[Special Edition] 30 Things to Do in Tokyo’s Famous Downtown Area, Ueno
Ueno is an area that is enveloped by the rich shitamachi (working-class or downtown) atmosphere of Tokyo. It is filled so much appeal and sightseeing spots that you probably won’t be able to explore them all in a single day, such as the famous shopping street called "Ameyoko" and Ueno Park, which is packed with cultural facilities, temples, and shrines. With that, here are 30 recommended things to do and see in Ueno!
How to Get to Ueno
There are four train stations in Ueno: JR Ueno Station, Ueno Station on the Ginza Line, Ueno Station on the Hibiya Line, and Keisei Ueno Station on the Keisei Line. Ueno is about 40 minutes away using the Keisei Line from Narita Airport, and around 8 minutes away if you take the JR Yamanote Line from Tokyo Station. It also boasts easy access from a lot of major spots in Tokyo, as it's just a train ride away on the JR Yamanote Line if you’re coming from Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara. The same holds true if you're coming from Ginza and Asakusa using the Ginza Line.
The Perfect Time for Sightseeing
The best season to go to Ueno for some sightseeing is spring. The sakura (cherry blossoms) are usually in full bloom from late March until early April, so the area will be crowded with tourists. Autumn leaf viewing is also popular in this area from late November until early December. Also, from mid-July through mid-August, summer festivals are held here, so you will be able to witness various events every day during that period.
Recommended Sightseeing Spots and Activities
Enjoy Hanami at Ueno Park
Ueno Onshi Koen (Ueno Park) is the biggest urban park in Japan, boasting a total area of 532,000 sq.m. Dotted by museums, art museums, music halls and the like, it has become the center of arts and culture in Tokyo. This park is also the most famous place for viewing sakura in Tokyo. Some beloved hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots inside the park are the Chuo Enro (central path) that is lined with pink sakura on both sides, Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple, Shinobazu Pond, and Ueno Toshogu Shrine. The cherry blossom trees are usually illuminated at night from late March until early April, which is the peak of their blooming season. You will see a magical world that has a different atmosphere from the daytime.
Admire Special Exhibitions at the Ueno Royal Museum
Ueno Royal Museum is a private art museum that is found inside Ueno Park. It is known for showcasing national important cultural properties and artworks of various genres. There are no permanent exhibitions at this museum, as it only holds the Vision of Contemporary Art (VOCA) exhibition that features the works of excellent young artists, as well unique themed exhibitions, on a regular basis. Inside, you will find pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), and Korean.
Admission fee: Depends on the exhibition
Watch Pandas at Ueno Zoo
Ueno Zoo, located inside Ueno Park, is the zoo with the biggest number of visitors in Japan. It is home to more than 500 animals, including Asian elephants and polar bears. Out of all the animals here, though, the most famous ones are the mother-and-child giant pandas that were unveiled at the end of 2017: Shin Shin and Xiang Xiang. A lot of visitors from inside and outside of Japan come to this zoo just to catch a glimpse of these adorable pandas. There are information displays and pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified), and Korean inside the zoo, and you can also use Tokyo Parks Navi, a smartphone app that provides a guide for the zoo.
Admission fee: 600 JPY/Adult, 300 JPY/Senior (aged 65 years old and above), 200 JPY/Junior high school student, Free/Elementary school student or younger
The Karamon at Ueno Toshogu Shrine is a Must-See!
Ueno Toshogu Shrine is a shrine that is situated inside Ueno Park. Dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 - 1616), the military commander who unified the whole country, this shrine is known for the benefits it gives to worshippers, including success in their career, victory, and living a long and healthy life. The biggest highlight is the national important property called "Karamon" (Chinese-style gate). Built in 1651, it is a luxurious-looking gate that is golden in color. Pay attention to the intricate details of the gate, such as the Ascending and Descending Dragons that are carved on the left and right side of it. In particular, the Gold and Silver Pheasants at the top of the gate are elaborate, gorgeous designs that were made in a sukashi-bori style (openwork, wherein the design is carved out). There are information displays and pamphlets in English.
