Surprising Ueno: Tokyo’s cultural heartbeat

Mayo Harry | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Did you know that cutting-edge and hyper-modern Tokyo also has its less known, relaxing side? If you wonder where to go for a taste of Old Tokyo, look no further. Ueno is the cultural heartbeat of Tokyo. Located in the north-eastern part of Japan's capital city, this surprising district feels like a time machine. Ueno is a cluster of museums and a zoo built around a large park. Here, you can spend a day visiting museums, walking around the park and admiring pandas in the zoo.

The district of Ueno has been developing since the opening of the terminal Ueno Station in 1883. Still, only when the National Museum of Western Art became a World Heritage Site in 2016, Ueno gained more popularity. The main characteristic of Ueno is the coexistence of two unique Yamate and Shitamachi areas.

Yamate & Shitamachi areas

Ueno Park is the center of the Yamate area, with many cultural facilities, such as the National Museum of Western Art, and Ueno Zoo is located here. It is known as a center of art in Ueno and called "Ueno Yamabunka (mountain culture) zone". On the north side, one can find Kaneiji Temple, which is the temple of the Tokugawa Shogun family from the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Shitamachi area is located on the south side of Ueno Park, with many restaurants and retail stores. Many shopping streets spread vertically and horizontally around Ameya Yokocho (Ame Yoko). There are many interesting food and drinking stalls on the side of the streets. Both Yamate and Shitamachi areas can be extremely crowded on weekends. So, visiting it on the weekdays is strongly recommended. 


Ame Yoko shopping street


Ameya Yokocho, or just Ame Yoko, is a historical shopping street that has been around since the early days of WWII. Approximately 400 specialty shops are lined up from JR Ueno Station to Okachimachi Station. The business hours of the shops in Ame Yoko are different, depending on the shops, but generally, clothing shops open from about 10 am to 7 pm, while fresh fish shops, butchers and fresh vegetable and fruits shops are open from 9 am to 7 pm. Some restaurants are open from 7 am until late, but there are some tachinomi (standing) bars open from 10 am. There are many ways to enjoy Ame Yoko, such as shopping and tasting out varieties of street foods. It seems that you can get energized just by walking around this shopping area. Ame Yoko may be different from your image of the sophisticated, modern Tokyo, but you will not regret experiencing a unique mood of Ueno.

Ueno Zoo, Japan’s oldest zoo

©iStock/Page Light Studios

Ueno Zoo is the oldest zoo in Japan, opened in 1882. It is located inside Ueno Park. Ueno Zoo is 14.3 hectare in size and is divided into an eastern and western garden. It is surprisingly big, considering it is in the middle of Tokyo. It takes about 5 minutes to walk to Ueno Park from the Koen Kaisatsu Gate of JR Ueno Station, where Ueno Zoo is located. Ueno Zoo opens at 9:30 in the morning. If you want to efficiently visit the highlights of the zoo and see the lively animals, it is recommended to enter the zoo at the same time as the zoo opens. The giant panda is one of the most popular animals in Ueno Zoo. The panda house is on the right side, just after entering the front gate of the east area.

Ueno Park, boats and cherry blossoms


Ueno Park is a popular destination for locals as well as visitors. Ueno Park has a total area of about 530,000 m², and its official name is "Ueno Onshi Park". The park is full of greenery, and you can enjoy the scenery of the four seasons in a quiet space that you can not imagine elsewhere in Tokyo. While here, enjoy nature or visit some museums, but do not forget to get on the rowing boat or puddling swan on the Shinobazu pond. Be careful if you get on the boat with your partner, as it is a famous spot for couples breaking up on a boat. Apparently, because Benzaiten, a female god, who is enshrined in the middle of the pond, gets jealous of a couple. Ueno Park is also known as a great cherry blossom viewing spot in spring and is crowded with many cherry blossoms viewing visitors during the season. If you are in Tokyo for cherry blossom season, you must visit Ueno Park to experience the best cherry blooms atmosphere in Tokyo.

Ueno has a lot of fascinating visiting spots, different from many people’s image of modern Tokyo. Busy Ame Yoko shopping street offers a variety of things to buy as well as energetic, unique ambiance and multicultural feelings you cannot experience anywhere else in Japan. Enjoy your visit to the cultural heartbeat of Tokyo. Fun, relaxation and surprises are waiting for you in Ueno.

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