Sitting atop a hill rising 20 meters, Ueno Park is home to not only museums, a zoo, and many temples, it is also the site of a decisive battle the brought the Edo era to a close and ushered in the Meiji Restoration. Rich in history with easy access to nearby Asakusa and the rest of the city thanks to Ueno station, the area is a popular spot for residents and visitors alike.
The area was originally called “Shinobugaoka” and at the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, in one part of Shinobugaoka was the lower estate of Todo Takatora, a daimyo from Iga Ueno (current day Mie prefecture), and this is where the name “Ueno” is said to come from.
In addition to Todo’s estate, the lower estates of two other daimyo, Tsugaru Nobuhira and Hori Naoyori, were also appropriated by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu and combined so that Kan’ei-ji temple complex could be built (started in 1625 and ultimately completed in 1697). The scale of Kan’ei-ji temple was immense – it occupied all of the area now known as Ueno Park (including the Zoo to the west) as well as the area to the east upon which Ueno station now stands, and had more than 35 temples and sub-temples on it.
While Kan’ei-ji temple gained prestige and influence from being the family temple of the Tokugawas, it also served another very important function, that of Kimon – the gate placed at the north-east to protect Edo from spirits and demons, who according to geomantic beliefs come from this direction (Sensoji in Asakusa also serves the same function as well).
Also like Asakusa, as the temple gained notoriety, more and more people came to the area, and a thriving temple town sprung up outside the gates to cater to the crowds coming to worship at Kan’eiji, and who also spent money on food, tea, and souvenirs.
Kan’ei-ji and the area around it continued to prosper, but when the temple became a Tokugawa family cemetery – the fourth shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna was interred here in 1680, the temple’s status and power increased even further and its association with the Tokugawas cemented.
In 1868, the Shogitai, loyalists to the Tokugawa Shogunate and numbering about 2,000, based in Kan’ei-ji and ostensibly for the protection of the 15th and final shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu – fought a pitched battle against imperial troops led by Saigo Takamori (whose statue has become arguably the most well known landmark of Ueno Park). Although Yoshinobu had voluntary stepped down as shogun in 1867, formally returned power to the emperor and was in self imposed confinement in Kan’ei-ji, plans were in place to make Edo the new imperial capital and so the Tokugawa forces had to go.
On July 4th 1868, although outnumbered, the imperial troops attacked head-on aided by artillery situated overlooking the Ueno tableland. Despite suffering heavy losses initially, the imperial troops prevailed at the end of the day. However, Kan’ei-ji temple and almost 1,000 houses were completely burned down as a result of the artillery bombardment.
The destroyed area was designated as one of the first five public parks in Tokyo in 1873 and it was completed and opened in 1876. That same year, an automatic scale, a vending machine (the first recorded in Japan) and a “newspaper room” – in an era where newspaper distribution was spotty and newspapers were published on a regular schedule, this was very much appreciated by the residents of Tokyo – were established in Ueno Park.
By March of 1882, the Park had been the home of two national exhibitions and the National museum (found at the north end of the park) and zoo were opened. Other museums opened thereafter: the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in 1926, and the National Museum of Western Art in 1959 among them.
Ueno Park is still home to many important shrines and temples as well. Although Kan’ei-ji was burnt down, its location is still easily found – it stood where the main fountain in Ueno Park is. Ueno Toshogu (a temple dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu; its sister is the larger and more famous Nikko Toshogu) still stands on the western edge of the park along with the five storied pagoda from Kan’ei-ji. Both of these structures escaped damage not only from the Battle of Ueno in 1868, but also survived the air raids of 1945.
While the history of Ueno Park is rich and varied, it is often overlooked by both visitors and residents alike – much more attention is given to the many cherry blossom trees; this is one of the most popular “hana-mi” (cherry blossom viewing) spots in all of Tokyo.