Ueno (pronounced when-oh) is a district in the north of Tokyo city, not far from Asakusa. It’s a great spot for visitors to the city and is best known for its vibrant park, buzzing market streets, museums and of course its food.
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Getting to Ueno
Ueno is easy to access by the train system from both the airport and other parts of the city. If you’re coming in from other parts of Tokyo both the above-ground JR lines and the subway system will be easy options.
The station was originally opened here is 1883 and the current building dates back to 1932. It’s stayed a major hub for the city as the entry point to Tokyo from the north with the Shinkansen (bullet trains) picking up here on their way to stops such as Kanazawa, Nagano or the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s also easy access to the airport with the Keisei Skyline from Narita airport.
So what are the top things to do in Ueno?
Ueno park is huge and although we have visited several times there is a lot to see. If you are staying nearby, or up early i’st nice to start the day with a walk around the lake in the quiet of the morning.
In spring the new lily pads will be starting to sprout up in the lake with the promise of a stunning display again come summer. The swan boats that you can take for a romantic paddle out on the water later in the day are tied up and there are a variety of birds resting on the water and in the surrounding trees.
This park is a place of constant activity though, even in the early hours. Cyclists and runners pass by, others are out walking and there is intense activity putting up tents and covers for what will be an avenue of food stalls a little later in the day.
The park will become busier as the day goes with many attractions focused in and around it but it is always with a visit. Many festivals, monthly and seasonal events are hosted here and it’s a popular cherry blossom viewing spot. There is also usually entertainment of some form going on here, musicians playing, dancing and acrobatics, we’ve seen the Taiko drums being played and magic tricks for the children
One of our top spots in Ueno and a really popular spot with both locals and tourists is the Ameyoko market. It’s easy to find across the road from the station and is always a good place to start exploring.
The market here started after WW2 selling sweets and other black market items during the occupation, today you can find a bit of everything here but there are still plenty of sweets and some good bargains.
The market sits along side and under the Yamanote Line and you will find pretty much anything you want here. It started and became known for sweets and you will still find plenty of those here with some great deals on some popular options like unique flavours of Kitkats and Tokyo Bananas. Equally you can buy wet fish and traditional vegetables alondside second hand kimonos, toys, souvenirs, electronics and some fabulous street food.
Most stores open mid-morning and it is a busy place for the rest of the day until it closes around 8 pm so be prepared for that especially on weekends and holidays.
When we hear about a local foodie highlight we are always ready to make a small detour for the experience so when we were told that Usagiya has been considered THE place to get dorayaki since 1913 we had to try it for ourselves.
Dorayaki are those tasty little Japanese pancake treats that are traditionally filled with sweet red bean filling. While the shop and cafe are open all day there is a special treat in store for the first few customers of the day who get the set menu of deconstructed dorayaki.
That means you need to be in the queue by 9 am. We were staying at The New Otani in Akasaka so we took the Ginza subway line to Ueno-Hirokoji, which is one stop before Ueno and Usagi-ya Cafe is less than a 5-minute walk from there.
It turns out this experience is really popular with locals. There is no English spoken so you’ll need to muddle through but it’s not difficult. We joined the queue just minutes after they opened at 9 am and the first sitting had already entered, a few people were already in the queue that had been there at opening but hadn’t made it in for the first sitting so we were lucky and a second sitting would get to enjoy the breakfast set that day. We were all handed a number and ended up waiting around 40 minutes.
Only once everyone from the first sitting had finished did we get invited inside, if every seat is full there are only 14 customers in here at a time but it’s comfortable and we are all here for the same thing, the deconstructed dorayaki, so the only decision to make is your drink preference. I opted for genmai, a roasted green tea and Drew went for a black coffee, both were excellent.
Then comes the main act, the light and fluffy dorayaki pancakes with their sides of rich salty butter fresh from Mombetsu in north-east Hokkaido and their own special chunky red bean jam. There are instructions on their recommended way to eat it, adding layers of butter and anko then folding it up like a taco being careful not to drip the contents as you bite into the light, sweet, salty morsel.
