Tokyoites like me have a love-hate relationship with the city. On one hand, we thrive on the energy that runs through the streets of Tokyo. We like to hustle in the morning and live it up at night. On the other hand, we constantly long for an escape. As our days become more monotonous and the energy runs out, we begin to crave a breath of fresh air away from the city. Luckily, Ueno offers exactly that.
Located in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, Ueno differs from more modern parts of Tokyo, holding on to tradition and culture. The neighborhood has an old town charm, with many shrines, temples and family-owned shops and restaurants. Life in Ueno is much slower in pace. Families bonding at the zoo, couples strolling around the park, long-time friends catching up over beers at a local bar and curious minds pondering over exhibitions at the museums are common sights. As for the place itself, Ueno has plenty of greenery, a rare find in the center of Tokyo’s concrete jungle. With its great location and plenty of activities to do, you can see why so many people, including expats, have chosen to settle in this neighborhood.
There’s really no single way of exploring Ueno. Like the rest of Tokyo, Ueno is a giant maze with many possible starting points. To help you plan your trip to Ueno, we have combined a list of 10 great things to do in the area with a little bit of everything. The best part? You can do everything within just a day.
1. Take a Walk Around Ueno Park
Ueno Park is a popular spot to view cherry blossoms — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Walking around Ueno Park is an absolute must. An oasis in the concrete desert, this park offers visitors a place of respite from the busy city life. The park is reminiscent of Central Park in New York City, with a large fountain in the center surrounded by complete greenery. Also, 8000 trees line the park, one of the largest in Tokyo. Ueno Park is especially popular during spring and autumn when the cherry blossoms bloom and the leaves turn a beautiful mustard yellow color, respectively. A number of cafes and restaurants are around the park, from fast food to traditional local cuisine. Grab a light snack and beverage from one of the kiosks to enjoy while walking around and taking in the scenic view. (In spring, watch out for the sakura lattes sold at the Ueno Park Starbucks for a sweet seasonal treat!)
2. Learn the Happenings of Japanese History at the Tokyo National Museum
Take an afternoon to learn about Japan's history at the Tokyo National Museum — Photo by Nathan Hosken
The oldest and largest among Japan’s museums, the Tokyo National Museum is a great place to learn about Japan’s history. The museum has an impressive collection consisting of over 110,000 artworks and archeological artifacts. For less than 1000 yen, a trip to this museum is worthwhile and budget-friendly.
3. Meet Furry Friends at Ueno Zoo
The Ueno Zoo is home to many animals — Photo by Nathan Hosken
This 35-acre zoo is home to more than 2600 animals. The stars of the zoo are the two lovable giant pandas adopted from the Chinese Olong Nature Reserve, Lili and Shinshin. In addition, popular animal friends from the zoo include elephants, tigers and polar bears.
4. Unleash Your Inner Kid at Kodomo Yuen
For the kids (and kids at heart), Kodomo Yuen will surely be a hit. This mini carnival-themed park has rides based off of popular cartoon characters, including Doraemon, Pikachu and Thomas the Tank Train. Tickets for the rides are as low as 100 yen and can be purchased from the vending machines. Small refreshments, such as popcorn, cotton candy, tapioca drinks and crepes, are sold at the kiosks by the theme park. If you prefer a sit-down meal, a nearby pizza joint is also available.
5. Eat Street Food on Ameyoko Alley
Ameyoko Street was a black market in the past — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Navigating through Ueno can be draining, so make sure to fuel up with some local food at Ameyoko Street at some point during your trip. “Ame” actually comes from the word "America". This market-like street was once a black market, selling American products after World War II. Today, you can find many stalls selling donburi, kebabs, tapioca drinks and more. Take a look around the shops selling dried foods and other goods, which make for a great omiyage (souvenir). Do note that most shops open around 10am and close around 8pm. Some shops are also closed on Wednesdays.
6. Be a Scientist at the National Museum of Nature and Science
A popular exhibit at National Museum of Science is the taxidermy collection — Photo by Nathan Hosken
For the science geeks, you can visit the National Museum of Nature and Science. The museum’s taxidermy collection and human evolution exhibit are especially popular among visitors. If you have time, make sure to catch a show at the museum’s Theater360. At this innovative 360-degree movie theater, visitors stand on a bridge to view the movies in a unique experience that is the first of its kind.
7. Discover Art at the National Museum of Western Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum
Rembrandt and other art masters are represented at the National Museum of Western Art — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Not quite into science and more of an art person? Ueno has plenty of museums geared for creatives. A favorite is the Western Museum of Art. This museum has a permanent exhibition plus special exhibitions with works from some of art’s most renowned masters. The museum has a wide collection of works in various media from different time periods. Another option is the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, a government-supported art museum with Western and Japanese works.
8. Go Temple and Shrine Hopping
Pray for luck and get some great omiyage at temples like Benten-Do in Ueno — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Explore the more traditional side of Tokyo by going temple and shrine-hopping around Ueno. Many temples and shrines are scattered throughout the area. Among these include the Kaneiji Temple, Kiyomizu Kannon Temple, Toshogu Shrine and Benten-Do. Admission is usually free and open hours are generally from 9am to 4pm. Each temple and shrine tell a different story of Japan’s traditional past and offer a different architectural experience. Have your fortune told or pick up a charm to bring home as a quintessential omiyage (souvenir).
9. Ride Swan Boats on Shinobazu Pond
Go for a ride near sunset on one of the swan-shaped boats at Shinobazu Pond — Photo by Nathan Hosken
Catch the beautiful sunset at Ueno’s Shinobazu Pond or, better yet, paddle away on a row- or swan-shaped boat. As a prominent subject in Japanese myth and art, this pond carries much historical and cultural significance. Built on an island in the middle of the pond is a white and red shrine dedicated to the Japanese Buddhist goddess Benzaiten. Especially beautiful during spring, cherry trees lining the pond bloom and petals fall onto the water’s surface.
10. End Your Day at Ueno’s Izakaya-machi
Friends gather at local izakayas to catch up over beer — Photo by Julie Fader
When the sun sets and the shops and museums start to close, the izakayas (local bars) along Ueno's Izakaya-machi come to life. Locals often come here to unwind after a long day at work, catching up with friends over beer and traditional Japanese food, such as karaage (deep-fried chicken). You can feel a strong sense of local community in this part of Ueno, characteristic of the area.
Want to learn more about Ueno? Explore the area and check out some of our trips below!