03 October 2016

Tokyo (Japan) - Ueno Park & Akihabara

Date of Exploration : 28 Mar 2016

After Asakusa Temple, we continued our exploration of the northeastern districts of Tokyo with a visit to Ueno Park and Akihabara. As all these places of interest are rather nearby, planning to see all of them together as a day excursion would save a lot of travelling time.

Ueno Park - An Attraction of Attractions

From Tokyo's iconic Asakusa Temple, we took a short train ride to Ueno Park. Other than being a scenic green escape from the concrete of Tokyo, the park is also home to a zoo (Ueno Zoo), several museums (such as the Tokyo National Museum, Western Museum of Art, National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, etc), shrines and themed landscapes.

With so many attractions within its grounds, Ueno Park makes for a very rewarding visit that could demand a full-day trip just to explore most of what it has to offer. But perhaps what the park is most famous for is its reputation as one of the best places for hanami (appreciating cherry blossoms) during the sakura season

I came to Japan specially for the cherry blossom season so Ueno Park was on my list of must-visit places to revel in the floral spectacle. Ueno Park is also a favourite choice for hanami parties for the locals because it is the only park in Tokyo where the consumption of alcohol is allowed.

Being a hotspot for viewing sakura, Ueno Park gets a lot of footfall with people numbering as countless as the flowers in bloom. To avoid crowds and have much of the park to yourself, the best time to visit is apparently before 10am during the sakura season.

We arrived late at Ueno Park (at around 3pm) but early for the sakura season. Most of the trees were still budding and the flowers were not in full bloom yet.

We passed by the quaint Kiyomizu Kannado (Goddess of Mercy Temple) sitting atop a hill. As we did not have a lot of time before nightfall, we rushed through our visit of Ueno Park and did not visit the various attractions and points of interest within its vicinity.

I can imagine how spectacular it would be when the floral canopies are in full bloom.

As different species of cherry blossoms with slightly different blooming periods are planted in Ueno Park, we were rewarded with these early sprays of pink so our trouble to get here wasn't in vain.

Sakura flowers are pretty alone and beautiful together.

Groups of people spread picnic mats along the paths lined with sakura trees for hanami parties and gatherings. Consumption of alcohol is permitted in Ueno Park so can you imagine warming up with some sake (Japanese rice wine) in the cool spring air amidst drifting petals of sakura? Ahh... it would be bliss! Except that the green hoarding destroyed any sense of beauty!

Silly jump shot at the vast plaza in front of Tokyo National Museum.
A brief time photographing the sakura blooms later, the sun began to set and we hurried off to our next destination. If I visit Tokyo again, I would definitely come back to Ueno Park to check out the zoo, temples and museums. And I would definitely start my visit much earlier so as to see more!

Akihabara - Plugging into the Anime Pulse of Tokyo

Departing Ueno Park, we had wanted to walk over to Bunkyo Civic Center, which has a free-access observation deck on the 25th floor, to catch the sunset over Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from the deck.

In my research, Bunkyo Civic Center didn't seem too far a walk from Ueno Park but because I was being cheap, I didn't get a local data SIM card so that I can activate Google map for way-finding and relied on asking our way to where we wanted to be. Thinking that Bunkyo Civic Center would be a well-known landmark, we asked the police at Ueno Park and several passers-by along the way but no one knew where the building was. We even showed them photos of the building only to receive blank stares.

We walked along Showa-Dori road, which is an arterial road next to the entrance of Ueno Park, and about 30 minutes later, we ended up at Akihabara! I've planned to go Akihabara after Bunkyo Civic Centre but unwittingly, we've arrived at Tokyo's famed tech district without knowing that we could actually walk to Akihabara from Ueno Park. Oh well, it was a pleasant surprise although we didn't get to see the sunset over Tokyo as hoped for.

Welcome to Tokyo's geekdom of tech and anime!

Other than electronics, Akihabara is also a come-to place for entertainment-themed restaurants and cafes such as the AKB48 Cafe and Gundam Cafe. AKB48 is the wildly popular girl band group which has 48 members! And 'AKB' is short for Akihabara because this is where it all started.

I came to Akihabara not because I'm a techie but for the area's famed maid cafes where diners are served by cute girls in maid costumes. Ok, I know what you are thinking... that I'm a dirty old man satisfying some BDSM fetish but I'm not. I'm just curious about this peculiar cafe culture that is every schoolboy's and horny men fantasy.

One of the most famous maid cafe is @Home Cafe. At the cafe, you are treated like a king where the maids will serve you, play games with you and even feed you! I was really psyched about the experience of being pampered but my companion didn't feel comfortable with the idea so the lift lobby was as close I'd gotten to @Home Cafe.

There are many different kinds of maid cafes in Akihabara. Some have games as part of their services while others engage you in handicraft or performances. I think it's a blessing that I didn't go into the maid cafe. I would probably take over their jobs since it sounds like so much fun! LOL

Since we gave the maid cafes a miss, we decided to check out Gundam Cafe, which is next door to the AKB48 Cafe.

Piecing together plastic robots was one of my favourite past-times as a kid and I had shelves full of Gundam bots and mechanised Zoids on display. Whatever ang pow money I got during Chinese New Year would end up on those shelves. So I was also pretty psyched to dine at Gundam Cafe. But luck wasn't on our side. The cafe was closed that day for a private event! *tear out my hair*

It was quite a string of non adventures at Akihabara but there's no denying that the district possesses a great potential for unusual experiences that is centered around the uniquely Japanese culture of manga / anime. And here's me trying to audition as the next anime star. Ooi... stop puking okay?!

From soaking in the religious traditions at Asakusa Temple to sakura viewing at Ueno Park to stepping into the future at Akihabara, we encountered 3 very distinct facets of Tokyo that are so very different all in a day. What can I say except that I'm totally loving it in Tokyo!

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