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Pull up an isu (chair), grab yourself a biiru (beer) and get ready to eat some yakiniku (questionably adventurous cuts of meat). That’s just how we roll in Ueno (上野). But as I’m about to impart, there’s something for everyone here.
Ueno is a station on the top-right quadrant of the Yamanote line loop and its surrounding area is known colloquially as Shitamachi (下町) – literally, “down-town,” although here it actually refers to the area that bloomed out from the bottom of the old Edo-jo castle, which served as Tokyo’s cultural center at the time.
Of course, like many parts of Shitamachi, Ueno retains some holdover traditions from the era, such as merchants and artisans hocking their wares, and courtesans and certain ladies of the night offering, er… companionship.
Whilst Shibuya and Shinjuku may have eclipsed this area in popularity, Ueno still has an inimitable, traditional vibe and some treasures you can’t find anywhere else in the capital.
For example: PANDAS! Ueno Zoo is just inside Ueno Park and is home to some badass pandas, as well as some 2,600 other creatures who are all receiving animal counseling for cuteness-inferiority complexes.
Let’s talk about the park: In both spring and autumn, this is one of the most ludicrously colourful places you’ll ever set foot in. It’s an amicable haven for lovers, families and budding stray cat photographers, with a Starbucks, the aforementioned zoo, some impressive shrines and some truly astounding museums.
Speaking of museums, the National Museum of Nature and Science is a MUST, but there’s also the National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art which greets visitors with a prominent bronze cast of Rodin’s heartwarming Gates of Hell. Now, I am somewhere off the chart when it comes to A.D.D and I’ve clearly spent a month here or there in the slammer on mischief-related charges, but these museums really are so next level, I didn’t find myself absent-mindedly doodling on my arm with my home-made prison tattoo gun even once.
One last insider tip about the park: One of the most overlooked parts is the boating pond, but it’s worth going on a mission for. Aside from the obligatory nightmarish giant artificial swan boats, on Saturdays there are often lots of lovely little barbecue stands, and a popular oden bar. If you’re gunning for some authentic pizza, right near the park is Cona Pizza, a restaurant that gets TokyoDesu‘s admittedly dubious seal of approval.
Ooh, now let’s talk about Ameyoko Market! Ameyoko originally became a black market after WWII, but now it’s pretty legit and one of the cheapest markets in Tokyo. It boasts fresh fish, great street food and a bustling atmosphere that’s very cool for photo ops. Just come out of the station’s Shinobazu exit and it’s hard to miss.
At night, Ameyoko and it’s surrounding little lanes become an empire of yakitori houses, often with outdoor seating. This is the quintessential Ueno experience for me; drinking beer outside as people wander through, drunk businessmen occasionally offering you stuff they haven’t eaten, drunken conversations spilling onto the blackened streets… It’s through these encounters that Ueno imprints this sense of its identity; a kind of straight-talking genuineness that’s infectious.
It might not be the youngest part of Tokyo, but for anyone seeking refuge from Shibuya’s miasma of perfume, armies of pristine tattooed kids with unimaginably cool hair and a little more shelter from the word yabai（やばい）, Ueno is something of a utopia.
It’s also well worth exploring the historic Yanesen area just to the North-West of Ueno. Comprising Yanaka Ginza, Nezu and Sendagi, these places are so little known, you feel like a 20th century explorer pondering what time to have a spot of tea and tiffin.
So there you go, that’s Ueno! I wonder if you’ll fall for her charms like I have.