Ueno isn’t exactly the most glamorous part of Tokyo, and it used to be part of the city’s Shitamachi (“low city”). Its history has translated into the present, as you won’t find any high-rise condos or pricey shopping malls. Just for the record, we’re not trash-talking this district but showering it with praise. After all, we Cheapos love affordability. So here’s a little half-day guide to enjoying the Low City for low prices.
1. Shinobazu Pond
Start your morning with a stroll past the scenic Shinobazu Pond. Taking up a good chunk of Ueno Park, it’s divided into 3 sections: a duck pond (don’t be fooled, it’s a habitat for more than just ducks), a boat pond, and its pièce de résistance, the lotus pond. The lotus flowers are in their peak blooming season from July through August, but they only fully open up for a short 7-9 AM viewing window. So make this the first stop and get a nice taste of Mother Nature. This is also a good chance to get a glimpse of Bentendo temple, dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten, which sits on an island in the middle of the pond.
2. Ueno Park
Continue your morning exercise and keep walking the path through Ueno Park. Of course it’s prettiest in cherry blossom season, but we’d like to say it’s a nice place to go any time. There are also some other stops to make along the way:
Once upon a time there was a famous temple called Kan’ei-ji, whose 30-something buildings once covered the whole Ueno area and more. Once a burial temple for the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was a big deal in its day until the shogunate fell and most of the temple was destroyed in the process. The end. Just kidding. The five-storied pagoda and Ueno Toshogu Shrine remain standing and make for nice stops on your walk. Found in the same general area in a quiet part of the park, they give you a taste of tradition and Japanese history without the trip to Kyoto. You can see the shrine itself for free, but to go inside is 500 yen for adults and 200 yen for kids 6-12 years old.
4.1. National Museum of Western Art
A step away from Ueno Station’s Park Exit to wrap up your half-day is the National Museum of Western Art (NMWA). No, “The Thinker” at the entrance wasn’t cast by Rodin himself, but the museum is Japan’s only gallery devoted specially to Western art. The building is also a recent addition to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, part of “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement”.
The permanent collection includes works from the 14th century onwards of the biggest names in Western art, and special exhibitions are always on display. Admission fees are a great deal too: all students (sans college students) and anyone under 18 get free admission. Those over 65 get the same deal, while adults are only 430 yen and college students are even cheaper at 130 yen. The permanent collection even has free admission bi-monthly (second and fourth Saturday of every month), so definitely stop in to take a peek.
4.2. Tokyo National Museum
Also in Ueno Park is the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). Unless you want to make this half-day a 1-day, visit either here or the above-mentioned NMWA. Entrance fees are still reasonable (adults: 620 yen, university students: 410 yen, free for literally everyone else). This museum is the oldest and biggest national museum in Japan, established in 1872. Its collections focus on art and artifacts of Asia, with a focus on Japanese works, obviously. Of the 110,000+ objects, there are around 87 Japanese National Treasures and 610 Important Cultural Property holdings.