explore ueno

Five Ueno Park Highlights

Ueno Park (Ueno koen in Japanese) is a major park in Tokyo. Some call it one of Tokyo’s most beautiful parks (in particular during cherry blossom season), to others it does not measure up to the other beautiful greens in the capital. The reason why is because Ueno park is in my opinion more of a functional open area with museums, zoo and shrines, rather than a well kept Japanese garden (such as Shinjuku Gyoen and Rikugien). It does not help either that several areas in the park have received a crisp layer of concrete.

Ueno Park was established on the grounds of the once glorious Kan’ei-ji temple, the main family temple of the Tokugawa shoguns during the Edo period (1603-1868). Some remnants of Kan’ei-ji temple are still present in the park including the two oldest buildings in Tokyo. After the demise of the Tokugawa reign, the area was designated as the first public park in Tokyo in 1873. We have to thank Dutch military Dr. Anthonius Franciscus Bauduin (1820-1885), who first proposed the idea of making this area a public park. Bauduin was a medical doctor in the Dutch army and moved to Japan in 1862 to enter the military in Japan and head the medical school in Nagasaki.

Ueno Park can be roughly divided in the following 4 parts:

  • Museum area in the North and West
  • Shrines and temples in the Centre
  • Ueno Zoo in the East
  • Shinobazu Pond in the South

Many visitors come to the park for a specific reason, either for one of the museums or for Ueno Zoo (the oldest zoo in Japan). However, there is much more to do and see here, places that are connected to a rich history. Find below my highlights in Ueno Park.

1. Shinobazu Pond

In the south of the park, there is a huge lotus pond. It is one of the major lotus ponds in Japan. Shinobazu Pond is actually divided into 3 separate ponds with only the southern one being the lotus pond. The northern one is the Duck Pond and the western one is the Boat Pond (no kidding). At its centre lies Benten Island on which you can find Benten-do temple that is dedicated to Benzaiten (one of the lucky gods, popular in the shitamachi areas of Tokyo). Historically, this place used to be just a cove of Tokyo Bay more than 2000 years ago. The pond remained after the sea withdrew. Thanks to this geograpic feature it was chosen as the location for Kan’ei-ji temple.

The best time to visit this pond is in summer (July and August) in the early morning hours, as the flowers already close themselves around noon. In winter the lotus flowers are all withered and the pond gives a pitiful impression, beautiful in its own way of course.

Shinobazu pond in summer with Benten-do temple in the background.

2. Kiyomizu Kannon-do of former Kan’ei-ji temple

This is the oldest remnant of the once glorious Kan’ei-ji temple, without which there would be no Ueno park today. At its peak this temple complex consisted of 68 structures, of which the Kiyomizu Kannon-do was only one minor place. The temple is set on a platform overlooking a circle made from pine tree. This circle is called the pine tree of the moon (tsuki no matsu in Japanese) and it represents nothing special actually, it was just a nice shape that became famous with local people and was picked up by Ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige in his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856–59), giving this shape historical significance. Read more about Kiyomizu Kannon-do in my full article.

The main building and pine tree of the moon at Kiyomizu Kannon-do.

3. Toshogu Shrine

This shrine also used to belong to the earlier mentioned Kan’ei-ji temple. It was built in 1627, then rebuilt in 1651. This temple enshrines the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616, reign as shogun: 1603–1605). The Tokugawa’s used a lot of gold to show their power during those days, and that is one of the main things that jump at you when you visit this shrine. The shrine, karamon (Chinese style gate) and the sukibei wall are all from 1651. It reopened in 2014 after five years of renovations, making it shine like never before.

Entrance of Toshogu Shrine.

4. Gojoten Shrine and Hanazono Inari Shrine

These two small shrines are built side by side and share the space around them. Hanazono Inari Shrine is perhaps the oldest, it is actually unknown when it was established, but we do know that it was here when Kan’ei-ji temple was founded in 1625 at which time this small shrine became the guardian of the temple. Gojoten Shrine is also very old and apparantly moved around until it was relocated here in the park in 1928. Both of the current shrine buildings were built in that year. The great thing about these two shrines are all the little nooks, small buildings and pathways that bring you up and down.

Gojoten shrine main building.

5. Sakura Lane (in cherry blossom season)

A wide lane pierces through Ueno park from Shinobazu pond to the northern museum area. Since the early 17th century cherry trees were planted in what were then the Kan’ei-ji temple grounds, and in 1969 new ones were planted along this central lane. The park has established itself as one of the major spots for cherry blossom viewing during spring (the so called hanami) since the Edo period (1603-1868) and is still one of the most popular places today. Temporary lanterns are hung to provide a magical light-up when it gets dark. The practice of hanami is over 1000 years old, and is definitely essential to the Ueno park experience if you happen to visit during cherry blossom season (about 2 weeks starting at the end of March/early April), together with 2 million other visitors who will come to this park specifically for these pink flowers. The cherry trees are not limited to only this wide sakura lane, you will find them throughout the park. It is said there are about 1200 cherry trees.

Sakura lane at Ueno park (early April 2017).

Place names in Japanese

1. Shinobazu Pond: 不忍池
2. Kan’ei-ji Kiyomizu Kannon-do: 寛永寺 清水観音堂
3. Toshogu Shrine: 上野東照宮
4. Gojoten Shrine, Hanazono Inari Shrine: 五條天神社 花園稲荷神社
5. Sakura Lane: 上野公園桜通り