explore ueno

Tokyo’s oldest temple: Kiyomizu Kannon-do in Ueno

Tucked away inside Ueno park lies the oldest (large) building in Tokyo. It is one of the remnants 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 one minor place. After the demise of the Tokugawa reign in 1868, 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 Dutch army and moved to Japan in 1862 to enter the military in Japan to head the medical school in Nagasaki.

Kiyomizu Kannon-do is a true gem to visit and I am puzzled why it took 10 years after my first visit to Ueno park before I paid attention to this temple. It is supposed to be a copy of the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, so naturally I wondered why I should take the time to visit this temple and not just hop on the shinkansen to Kyoto. While hopping on the train to Kyoto is definitely a good thing to do when visiting Japan, this not-so-little red building in Ueno park is definitely worth a visit as well.

The main temple building and the pine tree of the moon in March 2017.

The temple is set in a background of greens, with a platform overlooking a circle made from pine tree. This circle is called the pine tree of the moon (tsuki no matsu in Japanese), which in fact does not represent anything special, 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. The original tree was unfortunately destroyed in a storm during the Edo period (1603-1868), the current tree dates from 2011. From the viewing platform, you can view Shinobazu pond and Benten-do Temple through the circle, 2 other major attractions of Ueno park.

The oddly shaped pine tree is not the only reason to visit this temple, as the characteristic old temple building gives you the atmosphere that you can expect from an old building like that. The elevation make this temple a great photo opportunity.

The temple is primarily dedicated to Senju-Kannon Bosatsu, together with Kosodate-Kannon, but I think these are minor reasons for attracting visitors. It is apparently particularly popular among women hoping to conceive and provides protective charms and amulets for that purpose.

The building was moved to its current spot in 1694, and received a full-scale restoration between 1990 and 1996. Kan’ei-ji temple has one other old building: a five-storied pagoda on the zoo grounds. Unfortunately it cannot be visited, and you have to pay the entrance fee to the zoo in order to have a closer look.

In practice

1-29 Uenokoen, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Closest station:
Ueno station (main station) – 4 minutes walk from the Park Exit (Tokyo Metro Ginza Line and Hibiya Line, Utsunomiya Line, Takasaki Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line, Yamanote Line, Joban Line and various Shinkansen lines)

Opening hours: always open

Entrance: free

When to best visit? Cherry blossom season

Why visit? The oldest temple in Tokyo, with an oddly shaped tree famous since the Edo days thanks to Hiroshige’s Ukiyo-e.

Name in Japanese: 清水観音堂