Katsuhiko Hibino: Traveling through time in Ueno

Ueno’s world-class museums offer a window into different cultures and ancient times.

By Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Photography: Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)

Katsuhiko Hibino 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

But artist Katsuhiko Hibino says the area’s greatest appeal can be found beyond the storied gallery halls, where the chance to transcend time and space awaits in some unexpected places.

Cherry BlossomsUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Meaningful memories

Katsuhiko Hibino first garnered acclaim while still a student at Tokyo University of the Arts, for his work repurposing cardboard boxes. Since then, he has been an active and versatile artist whose practice blurs the divide between pop and subculture, notably for his advertising and theatrical set design work in the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

Now the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at his alma mater, Hibino has been renewing his ties with Ueno as the General Producer of UENOYES, a community art initiative launched in 2019.

When asked for his impression of Ueno, Hibino answered: 

“Each spring, Ueno's trees erupt in a canopy of fresh leaves, bathing the neighborhood in the thick, pungent smell of nature. With each breath, I’m transported back to when I was an 18-year-old, taking my exams in the hopes of entering the university. Even now, I still get butterflies in my stomach as I remember that complex mix of feelings — the difficulty of the process, the nervousness and the excitement. I can remember it like it was yesterday.”

Katsuhiko Hibino VideoUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

An extraordinary area

Including his university years, Hibino’s involvement with Ueno dates back over four decades. Looking back, he says Ueno’s appeal is that it provides “encounters with the past and the extraordinary”:

 “I think people want to break up their routines and seek out an experience that’s out of the norm when they visit history museums, art museums, the zoo, and historical sites. But people may not realize there are many more places in Ueno where you experience something truly unique. I'd like to introduce a few of my favorite spots today.”

Katsuhiko Hibino 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Mount Suribachi ancient tombUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Suribachiyama Tumulus: Part1

“Until recently, I had no idea that there was a kofun tomb in the neighborhood. It came as a surprise when someone involved in UENOYES who researches Ueno Park casually mentioned the tomb nearby.” 
Perched atop the hill in Ueno, the ancient burial mound is likely the highest topographical point in the park. Hibino says that sitting in the wide clearing at the very apex of the mound provides a unique vantage point for appreciating the park’s scenery and thinking about how it would have been different when the burial mound was created sometime around the 5th century. 

“Although I knew the area was all formerly part of the Kaneiji temple grounds, that’s where my knowledge of Ueno Park’s history stopped. I couldn’t have said what came before. But once I learned about the existence of the Suribachiyama Tumulus, my understanding of the park changed, and suddenly the landscape came into clearer relief.”

Mount Suribachi ancient tomb mapUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Suribachiyama Tumulus: Part2

“Of course, the tumulus is no secret. It’s listed on maps, and is right in front of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, next to the promenade of cherry trees that are overrun with crowds of people during the blossom-viewing season. It’s quite baffling how it took me over 40 years to notice.

”The tumulus is hidden in plain sight. Hibino says that every visit, he still has to pause and collect his bearings, as if to ask, “Wait, where was it, again?”

“I walked right past it today. For some reason, I always seem to get turned around up here.”

Even when the rest of the park is packed with visitors eager to see the cherry blossoms, the popular pandas, and the latest museum exhibitions, the burial mound always seems to provide a quiet refuge away from the crowds. The space is like an air pocket, where one can decompress.

Mount Suribachi history of ancient tomb 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

The history of Suribachiyama: Part1

Suribachiyama was so named because it resembles the round shape of a “suribachi” — a grinding mortar that has been turned upside down. What remains of the classic keyhole-shaped mound measures nearly 70 meters in length, with a 43-meter circular structure at the back. Rumor has it that Kaneiji temple's Kannondo stood on this site at the start of the Edo period.

Mount Suribachi ancient tomb of history 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

The history of Suribachiyama: Part2

When viewed from a distance, the contours of Suribachiyama appear as a modest hill. Archival records show that archaeological work in the Meiji era recovered fragments of ritual Haniwa figurines and Sue pottery that revealed Suribachiyama’s identity as a burial mound. Around the same time, earthenware vessels and blade fragments, thought to be funerary items entombed with the dead, were unearthed from the vicinity of the Tokyo National Museum. The discovery led researchers to conclude that Suribachiyama was at the center of a collection of burial mounds that radiated out across Ueno's hill.

