financier Kojiro Matsukata started collecting in 1905 and added pieces until after World War II. Now the museum displays a wide selection of western art. In 2016, the museum was designated a UNESCO World Heritage as one of the sites listed as “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement”.
In 1872, the Tokyo National Museum was established when the Museum Department of the Ministry of Education held its first exhibition at the Taiseiden Hall of Yushima Seido. It was the first museum in Japan and moved to its current location inside Ueno Park in 1882. The museum collects, houses, and displays artworks and archeological artifacts from Japan and other Asian countries. The museum also has a Japanese style garden with a teahouse that is especially beautiful in spring and autumn.
Inside Ueno Park is a hill called “Daibutsu Yama”, Great Buddha Mountain. In 1631, Naoyori Hori donated the statue of a seated Buddha. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1647. Then Edo (Tokyo) citizens donated money for a new Great Buddha. This one was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Now all that remains here of the Great Buddha is the face. In 1972, a pagoda was built in place of the Daibutsu.
A visit to a Japanese café can be so much more than a quick cup of coffee. A few cafés are located in typically Japanese buildings. Take in the architecture and interior and enjoy a cup of tea and Japanese sweets. Try some traditional flavors. These are some popular Japanese desserts: matcha ice cream, “kakigori” shaved ice, and “anmitsu”, a mix of jelly, sweet “anko” red bean paste, ice cream, and fruits with syrup.
The original Shinobazu Benten-do was built by the abbot Tenkai. He created the Kanei-ji Temple in Ueno based on the Hieizan Enryaku-ji monastery in Kyoto. The Benten-do today is a reconstruction from 1958, built in the 17th century style of the original shrine. Its octagonal shape makes the hall open up to all sides of Shinobazu Pond. Happi Benzaiten is enshrined here, one form of the goddess Benzaiten who protects the arts.
The Shitamachi Museum is next to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. It shoes the life in old Tokyo’s “shitamachi” area. It was established in 1980 to inform about the history and culture of the common people and merchants working in the city. Demonstrations of old-fashioned entertainment like “kamishibai” storytelling and traditional crafts show what life was like from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the early Showa period (1926-1989).
Ameyoko is the shopping district between the JR Ueno and Okachimachi stations. Ameyoko means Candy Alley in Japanese and the official name of the street is Ameyoko Shotengai Rengokai. The Ameyoko Center Building was completed in 1982. Over 400 shops form the Ameyoko market where you can buy a wide variety of things like Japanese food products, shoes, and branded goods. Ameyoko is especially busy during the last days of December, when about 500,000 people come here to shop in preparation for New Year.
Izakaya are Japanese pubs. People come for the drinks, but also for the good food. The staff can help you choose sake (called “nihonshu” in Japanese) that goes well with your meal. Try some Japanese favorites like vegetables with miso, hot “niku-dofu” (tofu with sliced beef), fresh sashimi, or simple and delicious “yaki onigiri” (grilled rice balls). You are sure to find a Japanese style izakaya in Ueno. This is an area with many izakaya and restaurants, some of them with a long history.
Tempura made by an expert chef is amazingly light and crispy. At some restaurants you can sit at the counter and watch the chef prepare and deep-fry each piece. A set course will have seasonal seafood and vegetables accompanied by rice, pickles, and miso soup. At the counter the chef can place one perfectly cooked piece after another on your plate, a different style is to serve the whole meal on a tray. Taste the different flavors with salt or “tentsuyu” dipping sauce and grated daikon radish.