Ueno Park Tokyo – hanami and the lily pond
More than a hundred and fifty years ago, a fierce battle was fought on the hill of Ueno. The battle ended the reign of Samurai shoguns and restored the power of Meiji emperor. A new chapter started in Japan’s history.
It was the beginning of the current Ueno park. A huge temple complex that stood around here was mostly destroyed in the battle. In its place came up a vast open park area, with a part housing a cache of arts, science and history museums and another part housing the first zoo in Tokyo.
Today Ueno park plays host to numerous festivals and is home to visitors from across Japan and abroad. With the Keisei line connection to Narita airport originating from here, it has naturally become a tourist activity center. Annual social festivals like Hanami the cherry blossom viewing-eating-drinking has been of the biggest festivals held in its premises. During the 7-10 days of cherry blossom season in April the park becomes colored with that of cherry blossoms, and of the lanterns hung in the evening, interspersed with the colors of the kimonos of joyous guests.
The park is right next to Akihabara the electronics district of Tokyo. The area however still bears some characteristics of the historic era that it belonged to. Lately being a junction station for Tourists arriving from Narita international airport, it has been swept with touristy flavors to some extent. All mixed together, Ueno park has evolved into an eclectic mix.
The main Approaching road is from Ameyokocho, the last standing bazaar district of modern Tokyo. Get down from subway Ginza line / Hibiya Line Ueno station, or JR Yamanote line Ueno station. Cross the road over. And a moist breeze coming from the forested hills greets visitors. Granite stairs go up. Notice boards around declare the historic importance of this park. The road divides here, takes to two ways. One goes up, past the Kiyomizu Kannon temple and the Toshogu shrines in Crimson red. The other goes around the hill, and takes a turn towards the lake at the base of the hill.
The road up by the wooden shrine complex winds its way through dense woods. In summer the canopy shades the weary. In spring the blossoms of Sakura hosts the Hanami crowd. For the few weeks of end March till early April this whole area turns into a party venue. Groups of people from all walks of the big city descend here, securing their own spot under the cherry trees. The sacred tradition of celebrating spring with family and friends has over the years become an event on the calendar of the city bred. Business colleagues, ex-colleagues meet up and celebrate together hoping for a prosperous year ahead. As evening descends, lanterns hung from the trees light up the whole area in a yellow incandescence. Time passes on amidst cheers and laughter.
The path winds its way past statues of past leaders and opens into a wide boulevard. This area has a lot to offer to a variety of audience. Around the central row of fountains and several restaurants, Edifices of national importance such as the national science museum , national museum of art, international modern art museum and national library have been set up. Close to the national museum, a wooded zone harbors children’s play area and few restaurants. The buildings in the boulevard border its three sides from right to left. The path ends at Ueno zoo at extreme left. Ueno zoo is the first and one of the best known zoos around. We shall talk more about the zoo and the museums in other articles. Let’s take our walk back to where we started the path up the hill.
The way around the hill goes towards the Ueno lake. It is divided into separate water bodies by criss crossing pedestrian walk ways. At the extreme end it merges into the lower tier of Ueno zoo. Visitors to the zoo get the best view of this part. Several enclosures of zoo inhabitants like the red beak flamingoes border the meandering lake. Restaurants set up benches by the waters. In Summer the lake gets filled up with giant water lilies. Varieties of migratory birds flock in, making this lily covered pond their home for the season.
The next section of the lake, further away from zoo, weaves around a Buddhist temple the Bentendo at its center. Visited by both locals and tourists, it becomes crowded quickly during the afternoons on weekends.
Essence from the burning incense sticks fills in the area. Food stalls selling chocolate covered stuff to fried squids line up the approach way to the shrine. A weeping cherry blossoms tree standing at a corner of the temple complex bends down with the weight of the flowers touching the water below. Ducks come swimming looking for food in the undergrowth. It’s a photographer’s delight.
The Lily Pond
The path crossing onto the other side past the temple is hemmed on the two sides by water bodies. One side has wooden walkways, to let visitors venture into the depths, to see the colored fish swimming around. And to appreciate the lotus blossoms in summer as the flowers stir their heads up from under the giant leaves. This is a popular meeting area for city folks, known as Shinobazu pond.
Cherry blossoms by the lakeside
The other side of the walkway is let for boating. Colored fiberglass boats in various shapes float around. Benches on the sides let people take in the view as long as they please. But the area fills in early with Hanami crowd during the cherry blossom season. Cherry blossom trees bordering the lake fill up the waters with a pink layer of petals. Couples in their traditional best take a break on the benches. Photographers get busy trying to take that one memorable shot. Sometimes a lonely musician finds his tune by the water under the cherry blossoms. The high chords of sax or the merry tunes of accordion sets an ambiance of its own.
The path heads back towards the busy Ameyokocho crossing. A cultural complex with artificial fountain on one side of its boundary wall tries to present another reason to stop once more. And appreciate the area around. The vast expanse of the lake, the cherry blossoms in spring, the lotus in summer, the vermilion red wooden Buddhist temple in the middle, the hill going up. The history, the culture, it’s memories. Foreign tunes sometimes float in, coming from the occasional hula dance sessions held at the cultural center. On other times, it’s mostly a quiet area, a break from the busy business district across the road at Ameyokocho and a little farther down where there is Akihabara, the neon lit electronics district.
Ueno park holds a special place in the fabric of this city. The history borne by the vestiges of Buddhist shrines, the gentrified cultural complexes, the lily filled water bodies, all come together to forge this identity. Take your time. Explore this area. You will perhaps come back more times than you originally planned.