Better Know a Neighborhood: Ueno (Tokyo)

When I lived in Tokyo four years ago, Ueno Zoo had no panda. Since then, they’ve once again become the proud owners of a black and white bear and it seemed the perfect weekend outing for my toddler this past weekend. But beyond the zoo, visitors to Ueno can enjoy even more forms of entertainment, as the park plays host to several museums, Tokyo’s best zoo, an amusement park and multiple shrines and temples.

Ueno (pronounced oo-AY-no) has long been popular with tourists to the capital. Visiting feudal lords and lackeys stayed in the grand temple complex that once occupied these grounds during their tours to Edo’s seat of government, while cherry blossom viewers clogged Ueno’s dirt paths even in the late 1800s. Even today, the park is one of the capital’s prime spots for hanami parties so expect HUGE crowds if you come here at sakura time.

Near the zoo, you’ll find Ueno Toshogu Shrine. The shrine – one of 200 Toshogu shrines in the nation – pays homeage to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the long ruling Tokugawa shogunate (feudal military-run government) which met its unfortunate end in this very park. The one here in Ueno is extraordinary in that the buildings before you are the original 17th century constructions (1651 to be exact). When everything else was falling to pieces in the Boshin War and the Great Kanto Earthquake, this small piece of real estate remained intact.

Lanterns outside the Ueno toshogu Shrine

Down from the Toshogu Shrine, you’ll stumble across a giant buddha head. Once a statue only second in size to the massive Buddha in Nara (Japan’s first capital, located near Kyoto), this deity’s eternal meditation was rudely interrupted by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 when poor Buddha literally lost his head. Repair might have been possible if the war hadn’t intervened and, in the early 1940s, the
statue’s body was melted down to make bullets.

Prayer plaques at the Great Buddha Head

Pass the temple of Kiyomizu (a subsidiary of the great temple by the same name in Kyoto) and veer off to the left to glimpse the tomb of the Shogitai. Under this simple white stone monument lay the remains of a few hundred samurai who found themselves on the losing side of a battle for modernity. In the mid 1860s, Japan was still reeling from the opening of its doors to the West a decade earlier. When newly restored Emperor Meiji officially abolished the shogunate, he essentially pulled the tatami mat out from under a pampered ruling class of samurai. Upset with their loss of status and angry with the Emperor’s generous treatment of foreigners, they declared open rebellion against the new regime. On May 15, 1868, a band of 2000 samurai loyal to the ousted Tokugawa made a heroic but doomed last stand in Ueno Park. They were cut down by the muskets of the Emperor’s troops. Ironically, the leader of the Imperial Forces that decimated the Shogitai that day was none other than … Saigo Takamori.

The tomb of the Shogitai

And who was Saigo Takamori? In case you missed my Crash Course on samurai, he’s the legendary man many consider to be the “last samurai” of Japan and the inspiration for Ken Watanabe’s character in the movie The Last Samurai. Originally a strong supporter of the Emperor, he enthusiastically championed a Japan open to foreigners and on the road to modernization. However, after several years leading government troops, his growing disillusionment with the emperor’s “restoration” plans led him to revolt with other dissatisfied samurai. His failed attempt at reestablishing the power of the samurai class and his dramatic death (possibly by seppuku, or ritual suicide, though some accounts say a fatal wound got to him first) after the Satsuma Rebellion in 1878 only helped to fuel the romantic legends of this formidable warrior.

Statue of Saigo Takamori

There’s plenty more to see in Ueno like the National Museum, the Shitamachi Museum or the Ameyoko Market. Interested in a personalized itinerary that includes Ueno? Check out the Uncover Japan homepage for more information.

One thought on “Better Know a Neighborhood: Ueno (Tokyo)

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: