Ueno Park is one of Tokyo’s most popular destinations for families and tourists to visit and it’s not hard to see why – there’s a place for everyone, young or old. Apart from being Japan’s largest city park, Ueno Park is home to some of Japan’s top museums, including The Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the National Science Museum (with an enormous life size replica of a sperm whale displayed at the entrance), making it a sheer delight for culture vultures. Also within the park is the renowned Ueno Zoo, several temples and religious shrines. The park’s central pathway is lined with over 1200 cherry trees, and come April this year when cherry blossoms are in bloom, thousands of hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties are expected to be held to celebrate the annual spectacle.
Our day at Ueno Park started off at the Systematized Goodwill Guide (SGG) Club desk beside the Green Salon Cafe where we met our guide Kumiko-san at 10:30am. Kumiko-san is part of the English-speaking group of volunteers who conduct free guided tours around Ueno and Asakusa for foreign visitors. The 90-minute tour took us around the park and to several points of interest, including the International Library of Children’s Literature which was designed by famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Kumiko-san made the tour as personable and insightful as possible, taking time to introduce the Japanese history, religion and culture at each point of interest, and providing us with an understanding of the time during the Japanese feudal period (Edo period) and the Meiji Restoration. We also learned a great deal about the symbols and significance of making origami cranes (to convey well wishes for consolation), donating dolls to the fertility temple, the representation of the earth’s 5 elements in Pagoda architecture and the rationale behind clapping 3 times as part of the temple rites (to call upon the kami or spirits of the shrine). We came to appreciate the essence of the Japanese culture through an incredibly personal encounter.
After the tour ended at the Shinobazu pond (a bird sanctuary where lotus plants come into bloom in August), Kumiko-san suggested that we visit the Shitamachi Museum just further up.
The Shitamachi Museum pays homage to the urban Tokyo of the early 20th century and is a lovely place where the elderly can come to reminisce about the good ol’ days, and the young to learn about Japan’s illustrious past. The first floor is a reconstruction of an old Shitamachi street and includes a merchant house (Hanao or Japanese sandal manufacturer and wholesaler), a dagashi-ya (children’s sweet shop), and a doko-ya (coppersmith’s workshop). Visitors are welcome to step into the stores and homes to to look around, sit down at the table and imagine they are living in an old Shitamachi tenement.
The second floor displays artifacts and memorabilia which provide insight into Shitamachi culture, including kitchen life, customs, children’s games, local festivals and events, which have disappeared or changed over time. Occasionally, the museum holds special events such as kamishibai (storytelling) and hanao sandal strap craft demonstrations. An exhibition of traditional crafts is held every spring and autumn.
Do stop by this cute museum if you are in the area. While it is small and no where as elaborate as the other museums in the park, it does give you an opportunity to experience life as it was in a very vivid and poignant way. Free guided tours are also available on request. On our way out, the staff presented us with a small origami hako (box) which we will keep and treasure as a wonderful symbol of friendship.
We highly recommend spending a good part of your day at Ueno Park, there’s bound to be something that will appeal to you – better still if you come next month, in time for the cherry blossoms.
Open Tue-Sun from 9:30am – 4:30pm (closed Mon)
For information on SGG free guided tours, visit their website: Tokyo SGG club
For a detailed walking tour of Ueno Park and its surrounds, Frommer’s has a great walking itinerary: Frommer’s Tokyo walking tour
Access: Ueno Station (JR line, Ginza or Hibiya line via subway)
Additional side-visit while you are in the area: Ameya Yokocho, a narrow shopping street located under and along the west side of the elevated tracks of the Yamanote Line between Ueno and Okachimachi stations. Feels like a mini-Tsukiji with dozens of stalls selling a wide selection of fresh seafood produce, fruits and dried goods. This street is also where locals come to purchase their cosmetic products at low prices…and bargaining is acceptable here, just say ‘makete’!