When visiting Tokyo for the first time, one sleepy, jetlag heavy morning, we stubbed around the area we were staying and ended up on the west side of Ueno Park. Not knowing much about it, we wandered around aimlessly, discovering time after time the most peaceful, serene and beautiful little visual scenes which felt iconically Japanese. We loved it from the instant we stepped foot onto the lotus leaf-covered boardwalk which leads into the park. Ever since, when we return to Tokyo, we make a point to spend an entire half-day here exploring everything this place has to offer. Below are my favourite 13 things to do on your first trip to Ueno Park!
Ueno Park covers a large area and is surrounded by several stations. Most people who visit the park simply take the JR line to Ueno Station.
#1. Take a Walk on the Boardwalk
As you pass through the main gates of Ueno Park, you come upon a sea of green lotus leaves, absolutely glowing against that blue sky. This is Shinobazu Pond. The pond is situated in the south part of Ueno Park and is divided into three different areas. The Lotus Pond, the Boat Pond and the Cormorant Pond. There are several boardwalks across the Lotus pond which seemed to disappear into the green masses as they trailed off.
#2. Light some Spirit Cleansing Incense in the Benten-do
Beside the pond, stands a moderately tall temple with a bright teal roof and octagonal shell painted brilliant red. This is a Benten-dō. A Benten-dō is an octagonal temple dedicated to Benten, the goddess of good fortune, wealth, music and knowledge. Temples are the places of worship for Japanese Buddhists and often store and display sacred Buddhist objects. The roofs of these temples are almost always the most impressive part of the building. The intricate patterns of tiles create a rich texture, and intricate sculptures line the eaves, a contrast to the simple wooden structure below. In front of the temple, you'll find a large incense burner where locals will come to cleanse themselves before entering. Incense has been used in Buddism since the 6th century in Japan and is often used as a means of purifying yourself before entering the temple for meditation. The smell permeated this en
#3. Read Your Fortune
Found inside more shrines are cabinets containing 'O-mikujis'. O-mikujis means " the sacred lot" and are random fortunes written on pieces of paper housed in beautiful wooden drawers near the shrine. There are various ways of receiving these fortunes, but often they received by shaking a metal container with different sticks inside until one stick comes out a small hole at the top. You can then match the Kanji characters carved on the stick to the wooden drawers along the wall where your corresponding fortune will be found. Your fortune will always be characterized by a type of blessing. These blessings range from; great blessings, small blessings, half blessings, ending blessings and even, god forbid, curses. In additional to blessings, your fortune will also contain a reference to an aspect of your life. These can be such topics as; travel, lost articles, romantic relationships, disputes and business dealings.
4. Sample Street Food
Food stalls pop up all over the parks and around the temples. Even during the offseason, there is almost always something delicious to be found here! Most of the food stalls are selling traditional Japanese street food. If you've just arrived in Japan, this is such a great opportunity to dive right into to trying all different kinds of Japanese treats. Don't be scared of these, Japanese street food is very safe to eat!
#5. Ride in a Duck Boats
Around the back of the Benten-dō is the Boat Pond. This body of water is home to the brightly coloured duck boats and other small paddle boats available for rent. The cost to rent a swan boat is 700 yen for 30 minutes. Peddling around the pond, especially during cherry blossom season is a wonderful experience!
#6. Admire the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple
Make your way towards steep steps and climb up to the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple. From the top of the stairs, you have the most fantastic view of the Bentendo below and the beautiful trees surrounding it. The first Kiyomizu Kannondo temple was built in 1631. Although fire and weather have destroyed the original temple, the one standing atop the hill now is a perfect replica of the same one people have worshipped at for ages past. Standing in the courtyard and on the deck, you feel as though time has stopped. Nothing surrounds you but trees and the outside world, full of technology, stress and troubles, seems so far away.
