Historic Tokyo: Ueno, Yakata and Asakusa

After clocking up a whopping 36,741 steps tootling round Tokyo the previous day, we decided to continue squeezing as much as we could into our short but sweet trip to the capital. Our second (and final) full day in Tokyo was spent wandering the streets of Ueno, Yakata and Asakusa. Tokyo’s northern neighbourhoods are steeped in history – so if you want to escape the frenzied shopping districts and get a taste of this futuristic metropolis’ history, add these spots to your itinerary!

A conveniently-located coffee shop became our breakfast haunt; I opted for a peach iced tea whilst Laurence looked the picture of happiness with his breakfast bratwurst. We then wandered towards Ueno Station, where we promptly stumbled upon Ameya-Yokochō (also known as Ameyoko), an open-air market clustered round the railway line. Spotting a stall selling sticks of melon for ¥100/200 a piece, we decided to join the fruit-fest – the skewered slices of watermelon and juicy cantaloupe were so refreshing in the relentlessly sticky heat!


Our next stop was Ueno Kōen, home to Japan’s oldest zoo and studded with cultural landmarks. Pokémon devotees were out in force – hundreds of them were scattered across the park, including several hard-core fans in fancy dress. After detouring via Kiyomizu Kannon-do (Temple) – a burgundy-coloured temple with a spacious terrace overlooking the western edges of the park – we ventured down to Shinobazu Pond. A sea of lotus flowers stretched as far as the park’s perimeter and street food stalls lined the path to Benten-do, another ornate temple hall.

Beside the temple, we spotted a man with dozens of tiny birds perched on his arm. Sensing our curiosity, he presented me with a ball of dough and told me to hold it up in the air in my fist; before long, I had several tiny birds clustering around me.

Photo credit: Laurence

As a giant panda devotee, a trip to Ueno Zoo was pretty high up on my to-do list and with entry at a mere ¥600, the price was right! Noshing on piles of not-so-nutritious bamboo, Tokyo’s Shin Shin and Ri Ri were far more cooperative than Edinburgh’s Tian Tian and Yang Guang! In all, we spent a couple of hours admiring everything from majestic elephants and nit-picking macaques to plump pygmy hippos and shaggy polar bears.

After a series of showers, we picked up some refreshing smoothies from the pop-up Thai market before wandering over to the neighbouring district of Yakata. This characterful neighbourhood is quite literally brimming with Buddhist temples – there was one on every street corner, and we even mistook someone’s house for a temple on one occasion. Oops. Besides getting a comprehensive temple-fix, we saw the former liquor store and strolled down Yakata-Ginza, a pedestrianised street lined with cafés and small retailers, before continuing on to Asakusa.


In the heart of Asakusa, Sensō-ji is a spectacularly colourful temple complex featuring enormous paper lanterns, ornate décor, water features and impressive gateways. It’s Tokyo’s oldest temple and draws big crowds throughout the year.


From here, we took the metro to Tokyo Skytree, which at 634 metres high is the world’s tallest tower; appearance-wise, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Toronto’s CN Tower. The queue was ridiculously long, so we decided to part ways with a few more yen and join the fast-track queue for international visitors. Tokyo’s illuminated cityscape was nothing short of mesmerising; the lights went on indefinitely with flame-coloured boulevards cutting through the endless skyscrapers.


Whilst we were perfectly content to simply admire the panoramic views, Tokyo Skytree had other ideas. Namely, ‘Wipe Up’. Imagine projections of window cleaners (accompanied by a soundtrack and Japanese commentary) across all of the windows and adults dressed as window cleaners in luminescent overalls dancing all over the place with the biggest grins on their faces and you’ll get an idea of how bizarre this was. If you’re struggling, YouTube is on hand to help fill in the gaps.

Memory cards filled with dozens of cityscapes, we returned to Ueno and opted to try one of the local restaurants for tea. Having little-to-no command of the Japanese language, we carefully watched the dishes appearing on neighbouring tables before biting the bullet and opting for some fish (which turned out to mackerel) and barbequed meats, which were all very tasty. We washed it down with a shochu highball, which for the uninitiated (myself included at the time of consumption) is a fruit-flavoured alcoholic drink. Next stop: Mt. Fuji!


  • Besides Ueno Zoo, Ueno Kōen is home to several of Tokyo’s most well-respected museums including the National Museum of Western Art, which has recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Come spring, it’s a prime viewing spot for Japan’s famous cherry blossoms.
  • If you’re an international visitor in a rush (or simply wanting to skip the queue) and are prepared to part with a few more yen, Tokyo Skytree’s fast-track queue is for you. It was the most we spent on an attraction, coming in at a whopping ¥3000 (£24), but seeing Tokyo lit up at night was 100% worth it.

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