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Where to stay and what to do around Tokyo’s Ueno district

Exploring Ueno, Okachimachi and Akihabara on foot

Ueno in central Tokyo is best known for its vibrant food scene, cherry blossoms in the park and numerous museums. Ueno Station is also one of the transportation hubs in the city served by multiple train lines, including the bullet train, and is a convenient point of access between Narita and Haneda airports. There is much to experience in Ueno as well as in the surrounding neighborhoods, and for this article, I stayed overnight in the vicinity and tried to see and do as much as I could.

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Day 1: Akihabara and Gourmet Tour

I started my trip at MONday Apart Premium Ueno Okachimachi, my accommodation for the night, to drop off my bags before exploring the city. The apartment-style hotel offers travelers a home away from home experience, in which spacious, self-contained rooms offer amenities like washer-dryer machines, fully equipped kitchens, refrigerators, microwave ovens and toasters. The rooms at MONday Apart Premium Ueno Okachimachi can accommodate up to five people, but I hear the rooms at some other locations can sleep up to eight people. I thought an accommodation like this would be perfect for families, groups or those who prefer to have apartment conveniences during their stay.

Check-in typically starts from 15:00 and check-out is at 10:00, but staying guests are welcome to store their bags with the front desk before check-in and after check-out.

My accommodation is almost equidistant between Ueno and Akihabara stations, and I decided to check out Akihabara first then go to Ueno.

To get to Akihabara, I took a lovely stroll through 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, a redeveloped space filled with 50 artisan shops and cafes under the train tracks between Akihabara (Aki) and Okachimachi (Oka) stations. The intriguing 2k540 part of the name is derived from the railway distance marker, in which the kilometer zero marker is at Tokyo Station. Accordingly, the area is about 2.54 kilometers from Tokyo Station by rail.

Shops offering local brands and handmade products form the mainstay of the spacious and pleasant refurbished space under the tracks, and I thought it was nice to be able to visit the shops and studios where artisans and creators build their craft. This place is worth a visit for those who want to explore the world of Japanese local craft and pick up handmade products.

It was not difficult to find my way to Akihabara Station as all I had to do was to follow the train tracks after the 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan area ended. Originally known as the place to go in central Tokyo for computer and electronic spare parts, Akihabara - or Akiba as it is colloquially referred to - is better known these days for its multitude of shops devoted to selling Japanese manga and anime goods.

From brightly colored buildings to large posters of anime and game characters to loud manga and anime advertisements, the sights in Akihabara are far from the image of traditional Japan. Here, fans of anime and manga will be able to find goods and merch of their favorite anime and manga works. Additionally, Akiba is also a good place to start for those who are looking for cosplay goods as there are a number of dedicated cosplay shops. These days, unless there is a major cosplay event, do not expect to see cosplayers walking in the street. Girls in maid uniform are likely to be maid cafe staff and are there to distribute flyers promoting the maid cafe.

As the sun began to set, I returned the same way I came and went to hotel MONday Premium Ueno-Okachimachi, which is a sister hotel of the one I stayed at, not far from Ueno Station. The main difference between the two lodgings: one offers self-contained apartments, and the other is a standard hotel without the in-room washing machines or kitchens.

I made reservations for a Tokyo Ueno gourmet experience offered at hotel MONday Premium Ueno-Okachimachi, and the starting place for the tour was at the hotel's restaurant on the 14th floor. While it is absolutely possible to experience Ameyoko just walking through it, joining a food tour is an even better way to experience the place together with English-speaking local guides, who also introduce Japanese culture along the way. Note that this group tour experience is open to everyone regardless if you're a staying guest or not, and same day reservations are allowed as long as there are spots available.

One of Ueno's best sightseeing attraction is Ameyoko, a shopping street under the train tracks between Ueno and Okachimachi stations. Cooked foods and fruit stands, souvenir and grocery shops, seafood purveyors, clothing and shoe shops all stand shoulder to shoulder along the approximately 500 meter long shopping street. In the day time, retail shops, fresh fruit stands, seafood, souvenir and grocery shops tempt visitors with their array of products, while the drinking places and eateries come to life from the evenings.

