Ueno Station (上野駅) is a major rail transit hub in Tokyo’s Taitō Ward and the historical terminus of trains providing service to northern Japan. Many of those trains now continue or will in the future continue through to Tokyo Station, but Ueno Station and the Ueno municipality in which it is located still pack a considerable amount of historical and cultural gravity, as well as personal meaning for me. Disembarking the Keisei Main Line from Narita Airport, this was literally the place my feet touched the ground when I arrived for my first stay in Tokyo years ago.
First, a brief geography and social stratification overview. The core of Tokyo (not including the satellite cities within Tokyo Prefecture) is divided into special wards, such as Taitō, but at an even more macro level places can be said to fall either in the Yamanote (山の手) area, the affluent, upper-class neighborhoods “toward the mountain” on the west side of the Imperial Palace, or the Shitamachi (下町) area, the marshy, “low city” near the sea. The socioeconomic distinction tends to have more influence on the classification than the geography. While some consider Chiyoda Ward as part of Shitamachi, it’s still quite well-to-do when compared with neighboring wards to the north, which is why I usually think of Ueno and nearby Asakusa as the vanguard. Not coincidentally, these two districts are usually the furthest into Shitamachi that most tourists will ever venture.
On the ground, this translates to a noticeably different, grittier feel to places like Ueno, Asakusa, up into Arakawa Ward and beyond, as compared with the bright and shiny towers of Shinjuku and Shibuya, or the quiet, contemplative grounds of the palace. As a photographer, my goal here is not to smooth over or disguise the roughness, but to faithfully capture it as it is, or even amplify its essence for impact. While many of these places my not be conventionally beautiful, they are still meaningful to the people that call them home. The dreary, low rise cityscape masks a vibrant street and community life below. In this last leg of the still photography portion of The Tokyo Project, we’ll look at just a little bit of this, beginning with Ueno Station.
The station is built into a hillside, so there are multiple levels of platforms, this being the highest.
The Shinobazu entrance at the foot of the hill doesn’t exactly scream grand entry to Tokyo, but it’s interesting in it’s own way. Notice anything, or anyone unusual? You can click the image to see the large resolution version on Flickr. Tokyo based photographer Lee Chapman says this Buddhist monk has been a fixture at Ueno Station, having come here each day for many years to quietly stand and pray under the trestle.
The original station, completed in 1883, was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. This building, which replaced it, opened in 1932.
Considering all of the wide crosswalks, the large pedestrian overcrossing on which I’m standing almost seems unnecessary. While it is true that there are many unneeded overcrossings in cities here as a result of public works projects, in this case it helps connect the street directly to portions of Ueno Station that are at higher elevations.
The retail district around the station includes conventional department stores in towers, as well as many shōtengai and the famous Ameya-Yokochō street market.
For a better view, you can make your way up to this large public space perched above all of the platforms and tracks.
Adjacent to the station is Ueno Park (上野公園).
My first week in Japan I lived in a budget ryokan in Asakusa. On my second full day, I ventured back over to Ueno to walk around the park and Ameyoko. I hadn’t been in the park for long when I was approached by an older Japanese man waving and shouting at me, in English. Turned out he just wanted to say hello, and we ended up talking for quite a long while as we walked around the park. I thought it too rude to ask, but looking like he hadn’t had a bath for many days, hiding scraped and bandaged knuckles, and clinging to a every last bit of warmth from a paper cup of coffee told me there was some chance this park might be where he lived. Ueno Park is one place where Tokyo’s homeless population is out in full view, and a source of cognitive dissonance for many who had previously harbored images of Japan as spotless utopia free of social problems.
Normally, I would be rather guarded when approached by a stranger in a place that was foreign to me, regardless of his or her appearance. Something about this man compelled me to keep listening. At the time, I understood very little spoken and virtually no written Japanese, so part of me was just happy to communicate again. But not only did he speak very clear English, he had an unusually firm grasp of international affairs and economics, as if he had once been involved in import-export business. He had originally come from Shikoku, and in hindsight I wish I had been brave enough to ask him what path had brought him to his current situation. He never asked for anything. I said I was going to find something to eat and asked if he’d like to come with me, but he politely declined. The encounter was as intriguing as it was bewildering, which probably describes much of my initial encounter with Japan. In time, things were no longer so unusual or hidden behind the mythical Japanese inscrutability, they just were. One thing I never forgot from that meeting was not to rely on assumptions as to what thoughts might be behind a face. To do so would be a good way to make sure you never get a pleasant surprise.
This spot was where I had bid farewell to my conversation partner. Though it had been many years since, in the back of my mind I had hoped I might stumble into him again. No such luck, but there was an exhibition setup outside the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, a concert hall and the home of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to the exhibition volunteers, pan handlers and buskers were out in full force.
The upper concourse in Ueno Station is relatively bright and cheerful, thanks to natural daylighting and clean design. This is a JR East owned and operated hub station, so there is an abundance of retail and dining options.
There’s even a coffee shop on a platform.
The deeper into the bowels of the station you go, the more industrial and utilitarian the look. Exposed structural elements covered with chunky layers of paint remind you just how long this place has been in use.
The Shinkansen gates are under the rest of the station, and platforms are buried even deeper underground, four levels below the street.
This is an E657 series train, used to operate Super Hitachi services on the JR Jōban Line.
That was quite a bit of walking and climbing. Luckily, I didn’t even have to leave the paid fare zone to recharge with a spot of burendo kōhii, pain au chocolat and reverie.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.