See the Lotuses at Shinobazu Pond
Shinobazu Pond is a pond measuring about 2km in circumference that is located on the southwest side of Ueno Park. Floating on the pond is a small island where Bentendo Temple stands. Together, they will treat you to gorgeous scenery. You will get to enjoy the pond in every season, such as for cherry blossom viewing in spring and bird watching in winter, but the best season to visit is in the summer for the lotuses. The green leaves of lotuses fully cover the surface of the water from July until around August, while their elegant flower petals paint the pond in beautiful colors. The lotus flowers close at noon, so it is best to come early in the morning.
Gaze at the Tsuki no Matsu in Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple
Perched on a small hill inside Ueno Park, Kiyomizu Kannon-do is a temple that was built in 1631 with Kyoto's famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple serving as its model. This temple is famous for the Tsuki no Matsu, a pine tree with round branches that is planted inside the temple's grounds. From the platform set up in front of the temple, you will be able to see Bentendo Temple at Shinobazu Pond across this tree. Tsuki no Matsu has been known as a scenic spot since ancient times, having been depicted in ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and other works. Why not also take a photo where you are looking up at Tsuki no Matsu and the temple from Shinobazu Pond?
Go Through the Series of Red Torii at Hanazono Inari Shrine
Hanazono Inari Shrine is found inside Ueno Park and is said to give worshippers luck in love and marriage. The approach leading to the shrine has a tunnel of red torii (shrine gates) that gives it a mysterious vibe. The vivid red color of the gates is quite photogenic, so many tourists come to this shrine just to get a souvenir photo. After you're done worshipping, why not visit the nearby Ana Inari Shrine? As the former site of Hanazono Inari Shrine, it is believed to grant wishes on safe birth and luck with money. Note that taking photos is prohibited at Ana Inari Shrine.
Take a Souvenir Photo of the Ueno Daibutsu
A unique spot that will make you inadvertently want to take a photo is the Ueno Daibutsu, a statue of just the head of Buddha. It was an ordinary daibutsu (large statue of Buddha) with a body when it was built in 1631, but its head fell off when the area was struck by an earthquake in 1923. Today, it is treated as a relief (artwork wherein the sculpted elements remain attached to a background of the same material) and is enshrined on top of a hill called "Daibutsuyama" inside Ueno Park. This statue is believed to grant wishes for success in examinations, so it is recommended to those who are about to take entrance examinations, job hunting tests, and examinations for promotions at work.
Look at Dinosaurs at the National Museum of Nature and Science
The National Museum of Nature and Science is the biggest comprehensive science museum in Japan. Here, you will learn about subjects like the evolution of life, history of mankind, and creatures in Japan. The items on display cover a wide range of topics, but the display you should make sure to see are the real fossil samples of the Futabasaurus. It is a plesiosaur that lived in Japan about 85 million years ago, and its massive appearance truly packs a punch. There are information displays and pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified), and Korean inside the museum, and you can also rent an audio guide for 310 JPY.
Admission fee (permanent exhibition): 620 JPY/Adult (university student and above), Free/High school student (including college students) or younger
See the D51-231 Steam Locomotive
The D51-231 steam locomotive is one of the outdoor exhibitions at the National Museum of Nature and Science inside Ueno Park. It is nicknamed “Degoichi” ("De" stands for "D", "go" is 5, "ichi" is 1). From 1936 to 1945, 1,115 cars were made for this train - a record in Japan. It was mainly used for hauling cargoes. Preserved really well and with a cool jet-black form, it continues to fascinate and attract a lot of train enthusiasts today.
Enjoy Japanese Antiques at the Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum is the first museum in Japan, having been opened in 1872. Mainly collecting and displaying artworks and antiques from Japan and various Asian countries, it boasts the largest collection in all of Japan (as of March 2017) at around 116,000 items, including 88 national treasures and 634 important cultural properties. This museum also caters to foreigners, as it has information displays in English, Chinese (simplified), and Korean, as well as pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Korean, German, Spanish, and French. You can rent audio guides (Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean) for 500 JPY.
