The Ueno Tosho-Gu Shrine – An Underrated Treasure

The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine, located in Ueno Park within Teito Ward in Tokyo, can be said to be a perfect example of Shinto architecture pertaining to the Edo period (1603 – 1868). The shrine was originally built in 1627 and renovated in 1651, remaining mostly intact from that time. Remarkably, it survived through the Battle of Ueno (1868), the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the Tokyo firebombing (1945).

Entering Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine

All Shinto shrines enshrining Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last Shogunal government (1600 – 1868), are generally called ‘Tosho-gu’, literally translating to ‘the God of the Eastern Sun’. These are found throughout Japan. The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine in particular also enshrines two other Tokugawa shoguns as well.

The Path of the Stone-Lanterns

As one approaches this Shrine, the path is lined on both sides with impressive stone lanterns. Each lantern is 2-meters high. These were all built between 1628 and 1651. As one walks on, after encountering the stone lanterns at the gate, one also finds intricate copper lanterns nearer to the shrine building itself. There are 50 copper lanterns in all. These are not used for illumination, but are used solely for purification and sacred fires required during religious ceremonies. The copper lanterns were all offerings made by the various Daimyos – feudal lords who were the vassals of the shogun and who had an obligation to honor the memory of the first Tokugawa shogun. Each lantern is engraved at its base with the family name of the Daimyo who donated it.

Shrine emas hung near the Dedication area

Next to the main shrine building, one comes across the usual shrine/temple emas. These votive picture wooden tablets are vessels on which people write their wishes and are found in every Shinto shrine and temple. Dedicating an ema is easy:

  1. Purchase the ema from the shrine souvenir store (at a small fee)
  2. Write your wish, name and address on the back (pens are usually provided)
  3. Hang your ema near the dedication area

If your wish is strong enough, the kami (the god) will surely hear it.

The five-storied Pagoda

As one walks to the Shrine, one also can freely admire the towering 36-meter high five-storied pagoda, which is situated on what are today the grounds of Ueno Zoo. Tosho-gu Shrine itself was originally part of a larger Buddhist temple complex. In 1868, many of the Buddhist Temple buildings were destroyed in a fire. Since historically, Shinto and Buddhist religious beliefs were often mixed, it was not unusual for a Shinto Shrine to be situated within a Buddhist Temple complex and vice-versa. Once the Buddhist Temple complex was mostly destroyed however, the Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine was more clearly divided from the rest of Ueno Park.

In front of the karaman

Undoubtedly, the karaman is the most statuesque building in the shrine. With its golden curved gable and huge gate, it is designated as an Important Cultural Property and dominates the foreground. The pillars of the gate sport two carved dragons. Legend states that each night, the dragons leave the shrine and go to the nearby Shinabazu Pond to drink. The carvings on the gate and wall of the karaman are said to depict over 200 species of plants and animals, and are all hand-carved.

The main building of the shrine is the honden, that is the Main Hall. This contains the haiden, that is, the Worship Hall, as well as the heiden, or Offertory Hall. This building too is an Important Cultural Property.

The main hall, or honden

There is a 500 yen admission fee to go beyond the karamon and get closer to the honden, as well as an extra 700 yen admission fee to enter the famous peony gardens. These are open from January to mid-February and from mid-April to mid-May. Unfortunately, we visited in June, so access was not possible.

Although not as popular as the Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine, Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine is definitely a gem not to be missed.

Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine is located on the west side of Ueno Park. It is an 8-minute walk from th Park exit of JR Ueno Station, a 7-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station, 9 minutes from Ueno Subway Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya and Ginza lines, and 12 minutes from Nezu Station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda line.

Feeling like Royalty at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Interested in Japanese culture, heritage, and history? If the answer to any of these is yes, visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward is a must. The Palace is situated almost at the center of Tokyo, defining the heart of the city.

Being the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, the Imperial Palace is situated in a large park and contains a number of buildings, such as the main palace, the private residence of the Imperial family, a number of museums and administration offices, and an archive, among others. This is because the current modern palace, also called Kyuden, was designed to host court functions and receptions, as well as being the residence of the Emperor and Empress.

We grabbed the metro at Korakuen Station (our accommodation was in Bunkyo City) and took the Marunouchi Line to arrive at Otemachi Station, only a six-minute walk from the Imperial Palace.

