13 million people call the city of Tokyo home. The greater Tokyo area has a population of 36.5 million and a good number of these people commute to central Tokyo for work. This is a crowded city. In Tokyo’s central commercial and transport hubs it can all get a bit much sometimes; this despite the relative passivity of the crowds and the infrastructure efficiencies of the city.
Perhaps surprising to visitors, Tokyo has an abundance of outdoor retreats, from the plazas at the base of many corporate towers to the modest temple grounds and tiny recreational squares in the city’s suburban neighborhoods. However, it’s the impressive green zones scattered throughout city’s 23 wards, the expansive parks and gardens that are most impressive.
Whether as an escape from the city’s searing summer heat or to soak up some soothing winter sun, Tokyo’s many parks and gardens are a popular hangout for locals and tourists alike. During the sakura cherry blossom viewing season, and to a lesser extent when the colorful autumn leaves of koyo are on display, these places are far from tranquil, but offer the visitor an unfiltered view of urban Japanese communing with nature. At other times, particularly during the working week, they literally are a breath of fresh air.
Here are some of the best in central Tokyo.
Imperial Palace East Gardens
The Kōkyo Higashi Gyoen, 皇居東御苑, is one of the most impressive green zones in the city. On the site of the former Edo Castle, the expansive grounds – they cover some 21 hectares – form part of the Imperial Palace. Open to the public, they feature a classical Japanese garden, teahouse, lake, manicured lawns and remnants of Edo Castle.
Entry is free, though entry times are limited and the gardens are closed around 4pm. The gardens are near Nijubashi-mae and Takebashi subway stations or a 10-minute walk from Tokyo station’s Marunouchi exit.
Just south of the Palace gardens is this more modest and less formal green space, reminiscent of parks in Western countries. In fact it was the city’s first such park and dates back to 1903. Hibiya Kōen, 日比谷公園, features flower gardens, a pond, various trees, including an avenue of Ginkgo trees and a famous 400-year old ‘Kubikake-itcho’ ginkgo. The park also contains outdoor performance spaces, tennis courts, a museum and library, as well as restaurants.
Entry is free. The park can be accessed from Hibiya and Kasumigaseki subway stations.
In the heart of Tokyo, Shiba Kōen, 芝公園, lies in the shadow of Tokyo Tower and forms a part of the Zojō-ji temple grounds. It’s one of the first parks in Japan, opened in 1873. There are some 4200 trees on 12 hectares of parkland, including gingko, camphor and some 200 cherry trees. The park has a 10-meter high waterfall and is the site of the 5th Century Shiba-Maruyama tomb . There’s also a sports field, tennis courts and swimming pool that is open in summer.
Entry to the park and temple is free. It can be accessed via Onarimon subway station at its northern edge and Shibakoen at its southern tip.
Renowned for its brilliant flower beds, Hama-rikyū Onshi Teien, 浜離宮恩賜庭園, is a beautiful garden located in Tokyo’s east, flanked by the Sumida River and the gleaming towers of Shiodome, on grounds that were formerly part of the Tokugawa Shogunate estate. It comprises two garden areas, a northern garden and the original southern garden that features the Shio-iri-no Niwa, complete with a teahouse overlooking a sizeable seawater pond. The 25 hectare park was opened to the public in 1946.
Entry is 300 yen. The gardens are a 15-minute walk from Shimbashi station or near the Shiodome monorail stop.
Shinjuku Gyōen National Garden
Shinjuku Gyōen, 新宿御苑, is 56 hectares of parklands and gardens on the eastern fringe of the city’s busiest commercial district, Shinjuku. This beautiful oasis contains some 20,000 trees, including around 1500 cherry trees, making it a favorite hanami spot during the flowering of the cherry blossoms. The site was originally an Edo era mansion, became an Imperial garden in 1906 and was decreed a public garden in 1949. It contains a French formal garden, an English landscape garden and a beautiful Meiji era Japanese traditional garden. There is also an impressive greenhouse complex – though it has been closed for renovations and is scheduled to reopen late 2011.
Entry is 200 yen. Entry times are limited and the gardens are closed around 4:30pm; the greenhouse closes at 3:00pm. The park is near Shinjukugyoenmae subway station or a 15-minute walk from Shinuku station’s East exit.
Yoyogi Kōen / Meiji Jingū
Yoyogi Kōen, 代々木公園, is a vast green recreational park adjoining the lush, wooded grounds of Meiji Jingu shrine. The combined green zones take up a 124 hectare space between Yoyogi, Harajuku and Shibuya, forming the city’s largest green zone. Yoyogi Park, former site of the 1964 Summer Olympics athletes’ village, opened as a park in 1967. Unlike many of the other green spaces in town that provide settings for reflection and calm, this park is more about play, especially on weekends, when it comes to life with Tokyoites and teavelers, who fill the grounds with bats, balls, frisbees, bikes, picnic gear and music. The neighboring area enveloping Meiji Jingū, 明治神宮, is by contrast a soothing contemplative forest of evergreens that filters out the city that surrounds it. Within the shrine complex there is also a cultivated inner garden.
Entry is free to Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine, though there is a 500 yen fee to enter the inner garden at Meiji Shrine. The park is closed at 8:00pm; 5:00pm in winter. Meiji shrine is closed at sunset; its inner garden closes at 5:00pm. Yoyogikoen subway station and Harajuku station both provide easy access.
Next time the bustle of Tokyo threatens to overwhelm, charge the camera, pack a book and pick up a bento lunch and escape to one of these tranquil spaces to recharge your own batteries.