Admission fee: 620 JPY/Adult, 410 JPY/University student, Free/High school student (aged 18 or under) and senior (aged 70 or older)
Glimpse Into Japanese History at the Front Gate of the Former Inshu Ikeda Residence
There are also outdoor exhibitions at the Tokyo National Museum, and one of them that you shouldn’t miss is the Front Gate of the Former Inshu Ikeda Residence. Also known as “Kuromon” (Black Gate), it is a national important cultural property. Having once served as the front gate of the residence of a daimyo (feudal lords who owned territories), it was transferred to its current location in 1945. It exudes a commanding presence that shows off the authority of a daimyo. You can only pass through this gate from 10:00 am - 4:00 pm on weekends and national holidays (you still need to pay the admission fee for the Tokyo National Museum).
Look at Masterpieces at the National Museum of Western Art, a World Heritage Site
The National Museum of Western Art is an art museum that collects and showcases Western artworks. Here, you will get to see paintings by Monet and Renoir, as well as sculptures by Rodin. Even its main building was designed by the famous Le Corbusier. Constructed under the concept of “a museum of infinite development”, it expands corresponding to the growth in the works in its collection, and has been registered as a World Heritage Site. There are information displays and pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified), and Korean available.
Admission fee for the permanent exhibitions: 500 JPY/Adult, 250 JPY/University student, Free/High school student (aged 18 or younger) and senior (aged 65 or older)
Get to Know the Ancient Culture of Japan at the Shitamachi Museum
The Shitamachi Museum was built for the purpose of preserving the lifestyle, culture, and traditions of the Japanese shitamachi for future generations. The first floor of the museum is a reproduction of Tokyo’s shitamachi from about 100 years ago. It has rows of trading houses in a style typical of that time and row houses that served as residences for the common people, so resulting in a truly retro vibe. Meanwhile, the second floor is a showroom of materials and tools for daily life that are associated with the shitamachi, and you can actually hold and play with traditional toys such as a spinning top. There are information displays in English, as well as pamphlets in English and French.
Admission fee: 300 JPY/Adult, 100 JPY/High school student or younger
Listen to the Sound of the Bell at Kan’ei-ji Temple
During the Edo period (1603 - 1867) when there were still no clocks, the bells that were used to tell the time were called “toki no kane” (bell of time). The bell found at Jishodo Temple inside Ueno Park is one of those bells. Registered as a cultural property of the famous Kan’ei-ji Temple that enjoyed the devotion of shogun families, this bell was first built in 1669. The bell that is there today was recast in 1787. You can hear its unchanging sound three times a day: 6:00 am, 12:00 pm, and 6:00 pm.
Marvel at the Art in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is an art museum that mainly displays contemporary art. It aims to become the “entry to art” where anybody can visit at any time. It holds nearly 300 different exhibitions annually, as well as special exhibitions showcasing local and foreign masterpieces. This museum is also often used as a venue for presentations by art groups and for public-sponsored exhibitions. There are information displays in English, along with pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), and Korean.
Admission fee: Free, but the entrance fee varies depending on the exhibition
Buy Souvenirs at Niki no Kashi, A Store That Has Everything
Ameya Yokocho, more commonly known as "Ameyoko", is a shopping district that is located between Ueno Station and Okachimachi Station. It is an area that is famous for the rich variety and low prices of products sold there, as well as for its lively atmosphere that makes one feel like they are in a matsuri (festival). There are around 400 stores in this area, and one of the most recommended ones is Niki no Kashi No. 1 Store. It is a store dedicated to confectionery that carries about 5,000 products at all times. One of its appeals is that it offers tax exemption! There is also a corner filled with items that come with discounts if you buy in bulk, so it is always packed with customers looking to buy souvenirs.
