UENO / OKACHIMACHI
As with many areas in Tokyo, Ueno is centered on its main station – Ueno-eki.
The station itself was first constructed in the summer of 1883 and over the 123-years since has served as the gateway to the capital for millions of residents of northern Japan. As they poured into the city searching for employment or escape from rural servitude, Ueno to them was acting a part similar to that of Ellis Island in American history as it welcomed those arriving from Europe. Even in modern times, Ueno still retains something of this ‘first arrival point’ aura, especially for many foreign visitors to Tokyo accessing the capital via Skyliner from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. The station is also the first stop on the shinkansen bullet train routes heading for northern prefectures.
For the majority of Japanese however, the station now serves more as an access point to the cultural heart of the capital – Ueno Park.
Running essentially east to west, Ueno Park was the 1868 brainchild of a Dutch doctor working in Japan; Antonius Bauduin. Overcoming local opposition and plans to have the area used for a hospital, Bauduin worked at persuading the early Meiji-era powers to use the land as a park for the local populace. Successful in his quest, Bauduin is today remembered in the form of a statue to be found in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
Ueno Park meanwhile is known around the nation and on any day of the week plays host to crowds of tourists rubbing shoulders with locals out cycling, visiting one of the many museums and concert halls or simply taking a stroll.
In terms of museums Ueno-koen as it is called in Japanese has no equal. With six major facilities gathered within the roughly 1200m by 500m confines of the park, the worlds of art, history, science and culture are all represented on what was once sprawling temple grounds named Kanei-ji.
In mid-May of 1868, ignoring diplomatic efforts at avoiding loss of life and ceding to the inevitable, the temple grounds were the site of a brief but bloody battle in which Tokugawa Shogunate supporters were quashed by forces representing the then Meiji Emperor. Several hundred of approximately 2000 rebels died in the battle and their remains were interred in the small enclosure not far from a bronze statue of Saigo Takamori; the man who had worked so hard to secure the bloodless handover of power in the weeks leading up to the battle. During the battle, fires lit by persons still undetermined lay waste to the temple and its many buildings in addition to around 1000 homes of local residents.
This inferno would not be the last to strike the area as the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the March 1945; US fire-bombings at the end of World War II again leveled much of Tokyo and rendered it unfit for human habitation for a short period. In the case of the 1945 fires, many locals were saved by retreating into the underground tunnels of the main station complex – a place orphaned children were still said to be living in the late 1940s.
Saigo’s statue came through both disasters unscathed it would appear and is the first thing those who have ascended the steps lined with portrait sketching artists from street level will see. Whether wholly accurate or not, it is believed that the wife of the once great military man was unhappy with the statue and even compared it to Saigo’s brother – the model for the statue as no photos of Takamori were ever taken and the statue was cast and erected 17-years after his death in Kagoshima.
Back in the modern age though, the park in the early 21st century has something for everyone and far outdoes the image of ‘park’ when looked up in a dictionary.
Entering via the main entrance opposite the exit / entrance to JR Ueno Station, on the left can be seen the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall and on the right the National Museum of Western Art. Recommended immediately is a visit to the friendly Ueno Park Greenery Information Bureau on the immediate right of the entrance gate to pick up maps and / or museum guides.
A broad avenue lined with hundreds of cherry trees runs 300m down to the main gate of Ueno Zoo (opened 1882) and during the fortnight or so that Tokyoites have to enjoy the cherry blossoms each spring, the wide avenues of Ueno host thousands of ‘hanami’ cherry blossom viewing parties with revelers sitting, eating and drinking for hours on end beneath the layer of pink that descends upon the park.
A turn to the right at the first corner past the National Museum of Western Art and a short walk brings visitors to the National Science Museum with its interesting collection including dinosaur remains and space rocks. The building itself is in the shape of an airplane albeit several floors in height.
Opposite the main entrance of the Science Museum stands a clump of trees inside which can be seen the statue of the now world famous Japanese scientist ‘Hideyo’ Noguchi, (real name Seisaku) who discovered the agent of the syphilis disease and achieved globally acknowledged success studying yellow fever. Ironically Noguchi was for ever at odds with Tokyo’s scientific and medical establishments due to a hand disability so he spent the majority of his life living and working in the USA. He was buried in New York after contracting yellow fever in 1928.
Past the Science Museum, and after turning to the left, a look right will bring into view the Tokyo National Museum behind which lies the Kanei-ji Graveyard with the graves of a number of one time Tokugawa Shoguns from the Edo-era (1603-1867) Japan.