We went to a local izakaya restaurant under the tracks, in which you could feel when the trains passed overhead to start, then we moved on to a yakitori restaurant for more food and drinks. Our third stop was a standing bar, where our guides showed us the finer way of drinking like a local, before calling it a night at a ramen place. The restaurants we visited were filled with locals and felt like the kind of place where only those in the know would visit.

Despite having been to Ameyoko before, I was introduced to a deeper side of Ameyoko through this tour, more than just a typical surface level visit. From start to finish, I kept feeling like I was getting in on the local secrets as a foreigner and was glad to have a guide who knew what they were doing.

The gourmet experience lasted about 3 to 3.5 hours in the evening, during which, I could drink Japanese alcohol like beer, hoppy and sake, as well as taste a variety of Japanese cuisine like sashimi, ramen and yakitori, just the kind of menu travelers to Japan would appreciate. As a solo traveler, this food tour allowed me to sample a wider variety of foods than I would have been able try alone. I was almost bursting at the seams by the time the tour ended, and was so glad that my hotel was not far away.

Day 2: Museums and cherry blossoms in Ueno Park

With lots of eateries, restaurants and convenience stores in the vicinity of my accommodation, there was no real need to cook if I did not want to. However, I decided that a leisurely morning was in order after the previous night out in Ameyoko, and opted to have a quiet breakfast in my room while trainspotting before I checked out. There are supermarkets in the vicinity as well, so those who want to cook can always stock up on essentials at the supermarkets or convenience stores.

After checking out, I took a ten minute stroll to Ueno Park, home to a number of museums, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Ueno Zoo, which is home to Giant Pandas who are also the stars of the zoo. Ueno Park is also one of Tokyo's best cherry blossom spots and contains approximately 1200 cherry trees. The park is a sight to behold when the flowers reach their best and turn the park into a sakura wonderland.

During the cherry blossom season, it is easy to spend half a day just picnicking under the cherry trees and enjoying the blossoms in the park. Note that cherry blossom viewing parties or picnics can only be done at specific areas in the park. Outside of the sakura season, Ueno Park is still a nice place to stroll and enjoy nature in the city center, and more time can be spent visiting some of the museums to learn more about Japan and Japanese culture.

Hotel information

Operated by JHAT Co., Ltd, the hotel MONday Apartment brand offers self-contained apartment accommodation with in-room amenities like a washer and dryer machine, fully equipped kitchen, and typically sleeps 4 - 8 people in each room, while the hotel MONday brand offers standard hotel accommodation and also has a hotel restaurant. Both brands can be found in Tokyo and Kyoto. Two other hotel brands operated by the same group, ICI Hotel and Gate Stay, can be found in Tokyo and Osaka.

How to get to hotel MONday Apart Ueno Okachimachi

From central Tokyo

The closest stations to the hotel are JR Okachimachi Station (about five minutes on foot, served by the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line and the JR Yamanote Line), Suehirocho Station (about five minutes on foot, served by the Ginza Subway Line) and Naka-Okachimachi Station (about five minutes on foot, served by the Hibiya Subway Line)

From Narita Airport

Keisei Ueno Station is one of the Tokyo termini of Keisei Electric Railway. From Narita Airport, take the Skyliner or a limited express train bound for Keisei Ueno Station, and get off at the terminus station. The hotel is an approximately ten minute walk or a short taxi ride from Keisei Ueno Station.

From Haneda Airport

Take the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport to Hamamatsucho Station, the terminus of the monorail. Transfer to the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line or the JR Yamanote Line at Hamamatsucho Station and get off at Okachimachi Station.

Alternatively, take the Keikyu Railway in the direction of Sengakuji, Aoto or Narita Airport and get off at Shinagawa Station. Transfer to the JR Keihin-Tohoku Line or the JR Yamanote Line at Shinagawa Station and get off at Okachimachi Station.