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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”. 1. History of the National Museum of Western Art The National Museum of Western Art was established to house and display the Matsukata Collection, named after shipbuilding magnate and art collector Matsukata Kojiro (1866–1950). Educated in the United States, Kojiro was the son of Matsukata Masayoshi (1835–1924), aristocrat and one-time prime minister. Kojiro went on to make a fortune as president of the Kawasaki Dockyard corporation, which benefited from the highly lucrative business of building ships for the Japanese navy during World War I (1914–1918). Kawasaki expanded aggressively in these years, opting to produce ready-made ships for sale instead of waiting for buyers to place orders. This strategy and the proactive sales efforts it required brought Matsukata to London in 1916, where he began to collect art. A businessman and patriot, Matsukata was not interested in art for art’s sake. Instead, he wanted to take advantage of his wealth to compile a collection that could be displayed in Japan for the benefit of Japanese artists and connoisseurs. This ambition can be understood in the context of Japanese efforts in his time to “catch up” with the West in all spheres, including the military, economic, and cultural. Matsukata ventured that establishing a museum of Western art would help his countrymen “understand the psychology of the Western peoples.” Between 1916 and 1926, Matsukata’s collection swelled to more than 10,000 works of art, including a diverse selection of European oil paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and furniture as well as around 8,000 ukiyo-e prints, which had been acquired by foreign buyers and taken out of the country in the latter half of the 1800s. Matsukata stored much of his vast trove in London and Paris due to the prohibitively high costs of shipping the art to Japan, but did not give up on his vision of eventually establishing a museum. That dream, however, seemingly died in 1927, when a financial crisis toppled the Jugo Bank, Kawasaki Dockyard’s largest creditor. To save the company, Matsukata had to put up most of his personal assets, including his art, as collateral. The Matsukata Collection was dispersed: the artworks kept in Japan were sold off one after the other, while those in London were lost in a fire in 1939. The approximately 400 pieces that remained in France survived World War II, but were seized as “enemy property” by the French government before the end of the war. In the early 1950s, negotiations were initiated between the Japanese and French governments for the return of the Matsukata Collection. The two sides eventually reached a deal, with the French agreeing to send most of the artworks to Japan in exchange for a promise that a museum be built to house them. This pledge led to the 1959 opening of the National Museum of Western Art, and the belated realization of Matsukata Kojiro’s dream. 2. The National Museum of Western Art and World Heritage Status The National Museum of Western Art became a World Heritage site in 2016, when it was included as part of a transnational designation made up of 17 sites across seven countries. Called “the Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement,” this inscription highlights buildings designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris; 1887–1965). A pioneer of Modernist architecture, Le Corbusier developed a variety of innovative concepts and techniques in response to the social challenges of his time. He argued for standardized, “human-sized” buildings in which function comes before appearance, breaking with the classical focus on aesthetics in favor of minimal, “rational” designs, and uniting architecture with urban planning to design entire cities, such as Chandigarh in northern India. Le Corbusier incorporated several of his groundbreaking ideas into the National Museum of Western Art, which opened in 1959. Its architectural characteristics and appearance have been preserved nearly unchanged since then, prompting the French government to recommend the museum building for World Heritage status as part of the Le Corbusier designation, which was first proposed to UNESCO in 2008 and approved eight years later. The building is, to the extent that is practical, maintained in accordance with Le Corbusier’s design and the original blueprints, the development of which Le Corbusier left to his Japanese protégés Maekawa Kunio (1905–1986), Sakakura Junzo (1901–1969), and Yoshizaka Takamasa (1917–1980). All three went on to have successful careers of their own, with Maekawa designing an annex for the museum in 1979, as well as two other major buildings in Ueno Park, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (1975). 3. The National Museum of Western Art Building (Le Corbusier’s Design) The main building of the National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) was designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris; 1887–1965). A pioneer of Modernism, a school of thought that emerged in the early 1900s and came to dominate architectural thinking after World War II, Le Corbusier argued for standardized, “human-sized” buildings in which function comes before appearance. Several of his key ideas are reflected in the NMWA, which was completed in 1959. Standing on columns Seen from afar, the NMWA looks like a giant concrete matchbox raised above the ground on pillars. The pillars carry the weight of the structure, supporting its floors and allowing for a degree of freedom in the placement of both the interior and exterior walls. This distinctive solution, which Le Corbusier called pilotis, is a core feature in many of the architect’s buildings and clearly noticeable when visiting the NMWA. While most other museums only display art in spaces free of objects that could obstruct visitors’ views, the NMWA exhibition rooms are punctured by concrete columns poured into pinewood frames, their imprint a tangible testament to Le Corbusier’s vision. The outer walls, which are supported by the pilotis and therefore