A round-trip history of the Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station: Ueno’s favorite phantom station

Did you ever hear the tale of the little phantom train station in the hills of Ueno? Strap in for a whirlwind of a ride through a century of history, from opulence to obscurity to a symbolic reopening of doors in the present day.

By Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Photo: Mizuho Takamura

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

A unique stop on the Keisei Railway, in the heart of Ueno Cultural Park

A squat Western-style building sits quietly on the north corner of Ueno Park, a short walk from the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Ueno Zoo. The courtly stone structure exudes old-world gravitas and the passage of time, but surely few modern passersby could guess the identity of the building from its weathered façade. But in the past, the building would have been a bustling part of the daily fabric, appreciated by throngs of commuters as the Keisei Railway’s Former Hakubutsukan-Dobutsuen Station (“Museum-Zoo” Station), linking Nippori and Ueno. 

Photo: Mizuho Takamura

It opened at the time of the station buildingUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station  Est. December 1933

Turning back the clock to the start of the Showa era, railway planners proposed the construction of a small train station as a midway point along the new stretch of rail set to extend from Nippori Station to Ueno Park Station (present-day Keisei Ueno Station). In 1933, Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station opened its doors for business. 
In those days, Ueno was one of Tokyo’s premier shopping and entertainment districts, rivaled only by Asakusa. The new train station fulfilled a long-held dream for a new access point to the area. Even so, this one was a difficult dream to bring to fruition.

Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station is seen shortly after construction.
Keisei Electric Railway Co., Ltd. Collection

Cherry BlossomsUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

An Uphill Struggle① “Do not disturb the cherry trees!”

The quickest, most direct route between Nippori and Ueno runs straight through Ueno’s hill on a north-to-south axis. Although the railway received approval to build their new station, the permit was granted on the condition that they did not build over the hill, but underneath it. This order was followed by another message, reading: “When constructing your tunnel, you must under no circumstances disturb the roots of the cherry trees.” 

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

Ceiling domeUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

An Uphill Struggle② A station fit for an emperor

By that stage, the north side of Ueno was already populated with some familiar institutions, including the Imperial Museum (precursor to the Tokyo National Museum) and the Zoological Garden, as well as the Tokyo Fine Arts School (Tokyo University of the Arts), Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum (Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum), Kuroda Memorial Hall, and the Imperial Library (International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library). The long list of prerequisites for the station included another clause that construction would not interfere with or inconvenience these institutions. As a result, the number of possible routes was severely limited, leaving only a path through land that belonged to the imperial estate, passed down over successive generations of emperors. In order to obtain permission to build on the prestigious land, it would be necessary to hold an audience with the emperor himself.  Fortunately, the conference, convened with Emperor Hirohito in attendance, unanimously agreed to allow construction in service of the public good. 

The station's domed roof as it looked upon construction.
Keisei Electric Railway Co., Ltd. Collection

Design of appearanceUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Pulling out all the stops: The crown jewel of the Keisei Railway

Having cleared the hurdle of location, with imperial remit in hand, the railway now faced another challenge: the design of the station itself. As the station was being built in the emperor’s backyard, it would have to be a sophisticated building with plenty of prestige at home among the grand architecture already in the neighborhood. Planners arrived at an uncommonly majestic station house in an ancient Greek style. The station’s resolute reinforced concrete frame was covered in cherry blossom-pink granite and the eaves were embellished with a distinctive leaf motif known as acanthus, an ornamental flourish from ancient Greece. Construction on the building blending imperial esteem with classical Western decorum was completed in less than a year, and the station opened its doors on December 10th, 1933.

Photo: Mizuho Takamura

The inside of the mapUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Ferrying families and students

As the name implies, Hakubutsukan(Museum)-Dōbutsuen(Zoo) Station was the nearest stop to the Imperial Museum and the Ueno Zoo, making it a popular destination for families. The station is also located near the Tokyo University of the Arts, which made it a fixture of the morning commute for many students. In the prewar era, the station had a “Zoo Exit” leading to the former main entrance to the zoo, whereas the surviving station house was called the “Art Museum Exit.” The exit’s name refers to the Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum that was once located across from the station, on a site that is now occupied by the Sogakudo Concert Hall of the Former Tokyo Music School. 

An old map once used in Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station, showing the art museum that used to stand across the street. (From the collection of Keisei Electric Railway Co., Ltd.).
Photo: Mizuho Takamura

Station HomeUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

End of an era①

During the war, the station was occupied by the Japanese military, which even used the subterranean tunnel as a munition factory at one point. A full eight years elapsed after the end of the war before the station reopened to the public in 1953. As Japan’s economy skyrocketed, Tokyo’s population began to soar, and trains kept growing longer to keep up with demand. However, this growth posed a problem for petite Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station whose platform was only designed to accommodate the quainter prewar era trains made up of two or three cars. Although a stopgap platform was rigged together to allow four-car trains to pull into the station, it wasn’t long before five-car trains would become the norm. The longer trains swiftly whisked away new generations of passengers, leaving Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station behind in the dust. 

