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Ueno 1

By Yukiko Tanaka

For The North American Post

From Kaminari-mon in Asakusa to Ueno Station (both JR and Tobu Line) is about 20 minutes on foot–the distance of a mile or so. On the western side of the station is Ueno Park. It is a very large space, at the north corner of which stand several impressive buildings that belong to the National Museum. Also in the park are National Science Museums, a Music School and an Art School (both national institutions), the latter two of which regularly offer concerts or exhibitions open to the general public.

Getting off at JR’s Ueno Station and exiting at the “Park Mouth,” you will see an entry to the park right in front of you. The large concrete building standing there is Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, a concert hall. When this was built in 1961, it enjoyed the reputation of “the grandest sanctuary of art in the Orient.” On the other side of a small square here is the Modern Art Museum, designed by French architect Le Corbusier. This building, along with a few more of his works in Japan, was registered recently as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. It is rare, I think, to see more than a few institutions of art and science located like here in Ueno Park all in one spot. Many foreign tourists no doubt come here for this reason, but for the Japanese, particularly those in Tokyo and its surrounding areas, Ueno Park is something like a mecca, a must-visit.

Since bullet trains were launched in the 1960s, Tokyo Central Station has been the terminal of all long distance trains. Until then, Ueno was the terminal of those going North. In the days when Japan was a poor country, men who left the northern Tohoku region to find a job in Tokyo passed Ueno. Then, in the era when the economy was heating up, it was middle school graduates who arrived at Ueno to go to factories in various locations in Tokyo. Earlier, at the end of the Pacific War, when many Tokyoites lost their houses in large fire bombings, Ueno Station became a shelter as shown in a scene of a movie, “Hotaru no Haka,” in which there were orphans among them. Despite being shielded from cold winds, it was damp and not a small number of them died. The underground structure of Ueno Station today is basically unchanged since those days.

Just as Ueno Station welcomed those who lost their houses or had nowhere to evacuate during the war. Ueno always had, some say, a capacity to embrace those who lived at the bottom of society. In fact, a part of the park has long been where homeless people set up their blue tarp tents. Recently, they vanished, leaving yellow tape that indicating “off limits.” However, I saw a group of volunteers serving hot meals for the homeless the other day. They are somewhere in the park for sure.       

Ueno no oyama (“our hill in Ueno”) was what people affectionately called the compound where the park is now. It is indeed a hill, you realize when you walk to the park from the Central Mouth of the Station, and many things happened here on the hill. For example, in the late 1850s, the Shogi-tai, a group of last samurais opposing the new Meiji government, escaped into the hill. After clearly a losing battle, they continued to fight, inviting sympathy among the people of Edo Tokyo. A notion that Ueno (and its people) is readily on the side of the weak and defeated is formed perhaps because of these and other incidents that took place in the history of Ueno.   

The history of Ueno began earlier when the shogun’s government built Kanei-ji there, a temple of the Tendai sect; it was placed there, northeast of Edo Castle, with a belief that it would shield against evil spirits. Along with a large cemetery are a few more minor temples and other structures in the north of Kanei-ji. In fact, the entire space that is Ueno Park today belonged to Kanei-ji Temple. Created by confiscating the land that belonged to three provincial lords, it was a vast area indeed. The burial ground of some shoguns is here, as is a house in which the last Tokugawa shogun confined himself upon facing forced retirement. This house, along with the main and Kannon halls, is intact despite two occasions of fires—at the time when the Shogitai fought here and the Pacific War. Today, not many visitors are seen here in the quiet corner of the park.      


[Editor’s Note]

This series introduces a historical view of various sites in Tokyo. The writer can be reached at ytanaka03@gmail.com.