not critical to the building’s structural integrity, appear flat from afar but close up can be seen to be composed of replaceable panels embedded with jade stones. Human-sized architecture The modulor, a scale of proportions based on the human body, is another of Le Corbusier’s ideas that is employed throughout the NMWA building. Standardized measurements extracted with this scale were used by Le Corbusier’s Japanese protégés to determine things like the height of the handrails on the museum balcony, the distance between the pilotis columns, and the dimensions of the forecourt. Le Corbusier devised the modulor system to make his buildings “human-sized,” but used a person 183 centimeters tall as his point of departure. Visitors around that height are therefore likely to find the NMWA quite comfortable, while those shorter or taller may at times find themselves having to either stand on their toes or bend over, as the case may be. Unlimited growth Le Corbusier’s concept of a “museum of unlimited growth” was perhaps the most ambitious idea in his NMWA design. The architect envisioned a museum that could be expanded whenever necessary, first by reordering the walls inside the exhibition rooms and later by adding rooms and entire floors to the building, which would eventually assume a pyramid-like shape around a central lobby. The NMWA incorporates several elements from this concept, such as an entrance hall in the middle, a corridor-like series of rectangular exhibition rooms that spiral upward from the hall, and movable walls in these rooms. Constructing additional floors, however, was never considered realistic. The building’s large front window is indicative of another quirk in the architect’s thinking. Le Corbusier placed great emphasis on having natural light enter his structures, but did not consider the suitability of such a solution for an art museum. Today, the NMWA severely limits the inflow of sunlight to protect the artworks on display. 4. Buildings in Ueno Park Related to Le Corbusier The National Museum of Western Art (NMWA), a designated World Heritage site designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris; 1887–1965), is not the only notable example of Modernist architecture in Ueno Park. In fact, as you approach the park from the direction of Ueno Station, the first building you will notice is the imposing Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, a concert hall built in 1961. It is the magnum opus of Maekawa Kunio (1905–1986), who studied under Le Corbusier and was one of the three Japanese architects to whom the Frenchman delegated the hands-on design of the NMWA. Tokyo Bunka Kaikan stands directly opposite the museum building, making for easy comparison of these two concrete icons. While their column-based structures—a feature that Le Corbusier called pilotis and Maekawa incorporated in several of his buildings—are similar, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan appears both bulkier and more ornate than the somewhat modest NMWA. Maekawa’s structure features a spacious lobby, the deep blue ceiling of which is dotted with lights to signify the night sky, while the floor is decorated with a leaf-like pattern intended to bring to mind city streets in autumn. Passing between Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and the NMWA and heading further into the park, go straight and take a right at the entrance to Ueno Zoo to reach the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (TMAM). Another Maekawa design, this edifice dates back to 1975 and has a distinctive red-brown brick exterior that makes the building appear unobtrusive despite its size. Inside, distinctively Modernist features such as spiral staircases and abstract floor-tile patterns stand out, as does the placement of large sections of the galleries underground. On the whole, the TMAM feels less imposing than both the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and the NMWA, perhaps suggesting that Maekawa, in his later years, came closer than his teacher to achieving the Modernist movement’s goal of designing “human-sized” buildings.
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. The Ueno Daibutsu, the Great Buddha of Ueno, has survived a real cavalcade of misfortune during its 350-year history. Only the face of this once-imposing statue now stands on Daibutsuyama, a small hill in central Ueno Park, on which a Great Buddha figure was first installed in 1631. That original was financed by Hori Naoyori (1577–1639), lord of the Murakami domain (in present-day Niigata Prefecture). Hori had been presented land in Ueno for his services to the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and wanted to honor the memory of the countless thousands who had died during the Sengoku period (1467–1568), when local warlords vied for supremacy before the Tokugawa clan eventually emerged victorious. Hori’s seated Great Buddha outlasted its originator but was destroyed in 1647, when an earthquake caused a fire that burned down the building housing the statue. The Great Buddha of Ueno had become a well-loved landmark during its 16-year existence, and the people of Edo (present-day Tokyo) were eager to see it return. So eager, in fact, that a donation drive between 1655 and 1660 raised enough money to cast a new statue. The second Great Buddha, a bronze figure 3.6 meters tall, proved far more durable than its predecessor. While the statue did suffer repeated fire and earthquake damage in the 1800s, it was always restored, often by the descendants of Hori Naoyori. The turn of the century, however, meant a turn for the worse for the Great Buddha. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a 7.9-magnitude tremor that caused the death of more than 100,000 people, separated the statue’s head from the rest of its body. Then, during World War II, all the metal of the statue except for the face was requisitioned for military use, and the mangled Great Buddha was left to gaze at a storeroom wall for decades. Finally in 1972, the face was returned to its home on Daibutsuyama after repeated requests by the local tourism association.