One of the capital’s, and the nation’s finest museums, visiting this building alone could easily take up a day or more. The Toyo-kan (non-Japanese Asian art pieces), Hyokei-kan (containing a collection of ancient domestic archaeological discoveries), and the Horyu-ji Treasure House (Buddhism related treasures) are all in the same grounds and should not be missed if open as each offers insights into either Japanese culture through the ages or the cultures of her neighbors and acquaintances.
The road opposite the main museum complex then leads up through the heart of Ueno Park past the fountain in the centre of the concrete boulevard that stands atop the site of the former main hall of Kanei-ji.
To the right, through the trees can be seen yet another museum, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Originally built in 1926, a great deal of the facility is nowadays situated underground so as not to spoil the view above ground.
Ueno Zoo borders the art museum and is still famous today as the first Western style zoo in the country. Ueno Zoo opened a decade and a half into the reign of Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor. Free to visit on April 29th, the day designated Green Day in memory of the birthday of the Meiji Emperor’s grandson; the Showa Emperor (1901-1988), the zoo itself is split into an upper and lower level connected by winding walkway or monorail. The lower level is set down the natural slope at the eastern edge of the park and runs flush to Shinobazu Pond.
Probably the most famous pond in the Kanto area, Shinobazu was once part of a natural inlet that stretched up from Tokyo Bay but over the centuries since it was separated from the ocean, has turned into a freshwater body of water today known for its water lilies and boating options.
Interestingly, in the late 19th century, a horse racing track one ran around the 2.5km circumference of the pond but only lasted 9-years before it was removed. In the middle of the pond stands Benten-do, a Shinto shrine believed to be a replica of a similarly positioned shrine in Lake Biwa in the Kansai region of Japan. According to at least one source, the shrine was constructed by the first head priest of Kanei-ji in the early-mid 17th century before being flattened in the 1945 air raids and rebuilt again 13-years later.
At the corner of Shinobazu stands the small but immensely interesting Shitamachi Museum with its fine collection of hands-on, touch and play exhibits dating from the years between the 1860s and the 1920s. For a small fee it is possible to see how many of the regular folk of Edo, then Tokyo , lived their lives via the life size model shops and homes that can be seen inside the museum.
Leaving the park via the entrance-cum-exit just behind the Shitamachi Museum, a chicane of roads past the Keisei Line Station culminates in the main Ueno Station entrance and also the access point to one of the most famous streets in modern Japan – Ameyoko.
Ameyoko, real name – Ameya Yokocho always seems crowded but in the days running up to the New Year festivities it is jam packed with bargain seekers out to pick up some of the freshest seafood in the capital at rock bottom prices. Fish and crabmeat notwithstanding, the name is said to come from the original shops that opened in the area – ‘ame,’ or candy shops.
Running alongside the overhead train lines for approximately 400m, Ameyoko is far from food, food, food as numerous shops selling everything from baseball caps to household goods can be seen nestled beneath the old arches that support the hundreds of trains that rumble overhead daily.
On the opposite side of the train lines, beneath or around the back of the arches is more of the same as bars, restaurants and shops all vie for space in the limited space separating Ameyoko and the multi-storied Marui City that constitute Ueno 4-chome and 6-chome respectively.
Okachimachi, the station sat above Kasuga Dori at the far end of Ameyoko from Ueno-koen, seems something of an oasis when reached. Streets widen – just – and the crowds dissipate somewhat. Order returns if only in limited form.
Okachimachi has long been the forgotten little brother of Ueno although it is officially within the limits of Ueno in geographical and postal terms. As many of the streets around the station and off Kasuga Dori appear to retain the same mixed batch of offerings and tiny entrances therefore, the realization that many shop windows seem to be offering the same thing takes time.
The simple grid layout of streets stretching down from the main JR station, across Route 4 and down towards the Kuramae area are home to multiple jewelry outlets selling gold, silver and diamonds in almost any combination you care to think of.
Although the area was never officially labeled as a ‘jewelry area’ per se in the same way Ginza was once the silversmith’s area of operations and Kinza (currently Shimbashi) the goldsmith’s locale, the collection of shops all selling similar items is uncanny.
Besides jewelry, several huge discount stores can be found alongside Route 4 – most notably Takeya – a strange purple building bursting at the seams with anything and everything you may need in the house or in pursuit of sporting activities. Discounts are on offer every day of the week so time your visit carefully and whatever you take away will likely be cheaper than elsewhere.
Back under the train lines stands the Matsuzakaya Department Store and its Annex – together forming one of Tokyo’s oldest department stores. Today Matsuzakaya is surprisingly quiet in terms of customer numbers so is the ideal spot to find a cafe and relax as you reflect on the tranquility and depth of culture to be found in Ueno Park and the chaos in the surrounding streets that stretch up to and envelop Okachimachi.