Almost everyone in Tokyo ends up at Ueno Park one time or another. Once the site of Kan‘eiji Temple, which protected the north eastern approach to Edo Castle, it was turned into a public park after most of its buildings were destroyed in battle during the Meiji Restoration and now houses six of Japan‘s best museums, its oldest zoo, a boating lake, lotus pond, and over 1,000 cherry blossom trees.
The zoo is famous for its three giant pandas and a five-storied pagoda, one of the few surviving structures from Kan‘eiji. The spacious grounds are split into two sections linked by a short monorail ride and, though cramped and dingy in a few corners, have impressive new facilities such as the Reptile House, Gorilla Forest, and a domestic petting zoo. Definitely Ueno‘s most family-friendly attraction, the zoo gets very crowded on holidays and weekends, especially around the panda enclosure.
Near the entrance to the zoo, don’t miss the approach to Toshogu Shrine, a long path lined with 50 copper lanterns, trees almost obscuring the top of the pagoda to the right, the copper, green, and deep red hall of worship straight ahead just as it was 300 years ago. Along with the tunnel of red torii gates leading down to the modest Gojo Shrine, it’s far and away my favourite place in the park.
Less positively, there’s a disappointing lack of places to sit and relax unless you pay to get into the zoo or the grounds of the National Museum. Shinobazu Pond is indicative of this problem, a few scruffy benches and some food stalls on the ma-made island next to Benzaiten Temple the only places to break your walk. The park’s not even an especially nice place to walk around: the main paths are overcrowded and the trees are strung with blue tarpaulin sheets for the hundreds of homeless people who live here. Outside of cherry blossom season or the summer ice sculpture festival, the only picnickers you're likely to see are old men with cans of beer and cigarettes. Ueno is Tokyo’s best park for culture, but it's well down the list for an afternoon in the sun.