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. History The Ameyoko shopping street runs along and partially underneath the elevated railway tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations. It is a symbol of the Ueno area’s rebirth after World War II, during which the neighborhood had been devastated by heavy aerial bombing. The firebombing carried out by U.S. forces in the closing months of the Pacific War reduced much of central and eastern Tokyo to ashes, shattering the city’s commercial system, which was squeezed further by economic controls imposed by the Allied Occupation after the end of the war in August 1945. Food and other necessities were rationed to deal with the general shortage of goods that continued into the immediate postwar period. The rationing system, alongside factors including a lack of work opportunities, tenuous government control, and the ravaged state of the economy in general, led to the rise of black markets. Mainly located near the busiest railway stations, these markets dealt in everything from rice and vegetables to military-issue sunglasses and leather jackets procured from the Occupation’s stockpiles. Ueno, the gateway to northern Japan, was one of the train stations next to which a black market sprang up. Located just south of the station, the market included a few stalls selling hard candy (ame in Japanese). Sugar was regulated by the Occupation authorities, so those with a craving for something sweet had to resort to various substitutes. One option was candy made from sweet potatoes, another was popsicles. Ueno’s black-market dealers sold both varieties to travelers waiting for their trains at Ueno Station, and demand exceeded all expectations. Merchants of the Tohoku region (northeastern Japan) would pack their bags with goods, take the train to Ueno to sell them, and use the money they earned to buy all the candy they could carry—which they would then sell at a three- or fourfold profit back in Tohoku. The Ueno black market soon had hundreds of candy shops, which inspired the nickname Ameya Yokocho (“Candy Store Alley”). Shortened to Ameyoko, the market was controlled by Japanese ex-soldiers formerly stationed in mainland Asia, who established a local merchants’ association in 1949. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 brought about a sudden demand for supplies and equipment, fueling the Japanese economy and causing a new influx of American goods. Supplies meant for the U.S. troops stationed in the Far East were soon being diverted and traded as contraband on the streets of Tokyo. Shops selling all-American merchandise such as Hershey’s chocolate, Zippo lighters, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and blue jeans, alongside military-issue essentials including soap and razors, opened up near Okachimachi station, south of the Ueno market. The trade in all things American led people to call the cluster of shops America Yokocho (“America Alley”). These shops eventually merged with the neighboring candy alley, and the two “Ameyokos” became one. The merchants of Ameyoko adapted to changes in tastes and demand over the decades that followed. They later abandoned candy in favor of canned goods, then moved into fresh fish and exotic novelties. The Ameyoko of today is a hodgepodge of shops dealing in everything from seafood and fruit to cosmetics and chocolate. This reflects the street’s history of always providing a space for merchants supplying whatever the people of Tokyo have an appetite for. Ameyoko Today The Ameyoko shopping street, which runs along and partially underneath the elevated railway tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations, comprises about 390 stores dealing in everything from seafood and fruit to cosmetics and chocolate. These shops line the 600-meter thoroughfare and the numerous alleys that branch out from the main street, and often display their products in eye-catching ways under awnings out front. While some of the shops are general stores, most of them focus on a specific product, such as sunglasses, jeans, belts, or even surplus military gear. This specialization has its roots in the early history of Ameyoko, when the street hosted many merchants dealing in merchandise procured from the U.S. military, which occupied Japan from 1945 until 1952. Ameyoko is also distinguished by its old-school business practices. Most shops take only cash, allow price bargaining, and would much rather give customers an extra item or two than provide change. Just about every shop at Ameyoko depends on a core group of regular customers, carefully cultivated over many years, so shop staff rarely feel the need to attract everyone who passes by. When a first-time customer does show some interest, though, the merchants are usually eager to chat face to face and suggest deals on the spot. Shopping around is also recommended, as the competition among Ameyoko stores is fierce and merchants are constantly trying to undercut each other. While far from the prettiest-looking shopping street in Tokyo, Ameyoko is a down-to-earth, welcoming spot brimming with energy that reverberates especially during the days just before New Year’s. At year-end, shoppers from all over Tokyo descend on Ameyoko to procure holiday delicacies and revel in the festive atmosphere, in a tradition that goes back to the mid-1970s. What to See at Ameyoko Ameyoko is one of Tokyo’s greatest street markets, where you can dig for finds, buy an entire picnic meal, or just observe energetic merchants in action. First-time visitors may want to start by walking the length of the 600-meter shopping street, which runs along the railway tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations and is lined with shops and stalls dealing in fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables, chocolate and other snacks, cosmetics, clothing, and much more. Particularly interesting stores facing the main street or located just off it include Nakata Shoten, Americaya, and Okuma Shokai. Nakata Shoten is one of the longest-standing businesses here: it was founded in the 1950s, when many Ameyoko merchants specialized in merchandise procured from the U.S. military, and still trades mainly in surplus military gear such as boots, jackets, and bags. Americaya, as the name gives away, sells wear and gear associated with the U.S.A., although today many of the blue jeans for which the shop is famous are of the artisanal Japanese variety. Okuma Shokai, another store with well over half a century of history, specializes in sukajan—the “souvenir jackets” embroidered with stereotyped symbols of Japanese culture and first worn by American soldiers stationed in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, after World War II. Directly underneath the tracks is the indoor Ueno Center Mall, also part of Ameyoko and home to dozens of small shops selling souvenirs, clothes, cameras, shoes, belts, perfume, and more. Another indoor destination is the Ameyoko Center Building, a triangular structure near the Ueno side entrance to Ameyoko. The Center Building’s basement houses a variety of grocery stores, including several selling Chinese and Southeast Asian foodstuffs, while the upper floors are occupied mainly by clothing and hobby shops.
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.