It’s a delicious way to start your day in Ueno and the price was reasonable too at Y900 per person for the set including a drink. Full and very happy we continued on to explore.
Usagi-ya Cafe is located at 1-17-5-1F Ueno Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0005
Ueno Park is a cultural hub in Tokyo with at least 7 major museums located around it. If you get a wet day in the city and aren’t wanting to shop these make great indoor options and there’s something to suit most interests.
The Tokyo National Museum is my personal favourite, the main collections are quite spectacular but there’s a separate building in the grounds that houses the Treasures of Horyuji Temple. This temple in the beautiful city of Nara, an ancient capital of Japan, dates back to 607 AD.
If you have any interest in Buddhist history this collection shouldn’t be missed. It mainly comprises bronze Buddha and Bodhisattva sculptures collated from around the world and much of the exhibit dates back to the 7th and 8th century. The collection was dedicated to the Imperial family from the temple in 1878.
The National Nature and Science Museum is a popular one for families and is easy to find with this life-size blue whale statue outside giving a very real appreciation our our relative size, you can see a man walking past it in the photo.
The museums around Ueno Park include:
- Tokyo National Museum. Opened in 1909 the museum has multiple buildings housing permanent and special exhibits. In addition to the Treasures of Horyuji Temple mentioned above there is also Japanese art, archeology, Asia gallery and outdoor exhibits
- National Nature and Science Museum is so large you could spend the whole day here so you’ll probably want to narrow it down. The dinosaur and fossil exhibits are excellent but if geology, human evolution, computers and technology or animals are of interest there is no shortage of exhibits structured around those either. Many exhibits are interactive and are either self-explanatory or information cards have English translations.
- The Ueno Royal Museum is an art museum opened in 1972 with Prince Hitachi as its patron.
- The Shitomachi Museum takes you back in time to explore the culture, history and tradition of the old town. The first level houses scenes, alleyways, rooms and shops recreated on a real-life scale to give a feel for life in the area a century ago. Upstairs are exhibits of items from the area and time.
- Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is beautifully curated and laid out, there are six galleries, 5 are dedicated to Japanese Art and the 6th features special exhibitions that change frequently featuring artists from around the world.
- The National Museum of Western Art was established in 1959 and features works from the Rennaissance through to the early 20th century. For modern art enthusiasts in Tokyo, you would head into Chiyoda, near the Imperial Palace.
Join a food tour
We’ve spent time in Ueno a number of times over the years and know it reasonably well but on a recent visit we joined the Tokyo Secret Food Tour. I wasn’t sure how many of the spots we would already know but it turned out full of very good surprises.
You can read a more detailed article at the link above but we met Tomoko, our guide, at Ueno station near the Hard Rock Cafe entrance. There were great directions sent ahead of time but she picked us out from the crowd as we walked up. It was a small group tour so very easy to hear and for Tomoko to keep track of us even during the crowds of Golden week.
There was a lot of food as you stop in and try a number of snacks and small plates as you walk around Ueno aswell as a Teishaku set lunch at a great little hidden restaurant.
Cherry Blossom in the early Spring
There are many famous spots in Japan to enjoy cherry blossom and we have our favourites but even in the capital there is a love of the sakura season and Ueno is one of the popular spots for both locals and visitors to enjoy it.
The wide avenues of the park lined with old cherry trees are perfect for strolling even with a little light rain around. There is an area down towards the temple on the lake where the yatai stalls are set up and you can buy the usual festival favourites of okonomiyaki, grilled fish, Takoyaki and noodles
Another really popular option is to meet up with friends, colleagues and loved ones for a picnic under the blossom trees, these parties are called hanami and are a popular way of enjoying the short blossom season. Most often the ubiquitous blue tarpaulins are set out on the grass under the trees but somewhere like Ueno that’s not an option but it doesn’t slow the enthusiasm of sitting out beneath the falling petals.
