Cheap thrills in Ueno’s lowlands

By on January 27, 2009
On a cold February weekend where can you walk with the animals, talk with the dinosaurs and see some of the worlds’ treasures, all within shouting distance of each other and, all for a handful of yen? Ueno’s lowlands – that’s where!

While Ueno Park is often overlooked outside of ‘Sakura’ season due to its downtown image it should be given a second chance. As a cultural centre it really has few rivals. Roppongi Hills might top it for glitz and glamour but Ueno has more museums per square kilometre than the Moris can muster. Situated midway between the bustling market of Ameyoko and the old town of Yanaka with its abundance of temples,few places offer such diversity.

Apart from the city’s pigeon population, Ueno park is home to a plethora of museums, including the National Museum of Art designed by Le Corbusier, housing the of Rodin’s original ‘the thinker’ amongst its treasures, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the University Art Museum as well as the Ueno Royal Museum. Directly across from the park is the grand Tokyo National Museum with its diverse collection of historic artefacts. The  entrance fee (adults ¥420, concessions free) allows you to enter 4 great permanent collections. Enough  to satisfy those thirsty for knowledge about Japan’s history and culture.

These big museums, with their permanent collections and well publicised exhibitions, are often crowded and stressful for those with children but for an impromptu museum visit, the National Science Museum and the Shitamachi museums can be the most fun.

The Shitamachi Museum (adults ¥300, concessions ¥100) recreates the living environment of  Tokyo in the late 19th century. Beautiful and intimate, this quaint old curiosity, showcasing replicas of old shops, rooms and original artefacts from the turn of the last century, is a joy to meander through.

The National Museum of Nature and Science (adults ¥600 and free on Saturdays to those under 18) has an air akin to the museums of our childhood. The classical building (presently closed for renovations) carries some of the old worldliness we often miss here in Japan. The outside display of rocket launchers and steam locomotives from yesteryear will ignite the imagination of every little one. The museum’s new wing brings it firmly into the 21st century with contemporary displays of dinosaurs and the world around us. Touch screens blend with fossilized remains. You can almost imagine the sequel to ‘A Night at the Museum’ being made here. On the top floor young scientists can explore the world of physics and nature with fun, hands on displays, demonstrations and workshops.

Time and weather permitting, Japan’s first zoo ( adults ¥600, 13-15yrs ¥200; free under-13s) which opened its gates in 1882, should be your next stop. Ueno zoo has transformed itself from what was a tired looking, inner city zoo, into a state of the art zoological park with modern environments for endangered animals of the world. Large enclosures for tigers, lions, elephants and gorillas will delight, whilst the tame petting zoo offers the farmyard experience and a chance to touch some familiar friends. Spread over more than 35 acres and hosting over 450 different species, a magnificent 5 story pagoda and tea house, everything is managed in a humane and dignified way, with the animals as happy as the visiting children.

If you are with young explorers, then be sure to stop at the fairground close to the the zoo’s exit. It has a lovely selection of mini rides (¥200+) to add even more thrills to this action packed day.

Towards the southern part of the park, in the shadow of the utopian looking Sofitel building, you can find the Shinobazu ponds; part zoo, part boating lake and part bird sanctuary, full of wild fowl and water lilies. At the centre of the 3 causeways that divide them is an island housing the beautiful Bentendo temple. Say your prayers and then satisfy your munchies on the walk back at the many stalls that line the temple’s approach.

Back at Ueno Station, if there is still time and the inclination take a quick jaunt across the street and wander through Ameyoko market which not only brings you back to the reality of Tokyo’s hustle and bustle but also a great place to pick up an end-of-the-day bargain.

Ueno Park and its surrounding areas can entertain all day for a handful of change. Cheap, cheerful and satisfying. What more could you ask for?

To get there
Ueno is on the Yamanote line and Ginza and Hibiya subway lines, arriving via Yamanote is easiest for Ueno park.

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