Experience Bargain-Hunting for Chocolates at Shimura Shoten
Ameyoko's Shimura Shoten is a specialty store for sweets, centering on chocolates. It is known for the vigorous “One more for free!” and “Put it inside the bag!” shouts of its staff, as well as for the tatakiuri (bargain sale) wherein a plastic bag is filled with lots of chocolates. The performance is quite a spectacle, which is why so many people who are just passing by end up stopping and entering the shop to take a look. This store is also enjoying excellent reviews for its generosity, as bags priced at 1,000 JPY are bursting with sweets that are worth more than 2,000 JPY.
Grab Some Souvenirs at Ueno’s Yamashiroya
Yamashiroya is a specialty store for toys and miscellaneous goods. All its seven floors, from the first basement floor to the sixth floor, are filled with toys, so even just looking around can be a lot of fun. There are various products sold for both men and women here - everything from retro toys up to the latest products in the market. It offers a huge collection, from character goods associated with anime and manga to action figures, trading cards, radio-controlled cars, plastic models, and fancy accessories associated with Disney and Studio Ghibli.
Shop at the Major Discount Store, Takeya
Takeya is a long-established discount store with nine branches in the Okachimachi and Ueno areas. Known for its abundant selection of goods that exceed 200,000 items, it is a place where you can get a hold of daily necessities like cosmetics, medicines, and other miscellaneous goods. You can also find large-size items like household appliances and furniture, and even watches, jewelry, and fashion items - all at discounted prices! It also offers tax exemption and other services for tourists, and you can use credit cards such as UnionPay and DISCOVER. There are multilingual (English, Chinese, Korean, and Thai) video-based interpreters, so you need not worry if you do not understand Japanese.
Purchase Souvenirs at Ueno Frontier Tower
Ueno Frontier Tower is a multipurpose building that opened in November 2017. It has become the talk of the town as the new landmark of Ueno. Inside, you will find the long-established department store Matsuzakaya Ueno on the first basement floor, while PARCO_ya, the commercial establishment run by PARCO that's famous with the younger generations, occupies the 1st to the 6th floors. Both establishments house various shops, so they’re perfect when buying souvenirs. If you visit, you should check out the Ueno Tourist Information Desk on the first basement floor. This area has staff who can speak English, Chinese, and Arabic, and it also sells souvenirs unique to Ueno.
Take a Walk in the Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Gardens
The Iwasaki family created Mitsubishi Zaibatsu, one of biggest conglomerates in Japan. They used to live in the Kyu-Iwasaki-tei (former Iwasaki residence) that was built in 1896. Three buildings of this residence remain intact today: the Western-style building that is decorated in a British Renaissance style; the Japanese-style building that is inspired by traditional Japanese architecture; and the billiard room that adopts the style of a Swiss chalet. In front of the Western-style building, there is a lawn that creates a sophisticated ambiance together with the buildings. There are pamphlets in English, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Korean, and French.
Admission fee: 400 JPY/Adult, 200 JPY/Senior (aged 65 or above), Free/Elementary school student or younger
Buy Interior Goods at Ueno Marui
Ueno Marui is the Ueno branch of the famous fashion building called "Marui". From the B2 floor to the 9th floor, this building is packed with branded shops that sell various fashion items, cosmetics, accessories, watches, and other products, so you are sure to find the latest and most fashionable products in Japan. The secret to its success is that it houses a long list of famous shops selling interior fixtures and everyday goods, such as Loft, Francfranc, and Nitori. Try to find something you like!
Bar Hop in Ueno!
Ameyoko may be popular as a shopping area, but it is actually also a drinking district where you can enjoy bar hopping at reasonable prices. Recommended in this area is the izakaya (Japanese pub) called "Motsuyaki Daitoryo Shiten". Customers come as early as 10:00 am, when the shop opens, to drink during the daytime, enjoying motsuyaki (beef, pork, and chicken offal roasted in skewers) while sipping down beer or sake (Japanese rice wine). Aside from this izakaya, there are many other unique drinking spots in this area. One of the pleasures of strolling through Ameyoko is finding a shop that you fancy.
