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Prime Time at Tokyo's Ueno Park Is a Rich Show of Cherry Blossoms : It's a lovely stretch of nature hugged by high-rises, but the real draw is the people.

March 22, 1992|T.R. REID | WASHINGTON POST

TOKYO — The challenge: Our friends had a stopover in Tokyo en route to a business meeting in Hong Kong. With a little less than 48 hours to spend in Japan, they wanted to find a concentrated cross section of the country that would give them a feel for what Japan is all about--and would also be fun. Oh yes, by the way--they had no time to travel, and they didn't want to spend much. Could we think of a place where all this could be done?

The solution: In a word, Ueno.

The lively, teeming area around Tokyo's Ueno Station offers a well-rounded and downright delightful look into the two faces of Japan, the ancient feudal country and the modern economic superpower.

On the high hill above the station, Ueno Park is a combination of Washington's Mall and New York's Central Park, a lovely stretch of grass, flowers, trees and ponds that is home to several national museums and one of the premier zoos on Earth.

At the base of the hill is a fascinating milelong shopping district, Ameya-yokocho, which has been designated the best (perhaps we should say the only ) bargain center in all Japan. This tribute was accorded Ueno by a couple of people who ought to know: Suzy Gershman and Judith Thomas, authors of the "Born to Shop" books. "Everything you want, except pearls, is here at the best prices in Japan," they write.

And since Ueno Station is the starting point for all bullet trains (and all other trains) headed north of Tokyo, the neighborhood is always tremendously alive with people and commerce. As Dr. Johnson said of London, anybody who is bored in Ueno must be bored with life.

This is always a wonderful place to visit, but just about now is Ueno's prime time. From late March to late April, the slopes of Ueno Park blossom forth with Japan's richest concentration of cherry blossoms. That, in turn, attracts huge concentrations of Japanese people.

Each day of the cherry blossom season, more than a million people come to Ueno for hanami , or flower-viewing excursions. By midafternoon, every square inch of park is covered with picnic blankets where parties of 10 or more gather for lavish lunches under the delicate cherry boughs.

Getting to Ueno is simplicity itself. (It's a three-syllable word in Japanese--pronounced ooh-eh-no--but you'll do fine if you simplify the pronunciation to way-no.) Ueno Station, or Ueno eki , is the second-busiest train station on Earth, according to the Japanese Railroads (JR), ranking just behind Tokyo's Shinjuku Station, a few miles down the track. It is a terminus for buses, Japan Railways trains, private rail lines and two subway lines. Located at the heart of Shitamachi, the oldest part of Tokyo, Ueno is a 12-minute subway ride from the Imperial Palace at the heart of downtown. It's easily accessible from any Tokyo hotel.

Inside the sprawling Ueno Station, you will see a few members of a small community--Japan's homeless. A wealthy country where family obligations are taken seriously, Japan has very few people who are down and out. But a half-dozen or so people who fit that description live in the corridors of the station, providing Americans a sad recollection of home.

When you leave the train, bus, subway or whatever, the best way to start seeing Ueno is to head for the most popular meeting place in all Japan. That would be, of course, the base of Takamori Saigo's statue, on the hill rising above Ueno Station. If you go up to anybody on the street and say "Saigo?," they'll steer you in the right direction.

Takamori Saigo (pronounced sigh-go) was one of the 19th-Century samurai who toppled the last shogun and led Japan's rapid modernization in the period known as the Meiji (may-jee) Restoration. He led a famous battle on the Ueno hills in 1868.

Saigo eventually turned against the modernizers and led a futile counterrevolution. It was bound to fail, and did. But like many noble failures in Japanese history, Saigo became a folk hero, a status he still holds today.

The statue depicts a determined, square-faced soldier in kimono, with a determined, square-faced bulldog pulling on a leash at his side. When the statue was finished in 1892, Saigo's widow complained that it didn't look anything like the man. Today, though, that statue in Ueno Park is such a powerful image that when a TV network made a miniseries on Saigo's life in 1990, the producers deliberately found a man and a dog who looked like the famous statue.

From Saigo's statue, a short walk through the park will take you to the Ueno Park zoo--where you can see Japan's famous pandas--to the national aquarium or to any of several big, interesting national museums, arranged around a grassy quadrangle quite reminiscent of Washington's Mall.

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