The northern districts of Ueno and Asakusa contain what remains of Tokyo’s old Shitamachi (low city). Once the heart and soul of culture in Edo, Shitamachi became the subject of countless ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Merchants and artisans thrived here, as did Kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara pleasure district near Asakusa.
One of the last great battles in Japan took place in Ueno in 1868 when the Emperor Meiji’s forces defeated the Tokugawa shogunate. Ueno and Asakusa are the best parts of Tokyo for just strolling and observing. Life in Asakusa still revolves around the bustling Senso-ji Temple, its main approach packed with shops. Ueno is dominated by its huge park containing the National and Shitamachi Museums, among others.
It is still possible to find pockets of narrow streets lined with tightly packed homes, especially in the Yanaka area, which escaped destruction by war and earthquake. Shopping is a pleasure in Northern Tokyo: as well as the traditional arts and crafts shops near Senso-ji Temple, there are specialists in plastic food in Kappabashi-dori, religious goods in neighboring Inaricho, and a wide variety of goods at Ameyoko Market.
Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, built the Kanei-ji Temple and subtemples here in the 1600s to negate evil spirits from the northeast. Judging by how long theTokugawas lasted, it was a wise move.
In 1873, five years after the Battle of Ueno, when the last supporters of the shogun were crushed by imperial forces, the government designated Ueno a public park. Always a popular spot, it has figured in many woodblock prints and short stories. Shinobazu Pond (actually three ponds) is an annual stop for thousands of migrating birds. Several museums and temples are here, as is Japan’s oldest zoo.
Tokyo National Museum
The group of buildings that makes up the Tokyo National Museum is in a compound in the northeast corner of Ueno Park; tickets to all buildings are available at the entrance gate. The Honkan is the main building. To its east is the Toyokan. The 1909 Beaux-Arts Hyokeikan is usually closed to the public and opens only for special exhibitions. Behind it is the Gallery of Horyu-ji Treasures, containing stunning objects from Horyu-ji Temple, near Nara, and the Heiseikan. More than 110,000 items make up the collection – the best assembly of Japanese art in the world – and the displays change frequently.
Tokyo National Museum: Toyokan
Opened in 1968, the Toyokan (Asian Gallery) displays an excellent and eclectic collection of non-Japanese Eastern art that ranges from textiles to sculpture and ceramics. Many of the exhibits are from China and Korea -a consequence of these countries historic ties with Japan. The layout of the three floors is in a rough spiral, and a well-marked route guides visitor through the collection.
Tokyo National Museum: Heiseikan
Built in 1993 to commemorate the Crown Prince’s wedding, the Heiseikan houses major temporary exhibitions and a superb collection of Japanese archaeological artifacts. Its modern facilities do full justice to the fascinating displays.
The first floor houses the Japanese archaeology gallery, with items from 10,000-7,000 BC onward. The temporary exhibitions on the second floor are of mainly – but not only-Japanese art. Captions are in English and Japanese.
This museum is dedicated to preserving the spirit and artifacts of Shitamachi. The 50,000 exhibits include recreations of Edo-era shops, traditional toys, tools, and photographs, all donated by Shitamachi residents.
This quiet area is rewarding to wander through because it survived the 1923 earthquake and bombing of World War II. It preserves something of the feel of old Shitamachi with tightly packed houses in narrow alleys, and traditional food stalls selling rice crackers and old- fashioned candy.
The large Yanaka Cemetery is a must-see in cherry-blossom season. Inside is Tenno-ji, a temple with a large bronze Buddha dating from 1690. Nearby are tea shops and florists. To the west of Tenno-ji is the Asakura Museum of Sculpture, home of sculptor Fumio Asakura (1883-1964). On the second floor is a delightful room full of his small statues of one of his favorite subjects – cats – but the garden is the real highlight with a traditional composition of water and stone. Sansaki-zaka, the area’s main street, has some traditional shops. The understated Daimyo ClockMuseum has 100 Edo-era clocks lovingly presented.
One of the great bazaars in Asia, Ameyoko is a place where almost anything is available, almost always at a discount. In Edo times, this was the place to come and buy ame (candy).
After World War II black-market goods, such as liquor, cigarettes, chocolates, and nylons started appearing here, and ame acquired its second meaning as an abbreviation for American (yoko means “alley”). An area of tiny shops packed under the elevated train tracks, Ameyoko is no longer a black market, but still the place for bargain foreign brands, including Chanel and Rolex. Clothes and accessories are concentrated under the tracks, while foods, including a huge range of seafood, line the street that follows the tracks.
Inaricho District and Kappabashi-dori
Inaricho is the Tokyo headquarters for wholesale religious goods. Small wooden boxes to hold Buddhas and family photos, paper lanterns, bouquets of brass flowers (jouka), Shinto household shrines, and even prayer beads can be found here.
Kappabashi-dori, named after the mythical water imp (kappa) who supposedly helped built a bridge (bashi) here, is Tokyo’s center for kitchenware and the source of the plastic food displayed in almost every restaurant window. Although the “food” is for sale, prices are much higher than for the real thing.
At 634 m (2,080 ft), this is the tallest building In Japan. While its main function is broadcasting, it also hosts a large mall, aquarium, planetarium, and restaurants. The Tembo Deck, at 350 m (1,150 ft) above ground level, offers 360-degree views across Tokyo, and another viewing deck, Tembo Galleria, is at 450 m (1,475 ft).