In front of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge

Walking along one of the 12 moats surrounding the Palace, we were pleasantly surprised by the magnificent view of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge whose name literally means ‘Main Gate Stone Bridge’. Its twin stone arches, perfectly reflected in the crystalline palace moat, create an atmosphere of idyllic serenity, not to mention the perfect photographic background when viewed from Kyuden Plaza just in front of the Palace Main Gates. One of Tokyo’s most iconic sites, this bridge is also called Magane-bashi or ‘the eyeglass bridge’ or ‘the spectacles bridge’, due to its distinct look. Unfortunately, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge is not accessible to the public, therefore one can take as many photos as one wants, but no one can actually cross it. Pictures of the stunning double bridge soaring over the canal, leading into the fortified walls with the Imperial Palace in the background more than make up for not being able to walk on it though.

After taking a million photos, we were approaching the public facilities right next to the main gate, when we saw a tour guide and a number of people waiting nearby and realised that most of the Imperial Palace could only be visited with a tour guide! We hadn’t been aware of that at all, but we were very lucky as the walking tour in question was about to start, and it was free. There were a few open places too so we could just register and be part of the group there and then without even booking! How fortunate is that?!

So, beware. Unless you visit with a guided tour, most of the Palace and grounds, except for the Imperial Household Agency (a governmental agency building) and the East Gardens, are not open to the public. Fortunately, such free 1.5 hour walking tours as the one we encountered by pure chance are available from Tuesday to Saturday. These free guided tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency and are available in a number of languages (there are different tour guides). English, Chinese and Spanish are among the languages catered for. Tours start at 10am and 13.00 in winter, and at 10am only in summer. Although we were lucky enough to find two available places in the tour while we were there, it is always better to book beforehand. To book this tour, and for more information, you can access the Imperial Household Agency website.

The Imperial Palace’s Main Gate – Pic Source: alamy.com

The guided tours normally start in front of the Palace’s Main Gate. It is a very good tour and the guide was very nice, providing an explanation of the history and background of the castle, and even showing us photos of the current Imperial family. At the start of the tour, we were given a badge and asked to fill a form, then we were taken to a large pavilion where there was a baggage-checkpoint. There were also lockers where, for a small price, one could leave one’s belongings in order not to be encumbered with them during the tour. I really recommend leaving your stuff in one of the lockers as the tour is quite a walk! There were literally hundreds of other people waiting in the pavilion, where the guides gave out some instructions in different languages and sorted us into groups depending on the language we preferred our tour to be in.

In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, center left, and Empress Michiko, center right, smile at Prince Hisahito, fifth from right. Also pictured are from left, Crown Princess Masako, Crown Prince Naruhito, Princess Mako, behind Akihito, Princess Aiko, Princess Kako, Prince Akishino, Prince Hisahito and Princess Kiko.

The tour guide recounted how the present Imperial Palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle, residence of the Shogun during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). The total area comprising of grounds and castle, spans 1.15 square kilometres. In 1873 a fire consumed the old Shogun residence, and the current Imperial Palace was constructed on the same site in 1888.

The Imperial Palace grounds are divided into 6 wings, however we were not able to visit them all, not even with the guide. Of course, the Emperor’s residential area (found in Fukiage Garden) and the Emperor’s work office were out of bounds.

We started the tour by walking through the Main Gate and into the beautiful Ni-no-maru gardens at the lower level of the Palace.Then, we discovered another bridge, this one made of metal, spanning the moat right behind Seimon Ishibashi Bridge and having the same twin arches structure. This was the Nijubashi Bridge, which is accessible to the public. In fact we had to cross it, since it leads directly to the main Imperial Palace buildings.

Crossing Nijubashi Bridge

The first building we encountered during our guided tour was the picturesque Fishimi Yagura – a turret and look-out in which weapons used to be stored, and from which archers could defend the palace against invading armies. The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower (1659) is a three-story square-shaped fort which had become the symbol of Edo Castle after the castle’s main tower was rebuilt following the great fire of 1657.

The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower

We also spotted Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower, which is the last remaining corner watchtower pertaining to the original Edo Castle.

The Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower

We walked on to the Chowaden Reception Hall, which is the largest structure in the Palace, and which is the place where the Japanese Imperial family appear to give blessings to the public every new year, and on the Emperor’s birthday. It is also where official state functions and ceremonies are held. During the tour we were also taken to a number of other Halls, such as the Seiden State Function Hall and the Homeiden Banquet Hall.

Following the tour, one can freely roam through Kogyo-gaien National Park, which is situated at the southern tip of the Palace grounds. Personally, if you plan on visiting Tokyo’s Imperial Palace (and I really suggest you do), I would recommend allocating at least two or three hours for the experience, since the tour itself can take from 1.5 to 2 hours, and you’d definitely need at least another half an hour to walk around and enjoy the surroundings.