The passenger platform of Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station as it remains in the present day. 
Photo: Mizuho Takamura

time tableUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

End of an era②

By the close of the 20th century, only 400 or so passengers were passing through the station each day. The station was taken out of service in 1997, and was officially abandoned in 2004. Based on the final timetable that still remains where it was posted on the wall of the outbound platform, the first train of the day left at 7:10 a.m. and the last train at 6:01 p.m. Although the station had cut back on the number of trains each day, it seems the timetable had still been tailored to accommodate the schedules of students heading to school, as well as patrons leaving the zoo and history museum at closing time. 

The final timetable from 1997 can still be seen on the outbound platform wall.
Photo: Mizuho Takamura

messageUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

End of an era③

The final train departed Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station on March 31st, 1997, sent off by a crowd of admirers who are said to have packed the station to bid it an untimely farewell. A long line of people waited to buy paper tickets stamped with the date and time as a souvenir of the occasion. Even after all the tickets were sold out and the train pulled away, the crowd lingered in the station, reluctant to leave for the last time. Along with the expected rail fans and architecture enthusiasts, the crowd was populated with many ordinary citizens who had fond memories of the station, many of which were scrawled for posterity on the walls.

A message written on a wall tile. When the station was restored, such messages were left as a testament to the memories contained within the building’s walls.
Photo: Mizuho Takamura

The current platformUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

End of an era④

More than just handwritten messages, the station is also known for some artistic graffiti, such as a mural of penguins on the outbound platform. Although the artist’s identity remains a mystery, the painting became a cult favorite after appearing in the manga KochiKame: Tokyo Beat Cops. Judging from a message that appears to have been written on the station’s final day — “Watch over the elephant and penguins for eternity!” — the mural is presumed to have been an iconic landmark for some time. Today, it is the penguins who watch over the trains that go roaring through the tunnel in Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station. Although the station has been taken out of service, the rails themselves remain part of the very active line between Keisei Ueno Station and Narita Airport Station. Look closely and the dilapidated platform of Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station will flash into view like the ruins of a buried city.

A painting of penguins above the outbound platform.
Photo: Mizuho Takamura

StairsUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

2018 renovation: A platform for artistic and cultural creation in Ueno①

When the station was abandoned, it became a sealed time capsule, preserving the concourse and subway platform exactly how they looked when the doors closed. Although forgotten for decades, the building came back into the limelight in 2018, when it became the first railway-related structure to be selected as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government architectural structure of historical value. Keisei Railway set the wheels of restoration in motion in partnership with the Tokyo University of the Arts. Although it had been retired as a train station, they realized the building could serve as a platform for the promotion of underground art and culture in the Ueno area. 

Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station after renovation.
Photo: Mizuho Takamura

The entrance of the designUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

2018 renovation: A platform for artistic and cultural creation in Ueno②

A project was launched to restore the station while still preserving its former atmosphere. Rather than a complete recreation of its pristine 1930s state, the project set out to restore the station to how it looked on its last day in service. This philosophy is especially evident in the restoration work performed on the station’s domed ceiling. When the workers removed a net that had previously been installed to keep passengers safe from falling pieces of ceiling, they revealed the full splendor of a ceiling that had not been seen for over a decade. In consultation with archival architectural plans, the team painstakingly restored the linear pattern radiating out from the dome’s oculus, the elaborate framework, and the skillful plaster ornamentation that went into the original dome. Instead of coating the dome in a clean coat of white paint, they intentionally created an aged patina to bring the station back to its former luster. 

Photo: Mizuho Takamura

Relief of the doorUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

2018 renovation: A platform for artistic and cultural creation in Ueno③

The restoration can also be appreciated from outside the building. Katsuhiko Hibino, an artist and professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts, designed a verdigris-colored relief for the doors at the station’s entrance. Each door features a grid with nine squares that represent cultural and educational institutions in Ueno. Clockwise from the upper right-hand square: The Ueno Royal Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, the National Diet Library’s International Library of Children's Literature, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, and the Ueno Zoological Gardens. The center of the grid is occupied, of course, by the Tokyo University of the Arts. 

Photo: Mizuho Takamura

RabbitUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

2018 renovation:A platform for artistic and cultural creation in Ueno④

After a 21-year and eight-month hiatus, the newly renovated station’s doors were opened in the autumn of 2018. The event was commemorated with an art event befitting Ueno’s reputation as a uniquely cultural neighborhood. A giant rabbit sculpture exhibited at the event has since been installed outside of the ticket gate near the subway platform, where it can be glimpsed from the windows of trains passing between Keisei Ueno and Nippori stations. Thus begins a new chapter in the long journey of Former Hakubutsukan-Dōbutsuen Station. An indelible link to the past, the station is sure to capture the imaginations of a new generation as a platform for art and culture in Ueno. 

Photo: Mizuho Takamura

Credits: Story

Courtesy of Implementation Committee for New Concept "Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture” (Ueno Cultural Park) 
Thanks to Keisei Electric Railway Co. Ltd.
Interview/Text: Akane Matsumoto
Editing: Ai Yoshida
Photos: Mizuho Takamura, Hiroyuki Matsuzaki (INTO THE LIGHT inc.), Kazunori Igarashi(WISH)

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.
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