Eat Croquettes at Niku no Oyama
Niku no Oyama is a restaurant that is just a 3-minute walk from JR Ueno Station. It is directly run by a meat wholesaler, so it manages to offer quality meats at reasonable prices. It is mainly a restaurant, but they also have a take-out counter selling fried foods in front. Try the Yamitsuki Croquettes (60 JPY (excl. tax)), which are filled with juicy ground meat. It has a tachinomi (drinking while standing) corner, too, so you can enjoy the food you just bought with a beer or sake.
Eat Anmitsu at Mihashi Ueno Honten
Anmitsu is a wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet) that is made by putting boiled peas, diced agar-agar, gyuhi (a type of confectionery that is made by kneading and mixing sugar and other ingredients with polished glutinous rice), and azuki-an (sweet red bean paste) together, and then pouring sugar syrup on top of the concoction. Mihashi is famous for this confectionery. Here, the most popular anmitsu is the Shiratama Cream Anmitsu (720 JPY (incl. tax)). The combination of the refreshing and melty soft-serve ice cream and the anmitsu is superb. You will surely get hooked to the chewy goodness of the shiratama (rice flour dumpling)! Another recommended item in the shop's menu is the Fruit Anmitsu (680 JPY (incl. tax)) that comes with the fruits in season.
Foreign language menu: English
Foreign language-speaking staff: English
Eat Soba at the Beloved Ueno Yabusoba
Soba (buckwheat noodles) is one of the dishes you have to taste when you visit Japan, and Ueno Yabusoba is a restaurant famous for its traditional soba dishes. Established in 1892, this restaurant is so famous that customers usually start to line up outside its doors even before it opens. Here, you can enjoy thinly cut, firm noodles with a strongly flavored dipping sauce. Aside from Seiro (771 JPY), its signature dish of soba placed in a steaming basket, you should also try the seasonal dishes such as Kaki Namban (1,749 JPY) with baked oysters on top.
Try the Tender Tonkatsu at Isen Honten
Tonkatsu is a dish that is made by deep-frying pork covered in a wheat flour or breadcrumb coating. It is so popular in Japan that even in Ueno, there are many restaurants specializing in tonkatsu. One of the most recommended tonkatsu restaurants in the area is Isen Honten, a well-established restaurant that is known for its catchphrase “tonkatsu that is so tender, you can cut it with chopsticks”. The crispy outer coating goes really well with the tender pork. You can try their tonkatsu by ordering dishes like the Hirekatsu Teishoku (1,850 JPY).
Foreign language menu: English
Foreign language-speaking staff: English
Enjoy Drinking and Dining at FUNDES Ueno
FUNDES Ueno, which opened in July 2017, is a commercial complex that houses a total of 10 eating and drinking establishments. All the restaurants here have their own unique trait, such as USHIHACHI Ueno Branch, a yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurant that buys Japanese Black beef whole, and Taishu Sakaba Banpaiya Kitakanto Furusato-hen, an izakaya that serves local dishes from the northern Kanto region (Gunma, Tochigi, and Ibaraki). You will also find Ueno Sanchoku Inshokugai, open 24 hours a day, where you can enjoy seafood, beef, pork, and other ingredients that are sourced directly from their production areas.
Taste Panda Sweets at Ueno no Mori Sakura Terrace
Ueno no Mori Sakura Terrace is a commercial facility with 19 restaurants inside. Here, you will get to taste confectioneries that are inspired by the pandas at Ueno Zoo. For instance, the Noko Cream no Pandacotta (690 JPY (incl. tax)) at the Japanese restaurant Kamakura on the first basement floor is a panna cotta that resembles the face of a panda. It is so cute that you might regret having to eat it! You can also try the Ice Panda Daifuku (788 JPY (incl. tax)), a vanilla ice cream wrapped in gyuhi, at Kotekichi on the 2nd floor. It also has a panda motif, and it’s so adorable! You’d surely want to upload it on social media!
If reading this article has piqued your interest in Ueno, then you need to go there and see it for yourself!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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