The Kiyomizu Kannondo temple is home to a relic of Kosodate Kannon, the goddess of conception, and is particularly popular among women hoping to have children. You see many ladies come up these steps with their husbands, cheerfully smiling, hoping the goddess will bless them with their heart's desire. Other women approach the temple with a more
#7. Walk Through the Torii Gates
Walk back down to the stairs from the temple and stroll along the main walkway. Head towards the Ana Inari shrine where you'll find a stunning collection of 'torii' gates. A 'torii' gate is commonly found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mortal realm to the sacred realm. The brilliant vermillion colour you often see these gates painted with is used as the colour acts to block out magical powers and evil spirits. As we sauntered down the rows of bright vermillion gates, we saw various, curious stone foxes with red scarves on either side of the shrine. These are called 'Kitsune' or fox spirit. These Kitsune are believed to possess superior intelligence, long life, and magical powers and are also there to protect the shrines. Foxes in North America are often thought of as devious scoundrels, but in Japan, they are revered with the highest regard.
#8. Have a Hanami
Along the main road that winds throughout the park are rows upon rows of cherry blossom trees. There are over 1000 trees in the park, and in April they attract 'hanami parties' where locals come to celebrate and enjoy the incredible views. Even if you are visiting outside of cherry blossom season, I think these trees, no matter what time of years, are still the perfect place to park yourself under and enjoy a conbini picnic!
#9. Find the Ueno Daibutsu
One of the most interesting edifices in the park is the temple dedicated to the Ueno Daibutsu. The Ueno Daibutsu was a giant bronze Buddha statue that stood from 1631 - 1923. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. The remains were if you can believe it, melted down to make bullets in WWII and today all that remains is the great Buddha's face. People come from all over to see it. Outside the temple, the emas are all painted with the Ueno Daibutsu's face.
#10. Take a Step Back in Time at the Tokyo National Museum
The Tokyo National Museum is the oldest and largest museum in Japan. It's spread out across over 5 different building located inside the park. There are over 110,000 items on display which help newcomers to Japan learn all about its rich history! Admission is only 620 yen, which is less than $6 making it an amazingly cheap way to travel back in time!
#11. Write Your Wishes on an Ema
Outside almost every temple in Japan, you'll see hundreds of small, wooden plaques hanging on a large board. Each one is painted on one side, and the other is left for the user to write upon it. These are called 'Emas'. Emas are prayers or wishes left for the gods to receive. Often ema will bear pictures which may reflect the wish or the god they are trying to reach out to. The word 'ema' means "picture horse". This is because long ago, people would donate their horses to shrines to win favour with the gods. As time went on, this tradition was transferred to wooden plaques with horses painted on them. These days, you donate money to the shrine to receive your chosen ema. People will often use their ema wish for luck on an exam or for a happy marriage or even just to pray for a child. Depending on your type of wish, you can search out a shrine or temple which specializes in your kind of wish.
#12. Find the Golden Gates of Toshogu Shrine
If you're interested in seeing some Edo style architecture, head over to the Toshogu Shrine. This gorgeous shrine has survived earthquakes, wars and the worst of them all, urbanization! The shrine was dedicated to the Tokugawa Shoguns (commander in chief in feudal Japan) and is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. Unlike some more modest shrines, this shrine is full of ostentatious ornamentation! Everywhere you look there appears to be gold leaf, shining in the sunlight. Over 50 copper lanterns greet you as you enter. Be sure to study the gorgeous wood carving painted in stunning rainbow colours which decorate the entire exterior of the shrine.
#13. Ameya Yokocho
To end your day, head over to Ameya-Yokochō. Ameya-Yokochō is a marketplace home to over one hundred and eighty-one shops occupying about 164,227 square feet outside of Ueno station. The market consists of two streets, which run parallel to the train line. The first street is mainly street vendors selling local produce and fresh food while the other streets have mostly permanent shops which sell everyday goods and slightly more upscale merchandise. The name Ameya-Yokochō comes from the word "ameya" which in Japanese means "candy store". After WWII, sugar was hard to obtain, but in this area of Japan, there were many candy stores still selling the precious sweets. Even today, you can still find a few stores selling Japanese candy. It's a great place to find sweet and savoury items or just browse some awesome shops where you can find great souvenirs at low, low prices!