Tokyo boasts one of the most extensive subway systems in the world but it didn’t happen overnight. For more than a century now, Tokyo has been expanding, rebuilding, and even abandoning some of their underground railway, which is exactly what happened to the Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station.
First opening in 1933 in Ueno, it was originally part of the Keisei Electric Railway and served the city for decades until all of its operations were suspended in 1997. Then in 2004, the station was officially shut down. Now, however, it has opened up again as a mix between an art installation and a museum of Japan past, and you can explore it right now for free!
Tickets Go Fast
The Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station will be accessible to the public until February 24, 2019 on every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, between the hours of 11am and 4pm. However, due to safety concerns, only a limited number of visitors will be allowed inside at one time, which is why free admission tickets for specific entry times will be handed out in front of the station from 10am.
You better get there earlier, though, because when I arrived there at around 11:10am, the only tickets available were for a 2:30pm entry, and they were gone fast. Once you get inside, it’s easy to see why.
The Spirit of Old Japan
Although you have to admire the old ticket booth and parts of the waiting room from behind a glass, with the platform being completely off-limits, you can still feel the spirit of old Japan inside the station. The color and feel of the stone, the music played for the guests, the light, even the genuine graffiti carved into the wall seem to take you back in time to when the station was originally built.
Speaking of which, the station was originally built on lands belonging to the imperial estate and required a personal dispensation from Emperor Hirohito before construction could begin. Due to that, the designers really put a lot of work into the facility, constructing it in a grand Western style. This most notably included the domed entranced to the underground railway, under which you will currently find an art installation showing a gigantic rabbit trying to burrow underground.
Follow the White Rabbit
The theme of the newly-opened station is “down the rabbit hole” due to the connection between the burrows that rabbits dig underground, and the location of the railway. Inside, you will find a number of art installations, including an Alice in Wonderland-esque, mushroom-themed book exhibit, live music shows, and 3D-printed skeletal replicas of animal bones, presented by Kent Mori, PhD., assistant researcher at the Department of Zoology, National Museum of Nature and Science.
It’s all part of a new movement to help revitalize Ueno and turn it into Tokyo’s new art hub, which is why, before being opened to the public, the station was also given a slight make-over (that still retained its old-timey charm) by Katsuhiko Hibino, the dean at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tokyo University of the Arts.
But why open it now? Well, the station was designated a Selected Historical Building by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in April 2018 due to its historic significance. After all, at its peak, Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen was used by 1,600 to 1,700 passengers a day trying to get to the Tokyo National Museum (then called the Tokyo Imperial Household Museum) or some of the local art schools. It would still be a great place to have a subway station at, but unfortunately Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen is only equipped to handle four-car trains while six cars are the modern standard in Japan.
Fortunately, you can easily get to the station by getting off at Ueno. From there, it’s just a short 10-minute walk, taking you past Ueno Zoo, art galleries, museums, temples, and many more, putting you in the right mood to experience a bit of living Japanese history. Before you leave, though, be sure to sign your name on the observation glass wall with one of the white markers provided by the station.