Red Buddhist Temple alongside modern skyscraper in Tokyo

Ueno Park Tokyo – Solo Travel for Introverts

Solo Travel for Introverts Ratings –

Sensory Peace – High. This is a very large park space in the middle of an otherwise crowded city.

Solo-Friendliness – High.

Commute Friendly – High. Ueno is a central junction where almost all trains and buses lead to.

Predictability – Medium. Ueno park is filled with temples and shrines. Be prepared about temple and shrine etiquette, and it becomes simple (explained below)

Safety – High. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.

Nerdy stuff –  High. There is a plethora of museums here. There are temples and shrines to visit, along with a war monument.


What / Where is Ueno Park?

Ueno Park is a very large public park located in East-Central region of Tokyo. It is a central junction and many lines lead to Ueno Station.

The most noticeable thing about Ueno Park is a large flat green stretch of what appears to be a grassland, but no one walks there. Upon closer look, it turned out to be an enormous lake filled with lotus leaves. This is the Shinobazu Pond.

It’s better to come here early in the day. I had come in late afternoon, and while the park itself stays open along with temples and shrines, the museums close early.

There is also a pretty Starbucks resembling an old Japanese tea-house overlooking the park, serving Matcha Latte specialties.

Vast stretch of green lotus leaves covering the pond
Vast stretch of green lotus leaves covering the pond

Temples and Shrines

List of temples and shrines –

  • Benten-Do Temple (of Hindu-Buddhist goddess Saraswati/Benten)
  • Ueno Daibutsu (face of a giant Buddha)
  • Tosho-Gu Shrine (of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu)
  • Kanei-Ji Temple (with a 5-storied Pagoda)
  • Gojoten Jinja Shrine (of rice-god Inari with red Tori gates)
White lanterns and string instrument of Benten (Saraswati)
White lanterns and string instrument of Benten (Saraswati)

Temple and Shrine etiquette

Temple and shrine etiquette is quite simple. Modern Japanese culture is not very ritualistic and nobody will be offended if a foreigner gets details wrong. Although, having an Indian background, it was quite surprising to me how similar the rituals were, and I’m sure folks from Eastern Christian or Catholic backgrounds may also recognize  similarities.

Let’s begin with shrine etiquette. Once you enter a shrine ground, you must first go to the water purification center. Use the ladle to rinse your hands and lips. Let the rinsed water flow outside the tank, while the pure water remains inside. Once done, you also need to rinse the ladle itself where you touched it before purifying yourself. This is done by lifting the ladle straight up, so the water flows down the handle.

Next you go to the incense center – this will be an ash-pot with incense sticks on it. Wave your hand over it to take the blessings in the form of incense fumes.

Now, walk to the actual sanctum. Here you will see a giant rope connected to a bell. Pull the rope 2 times (as 2 is a holy number in Shintoism). This is the equivalent of ringing the doorbell of a Shinto God. Take a coin and throw it into the offering-box. Generally a coin with a hole, like 5 yen or 50 yen is considered lucky. Introduce yourself to the Shinto God through muttering, saying your name and your home. Then bow down and clap twice (2 being the lucky number again).

Black and Gold archway of Kennei Ji Temple
Black and Gold archway of Kennei Ji Temple

or Buddhist temples, it’s the same, except no clapping, bell-ringing or other noise-making. These places are meditation oriented and silence is key.


Peace Memorial

One of the most fascinating places here for history buffs is the Original Flame from Hiroshima. The flame, taken directly from the burning buildings of the nuclear attack sites is kept continuously burning at the center of the dove.

It was originally kept by Tatsuo Yamamoto whose uncle died in the destruction as a reminder of future vengeance, but as he grew older and mellowed, it became a vow of peace instead, and a promise to never allow any other nuclear war to happen again.

Original Hiroshima Flame burning inside the dove surrounded by colorful paper cranes
Original Hiroshima Flame burning inside the dove surrounded by colorful paper cranes

This is present at the Toshogu shrine and surrounded by colorful paper cranes.


Museums

List of Museums in the park –

  • National Museum of Western Art
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum
  • Shitamachi Museum
  • Imperial Library

Ameyoko Shopping Street

Tarped shops under tracks and train passing overhead at Amayeko
Tarped shops under tracks and train passing overhead at Amayeko

Near Ueno Park, nestled under the train lines are tiny neighborhood shops with tarp hangings. This is the Ameyoko Shopping Street. Here, you will find everything from amazing clothes at discount rates to yakitori and beer food trucks to cosmetics, spices, dried herbs and fish, wall-posters, trinkets and gifts and matcha ice cream.

This was one of the most organic and chaotic shopping places away from cookie-cutter designer malls. You don’t have to buy anything if you don’t want to, but just stand and observe. Because the place is crowded there is no pressure on you to purchase or interact with anyone – shopkeepers keep busy with others.

It’s quite a sight to see a train going over the tracks, and shops running under them.

Beer and Yakitori

As the sun begins to set, lanterns of tiny food trucks and hole-in-wall eateries begin to glow in Amayeko. Whatever image you have of Japanese food being high-end, advanced or intimidating – be prepared to have it flipped on its head, because it’s time for relishing on cheap chicken-skewers (yakitori) and chugging beer.

While this is an excellent option for solo travellers like me on a budget, I would suggest this even to a millionaire, for the atmosphere alone. In early evening, you’ll see students in uniform coming in, parking their bicycles with their satchels full of books. Then after that, salarymen in striped suits running from the train station and throwing down their suitcases, and at late night, retired people walking in supported by their umbrella-walking-canes.

As the night progresses, the atmosphere becomes more rowdy. The students are having a heated argument over baseball cards. The older men in oversized but stylish tweeds are arguing over their gambling. The married couple next to me is searching for lost something underneath all tables. The skewerer comes to me and other foreigners and with a puffed up chest, teaching us Japanese words in a paternal manner, until the waiter reminds him that he has more orders to take care of and drags him back behind the counter.

During my trip to Japan, I visited several such places like Ameyoko Market, Memory Lane (the big one) and Hoppy Street near Asakusa (next to Sensoji). My highlights are speaking with an American Craft Brewer with dreams of making West Coast IPAs big in Japan, and old man who visited India (where I was born) and pulling out an Indian Rupee with the image of Mr Gandhi to prove it, and a middle-aged woman asking with great curiosity what an Avocado is and why Americans like it so much.

Tips –  While skewers are a la carte, it is expected that you order at least 3-5. Many places even have additional seating charges, which is in reasonable range, to prevent customers from taking up the limited space without ordering much. Ask for English menu, since different skewers use different parts of the animal including various innards. And if not, use your fingers to point at your own body to indicate the parts of the chicken you like or don’t like.

Related posts –

Matcha Madness

Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan – Solo Travel for Introverts

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4 comments

  1. Didn’t you go to Ueno Zoo? Or the “Yamashiroya” toy store?

    >There is also a pretty Starbucks resembling an old Japanese tea-house

    I don’t like Starbucks personally…but there are three of them in Ueno!
    (And there is one in Kyoto that actually used to be an old Japanese tea-house!)

    Here are some “Ueno-related” blog posts I’ve written over the years:
    https://tokyo5.wordpress.com/page/1/?s=ueno&submit=Search

  2. That’s so cool !! I did go to the outdoor Starbucks in the gardens by the museums. I found Starbucks in Japan to be catered to local products like Matcha Lattes, and traditional teas – hence a good substitute if local tea-houses are not around.

    I’m not a coffee fan, but I fell in love with Coffee-Jelly from the vending machines.

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