Ueno Area

 

It always baffles me that guidebooks send people to Ueno for all the wrong reasons. For example, if you go during cherry blossom season, chances are, all you’ll see is this:

Hanami
Horrible, right? More people than flowers!
HanamiParty
This kind of beer-drinking banquet craziness is common in Ueno Park during The Season.

Ugh! But all is not lost – if you buy a ticket for the Tokyo National Museum (specializing on Japanese art and antiques – check here to see what special exhibition will be on while you’re there) and mosey out back to their secret garden…

Beautiful, serene and uncrowded! You can only get into this small but lovely garden with a ticket to the museum, but what’s special about it is that traditional teahouses are scattered throughout, and during cherry blossom season they are booked solid by private groups performing tea ceremonies. So, bonus points, you also will get to see lots of women in their finest formal kimonos.

The other hack for Ueno Park during o-hanami is to go at night. They hang lanterns in the trees along the main promenade and the crowds are thinner, despite it being WAY better than daytime.

Nice, right?
HairShrine
Of course, if you must go to Ueno Park during the day, be sure you head up the stairs and see the temple on top of the hill. It’s worth it just to say you’ve been to the “Hair Pagoda for Priest Tenkai.”

But the Tokyo National Museum is only one of the attractions clustered at the end of the park. I usually skip the other art museums unless there’s an exhibit I particularly want to see, but I can’t resist stopping into the National Museum of Nature and Science to visit the All Things Especially Japanese wing.

Front and center are the truly excellent life-size dioramas depicting Japanese of yore. The thing I love about these is that they chose moments in the lives of ancient people and really brought them to life. Although they’re obviously using past-sell-date technology and wearing clothing that’s so last epoch, their expressions and reactions are exactly like people today.
You can practically hear this mom prodding Junior to pay attention to his pontificating old teacher instead of pestering her to let him go play video games
The Japanese wing also has displays on the evolution of rice, chrysanthemums, goldfish and…dogs. The five kinds of extremely proud-looking Japanese woofers are all represented, including the ACTUAL stuffed Hachiko (she’s the white one) whose statue is everyone’s favorite meeting place outside Shibuya Station
Kabutomushi (those inexplicably popular pets) are also well-represented in all their niche-occupying Darwinian glory
And the hall of mammals is a giant roundabout of beady animal goodness

Open: Every day, except closed Mondays (but if Monday is  holiday, the museum is open on the Monday and closed on Tuesday), and also closed from 12/31-1/3

Hours: 9:00 – 17:00, open late on Fridays until 20:00

Admission: Adults: ¥620, Children (up through high school): Free

MAP

But not all the attractions of Ueno Park cost money – the Ueno Toshogu Shrine is a surprise of a golden bauble with a nice red-and-gold pagoda.

A red and gold shrine, in the finest Toshogu tradition
And if you’re in Tokyo in late April instead of Crazy Cherry Season, you’ll get to see this. Every spring, the shrine hosts a killer peony exhibit and dahlias, in the fall.

MAP

July brings all the lotus on the Shinobazu Pond into bloom…
…and there are lots of them

There’s also a charming summer festival in July that includes a nighttime parade and floating lanterns on the Shinobazu pond. For this year’s dates, check the Tokyo Cheapo website July events page.

And while you’re over near the pond, there’s a charming small museum called the Shitamachi Museum that lets you wander through the streets and step into the rooms of a bygone Japan. This little timewarp takes you back to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), which is after Japan opened to the West, but before any of the world wars took their toll.

Everything is life-sized on the first floor of this museum, and it’s easy to imagine you’re walking through a real Meiji Era town
Every room is meticulously styled with real goods from back in the day, including my favorite, this news stand. Penny candy, comic books, cheap toys – it’s a one stop child magnet of yore
Upstairs is a Meiji Era cafe that looks like the local uncles just stepped outside in the middle of their go game, plus great displays of childrens’ toys, insect battling tools and a stereoscope you can load with 3-D street scenes from bygone days

Open: Every day, except closed Tuesdays

Hours: 9:30 – 16:30

Admission: ¥300

MAP

And although I wouldn’t usually recommend wasting precious Japan time visiting a zoo, they do have pandas.

SONY DSC
Not something you can see everywhere, so if pandas are your thing, it’s a good chance to see them

Open: Six days a week, closed Mondays, on the day after national holidays, and from December 29 – January 1. Open other holidays.

Hours: 9:00 – 17:00 (Last entry 16:00)

Admission: Adults: ¥600, Seniors (65 & older): ¥300, Students (13-15): ¥20, Children (0-12): Free.

MAP

Outside Ueno Park, there’s one shopping experience I do make a special trip all the way to Ueno for, and it’s NOT THIS:

Ameya-yokocho might have been a great place to experience a shitamachi market street about twenty years ago, but the Koshinzuka Street Market and the street leading up to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa are about a thousand times better these days. Mostly because…
…unless you’re in the market for some smelly dried squid tentacles to entertain your home country’s customs officials upon re-entry, I’d be very surprised if you can find a Made In Japan tag on anything sold in Ameyoko

But you should visit Ueno for this toy store. Since the renovated Kiddyland in Harajuku has sadly become filled with international brand goods (I can get Snoopy and Barbie back home, thanks), Yamashiro-ya is my go-to emporium for only-in-Japan toystuffs.

Transformer toys that turn into bullet trains…
…old-fashioned robot things that light up…
…lots and lots of strange Japanese character toys…

…and, uh, stuff like THIS.

Yamashiroya

MAP

UENO AREA MAP

Nearby destinations: Akihabara, Asakusa, Asakusa-bashi, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Inari-cho, Kappabashi, Mitsukoshi-mae, Nezu Shrine, Ningyo-cho

Read a novel set in Tokyo

The #1 hostboy at Club Nova makes a handsome living, whispering sweet nothings in the ears of women who pay him a fortune for the privilege. But the party’s over when Tokyo Detective Kenji Nakamura is assigned to investigate the death of one of Hoshi’s customers…read more

 

 

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