Tour Report: Historical Tokyo and Cherry Blossoms

by Brian – Staff

This spring I had the opportunity to join our Historical Tokyo and Cherry Blossoms tour. Read about my experience below to find out more!

Historical Tokyo and Cherry Blossoms

Spring in Japan is a magical time. The changing of the seasons and each season’s own particular idioms are very important in Japanese culture, with importance placed on things like seasonal cuisine, varying scenery, and season-specific activities. Despite their penchant for loving all the seasons as a people, I would be willing to bet my weight in cherry blossom petals that spring takes the cake as the most popular. Why, you ask?

This is why.

With a gradual upswing in temperature comes an explosion of pink and white that takes the country by storm, starting in the very south and spreading north. The fleeting nature of the blossoms is one of the things that makes them so beautiful: after hitting full bloom, the petals quickly fall from their lofty perch and are gone with the wind in about a week. Everyone likes to celebrate the coming of spring and the blooming of the cherry blossoms in their own way, but the standards include picnics under the trees (alcohol optional), strolls down cherry tree-lined avenues, or even a rowboat ride on a sakura-ringed pond. The most popular spots for picnics are, as you can probably guess, large parks because they offer plenty of space for people to spread out a tarp or blanket. Being a fan of the under-tree spring party scene myself, this year I was looking to break away from personal tradition and branch (rimshot!) out. As luck would have it, I was invited to join Sunrise Tours’ Historical Tokyo and Cherry Blossoms tour in downtown Tokyo.

A Time Capsule Encased in Cherry Blossoms: Yanaka

Our tour started with a quick ride on the Yamanote Line to Nippori Station. Nippori, located near Ueno, is on the northeast side of central Tokyo. On the train, the guide gave us some historical background on Tokyo in general and the specific areas we would be visiting that day. After arriving in Nippori, we made our way on foot to Yanaka, a peaceful old neighborhood. As we ascended a small slope from the station area into Yanaka, we were greeted by a veritable tunnel of cherry blossoms. The avenue stretching out in front of us was lined on both sides by innumerable cherry trees in full bloom. Continuing our stroll, we took a jaunt through a local temple at the head of the street and then continued down the breathtaking thoroughfare.

The blue and green tarps along the street are people saving picnic spots for later.

Yanaka turned out to be exactly as I had heard it to be: a little bubble from times past suspended in the middle of Tokyo. The main street cuts through Yanaka Cemetery which certainly lends to the serene atmosphere. Fun fact about Yanaka Cemetery: The grave of the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, is located there (along with those of his wife and mistresses).

After a leisurely stroll down the long avenue, it was time to continue on our way to the one and only Ueno Park.

On the (Sakura) Road Again

As our guide led us out of Yanaka, the surrounding buildings became gradually more modern as we entered a residential area of Ueno. Even though there weren’t nearly as many cherry trees along these streets as there were in Yanaka, we had the opportunity to see two genpei cherry trees, which are adorned by blossoms of two different colors. As our guide explained, the name genpei is derived from an epic feud between two clans: each of the colors, white and red, represents one of the opposing sides.

Another fun fact: The area of Ueno through which we were walking is called Sakuragi, which translates to “cherry tree.” I guess they might have taken all the beautiful cherry trees that populate the area into account when they named it.

A Bustling Oasis: Ueno Park

As our guide explained to us on the train, Ueno Park was formerly the site of an expansive temple complex, Kan’ei-ji, which was built by the ruling Tokugawa family to ward off bad luck and evil spirits. Ueno is located in the northeastern area of Tokyo (Edo, as it was called in the Tokugawas’ time), and this ordinal direction was thought of as unlucky in conventional wisdom of the era, hence the placement of the temple to safeguard the capital. Unfortunately, most of the temple’s buildings were destroyed during a particularly fierce battle in 1868 between the shogun’s forces and the supporters of the imperial family, who were trying to restore imperial rule. Eventually, the site was given to the public by Emperor Taisho in 1924 and became Ueno Park.

The main temple of Kan’ei-ji is still standing today on the edge of Ueno Park, so we stopped by to check it out. Our guide was quick to direct our attention to the roof; being heavily tied to the Tokugawa family, their crest (three hollyhock leaves in a circle) adorns the temple itself. Yet another fun fact: The temple’s five-story pagoda is also still standing and is located inside the grounds of Ueno Zoo.

After viewing the temple, it was time to enter the park itself. To put it plainly, Ueno Park is huge. It is a massive oasis of green in the middle of the steel and concrete jungle that is central Tokyo. That being said, it is also one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing spots. This was certainly not my first visit to the park during sakura season, but the number of people in the park will never cease to amaze me. Our guide led us through the crowds to the wide main walkway. Mingling with the masses, we cast our collective gaze upwards once more to appreciate the beautiful blossoms overhead.

We walked around some of the main areas of the park and then made our way to one of the coolest features of Ueno Park: the giant lotus pond (best viewed in summer when the pond is mostly covered in lily pads and lotus flowers). Our morning tour was coming to a close, and that meant that it was time for a snack. (Editor’s note: Depending on the tour group and guide, the tour may visit the tea house before walking around Ueno Park.)

Everybody loves snack time.

The tour includes a visit to Hasumi-Chaya, a traditional Japanese tea house on the edge of the pond. You get a set with tea and your choice between anko, sweet red bean paste, or mitarashi dango, rice flour dumplings coated with a sweet soy sauce glaze. As you can see above, I went with the mitarashi dango; they did not disappoint. After relaxing while sipping tea and munching on our traditional snacks, it was time to part ways. We were all heading in different directions, so the guide took us to JR Ueno Station to help us get to our respective next destinations. (Editor’s note: This tour typically visits Ueno Toshogu Shrine in Ueno Park, but at the time of this report it was under construction, so we were unable to visit.)

Don’t Go Away!

This tour ends around 12:15 p.m., at which point the guide will be more than happy to take you to Ueno Station. However, I highly recommend that you stay in the park. Even if you’ve had your fill of cherry blossom viewing (as if that’s even possible), there is so much to see and do in Ueno Park. Between the museums, zoo, temples, shrines, and other historical structures, you could easily spend the rest of your day exploring the park. Need to pick up some lunch? No problem! During sakura season there are tons of great street food vendors in the park hawking everything from yakitori and okonomiyaki to giant hot dogs and turkey legs (not to mention plenty of beer and cup sake). Enjoy!

Perhaps not the fish sticks you were expecting?

Note: From 2012, the itinerary of this tour has been revised such that you visit Ueno Park first and Yanaka last (also, the restaurant has changed). However, the author still wholeheartedly stands by his recommendation that you check out Ueno Park again after the tour! The tour will end at Nippori Station, and it is a very quick train ride from there to Ueno, or you could just walk back the way you came on the tour if you prefer.