Mount Suribachi ancient tomb of history 3Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

The history of Suribachiyama: Part3

“I think a society that is only capable of short-term thinking is doomed.” Considering the host of environmental issues currently facing the planet, Hibino suggests that we each need to internalize a longer timescale, and be more conscious of how our actions in  the present will be felt 100 years in the future. “In order to maintain that long-sighted view of the future, I think places like Ueno are important, as they allow us to reflect on how things were 1,500 years in the past.”

Commuting path 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Katsuhiko Hibino’s morning commute: Part 1

Skirting the side of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Hibino led us past the former main entrance to the Ueno Zoo and onto a path that stretches toward the Tokyo University of the Arts. “I take this route every day on my way to work.” He noted the symbolic contrast in how, if Suribachiyama is the highest point in Ueno Park, this path is at the lowest elevation, representing a return to Earth.

Commuting path 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Katsuhiko Hibino’s morning commute: Part2

A deep rumbling shook the ground beneath our feet like the prelude to an earthquake, momentarily followed by a great gust of wind and the roar of a train emanating from a ventilation grate. As if on cue, the screeching of birds and beasts came wafting over the walls of the zoo. Once the cacophony subsided, the park was plunged back into its usual serene silence, as if nothing had happened at all.

Commuting path 3Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Katsuhiko Hibino’s morning commute: Part3

The subterranean source of the racket was none other than the Keisei train line, which runs in a tunnel directly below the park, barreling from Keisei Ueno Station to Narita Airport Station.

“The tunnel actually goes underneath the University of the Arts, too. You’ll hear the train sometimes when you’re on campus. I end up imagining the faces of the people sitting in the cars underneath my feet, and go off on tangents inventing their stories in my mind’s eye.”

Ueno draws a diverse crowd of people who are seeking experiences out of the ordinary. But Hibino points out that the extraordinary can be found in more places than just inside a glass museum case or an animal’s cage.

“There are opportunities to encounter vestiges of the past and out-of-the-ordinary experiences all around, hidden in plain sight. This is one of the aspects that makes Ueno so special to me. I would urge everyone to experience for themselves the extraordinary discoveries that await in the daily rhythms of Ueno Park.”

Former Hakubutsukan Dobutsuen Station 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station

As you continue up the path behind the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, a small but stately structure comes into view, snuggled up next to the Tokyo National Museum. Originally opened in 1933, the Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station (“Museum-Zoo Station”) once served  the Keisei Line as a stopover between Nippori Station and Keisei Ueno Station, before being retired in 1997. Although the building was abandoned entirely in 2004, it became the first example of railroad architecture to be selected by the Tokyo Metropolitan  Government as a structure of historical value. As a result, the old station was refurbished with the help of the Tokyo University of the Arts, and is now occasionally opened to the public for special events.

Former Hakubutsukan Dobutsuen Station 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Renovating the Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station

Hibino also had a hand in the building’s restoration in 2018. He designed the relief that decorates the main entrance doors. Look closely at the hieroglyphic symbols and you might recognize nine institutions synonymous with Ueno, including the Tokyo University of the Arts in the center of the grid, flanked by the Ueno Zoo, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo National Museum, and the International Library of Children’s Literature.

Katsuhiko Hibino 3Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Looking forward to Ueno’s future

Hibino says there are few places in the world with the same jam-packed concentration of cultural institutions and schools as Ueno. A number of community-oriented projects such as UENOYES have been launched in recent years to showcase the neighborhood’s unique potential.

“I think what we’re trying to do in Ueno holds plenty of hints for building a more diverse society. For me, the power of art has been the most important. After all, the art world is predicated on acknowledging each other’s individuality. I think art could play an extremely effective role in laying the foundation for a more inclusive society. By leading the way in Ueno, we might find even further applications for art in a wide variety of settings.”

Credits: Story

Courtesy of Implementation Committee for New Concept "Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture” (Ueno Cultural Park) 
Interview/Text: Akane Matsumoto
Editing: Ai Yoshida
Photography:  Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi (WISH)
Video/Editing: INTO THE LIGHT inc.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps