Two subway stops or a short walk west of Kappabashi is Ueno, best known for its park and museums, including the flagship Tokyo National Museum, offering a comprehensive romp through Japanese art history. The Yamanote line loops west from Ueno past Rikugi-en, a serene classical garden, before rattling into Ikebukuro, worth exploring for its two huge department stores, discount shops and cosmopolitan vibe.
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Most people visit UENO (上野) for its park, Ueno Kōen, which is home to a host of good museums, including the prestigious Tokyo National Museum, plus a few relics from Kan’ei-ji, a vast temple complex that once occupied this hilltop. But Ueno also has proletarian, Shitamachi roots, and much of its eastern district has a rough-and-ready feel, which is best experienced in the market area of Ameyokochō.
Five minutes’ walk south of Komagome Station on the Yamanote line, Rikugi-en (六義園; daily 9am–5pm; ¥300) is Tokyo’s best surviving example of a classical, Edo-period stroll-garden, designed in the early 18th century by high-ranking feudal lord Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. Both a perfectionist and a literary scholar, Yanagisawa took seven years to create this celebrated garden – with its 88 allusions to famous scenes, real or imaginary, from ancient Japanese poetry – and then named it Rikugi-en, “garden of the six principles of poetry”, in reference to the rules for composing waka (poems of 31 syllables).
Few of the 88 landscapes have survived – the guide map issued at the entrance identifies a mere eighteen. Nevertheless, Rikugi-en still retains its rhythm and beauty, beginning as you enter with an ancient, spreading cherry tree, then slowly unfolding along paths that meander past secluded arbours and around the indented shoreline of an islet-speckled lake. In contrast, there are also areas of more natural woodland and a hillock from which to admire the whole scene.
Northern Tokyo’s main commercial hub is IKEBUKURO (池袋). Cheap accommodation and good transport links have attracted an increasing number of expatriates, typically Chinese and Taiwanese, but including a broad sweep of other nationalities, to settle around here, which lends Ikebukuro a faintly cosmopolitan air. Either side of the hectic station (around one million passengers pass through each day), the massive department stores Tōbu and Seibu square off against each other.
Tokyo's last tramline
Tokyo's last tramline
Tokyo once had an extensive tram network, of which only the 12km Toden Arakawa line (都電荒川線) remains, running north from Waseda to Minowa-bashi. The most interesting section is the short stretch from Kōshinzuka Station, a fifteen-minute walk northwest of Sugamo Station, from where the line heads southwest towards Higashi-Ikebukuro, rocking and rolling along narrow streets and through Tokyo back yards. Most of the original tramlines were private enterprises – the Arakawa line was built purely to take people to the spring blossoms in Asukayama Park – and have gradually been replaced with subways. Now the last of the chin chin densha (“ding ding trains”), as they’re known from the sound of their bells, the Arakawa line, will probably survive for its nostalgia value if nothing else. Tickets cost ¥160, however far you travel; you pay as you enter. Station signs and announcements are in English.