Peony festival in the late spring
Ueno Park is the site of many regular and annual events throughout the year, some cover large sections of the park while others have a smaller audience but are equally interesting if they co-incide with your time in Tokyo.
During a May visit the cherry blossoms were over but the Japanese love of seasons and festivals centred around nature was still well underway with the wisteria, azaleas and peonies. Behind the walls of the Ueno Toshogu Peony Garden, these billowy blousy flowers were putting on a dramatic display and given the display given a special Japanese touch.
Wandering through there were so many more forms of the flower than I’d known existed. They were well labelled so if you took a liking to a particular one you could search for it later and with the backdrop of the paper umbrella screens, tile-topped garden walls and the old temple pagoda beyond the setting itself was quite unique.
Paths wound through in an orderly direction although they were totally relaxed about people spending as long as they wanted in one spot or walking back to something that caught their attention. There are benches so you can take a seat under the old trees towards the end and a small stall selling iceblock to enjoy in the shade overlooking the garden. This style of iceblock is something Tomoko told me was quite nostalgic for older Japanese peeple.
I debated including this one as we’ve not visited the zoo ourselves but it may be of interest to others, particularly families spending time in Tokyo. You also can’t be in Ueno without noticing the tight connection the area holds to the zoo and its resident Pandas. The bakeries have cute panda buns, there are fluffy toys and phone cases, stickers, bags and pretty much every souvenir you can think or.
The Zoo is located in the midst of Ueno Park and has two permanently resident pandas. Ri Ri and Shin Shin have been at the zoo since 2011 and recently moved to their new cageless enclosure. Their 3-year-old daughter Xiang Xiang will also stay at Ueno until May 2021 when she must return to China.
If you also have a thing for pandas or know someone at home who does you could mail them some happy mail from the panda postbox in Ueno Park outside of the zoo. It will be stamped with a special panda picture postmark before being delivered.
Exploring nearby on foot
There are plenty of nearby areas to explore from a base in Ueno, you could take the subway or train but sometimes it’s just as easy to walk and along the way you will discover the less seen but equally interesting local area.
It’s a 1.9 km walk, less than 30 minutes from Ueno station to Nezu Shrine and almost half of that is through the lovely Ueno Park. This is one that I find so much easier to walk than catch public transport as I avoid local buses where I can and while it can be done by train/subway it will likely be no faster when you take into account the wait time and switches.
Nezu Shrine is especially popular during the late spring when all the azalea bushes are in bloom. The shrine is heavily planted out in these flowers and the riot of colour and fragrance makes it a very popular spot for local and those after a special photo spot.
From Ueno Station to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is a 1.8 km walk and will take you 25-30 minutes. This time you are headed away from the park and under the overhead railway tracks.
While it is slightly less scenic along the way there is still plenty of interest especially for foodies who might want to add a few minutes and take a more leisurely pass through Kappabashi kitchenware shopping street on the hunt for some unique ceramic bowls, cooking utensils or even that plastic food you see in front of so many restaurants here.
Asakusa itself offers a lot of attractions, there is Sensoji Temple, Asakusa Shrine, the ornate gates that lead into the shopping street then the temple itself, there is a treasure trove of wonderful food to be found here and some great street food options. Don’t miss our article on what to see in Asakusa along with all the best spots to eat, play and stay in this part of the city.
Plum Blossom festival
Yushima Tenmangu Shrine is about 900 metres from Ueno station, a 10-15 minute walk and most of it is a relaxing wander through Ueno Park. If you are here in late winter the Shrine hosts the Plum Blossom matsuri (festival) in late February which is fun to head along to.
In addition to the 300 plum trees blooming throughout the gardens, there are plum blossom bonsai around the shrine buildings, kiosks selling festival food which is always a special treat and live entertainment throughout the festival days. When we were there a school girl group were playing the Taiko drums with huge energy and skill.
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