Tokyo may be one of the busiest cities on earth, but there are oases of calm and nature that offer respite from the hustle and bust
Tokyo is not a place many people would think of as synonymous with acres of green spaces, autumn colours and lilting birdsong. But while it may be better known for acres of neon, swarming people and clattering pachinko parlours, Tokyo actually has a number of beautiful parks and gardens that provide the perfect respite from the concrete jungle. Often the edge of these parks is lined with a wall of buildings and overlooked by skyscrapers, although some are large enough that you can wander, completely untroubled by the modern world.
If you look at a city map of Tokyo, it is dotted with green patches. These are not just modern and bland civic amenities: many of Tokyo’s parks have been around for hundreds of years and the city has literally grown up around them.
Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien
One of my favourite gardens is the Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien (Detached Garden. Set at the mouth of the Tsukiji-gawa river, it is connected to Tokyo Bay, and is tidal. The waters of the gardens vary and are changed with the tides. Formerly the hunting preserve of the shogun rulers of Japan, the area was reclaimed from the sea and made into a villa for visiting feudal lords in 1654. Little remains from this period, save a gnarled 300-year-old pine tree.
There are two large ponds here and characteristic wooden bridges. On an island in one of the ponds is a traditional teahouse, which forms an incongruous contrast with the reflections of the surrounding modern buildings. The area has recently been redeveloped into the Shiodome complex, which has helped the access if not the skyline. The teahouse, which dates back to 1704, serves a particularly potent green tea.
There are some fantastic views of the Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien from the observatory at the top of the Tokyo World Trade Center, a short distance from the gardens. There are also great views here of the curious red and white copy of the Eiffel Tower - the Tokyo Tower. The Tokyo Tower is actually 13 metres taller than its French counterpart, but in this high-rise city the impression is of something shorter.
Adjacent to the World Trade Center there is another set of gardens, dating back to the 17th century: the Kyu-shiba-Rikyu Gardens, built around a large pond, with a couple of islands, linked by wooden causeways. Surrounded on two sides by an expressway, and on another by railway tracks, the gardens are surprisingly tranquil. Turtles bask and cormorants dry their wings in the sun on rocks in the middle of the ponds. There is a path that leads all the way around the pond, and elder Tokyo residents walk round reflectively.
The rambling Shinjuku Gyoen is popular with Tokyo’s legions of amateur photographers, and they can often be seen, tripods lined up like electricity pylons, capturing every hue and facet of this vast park. In spring the photographers turn up for the new flowers, and especially in April for the Hanami, or cherry tree blossom season, which is anticipated around the country with something approaching mass hysteria.
Autumn is another popular time for photographers, as many of the trees are deciduous and much of Shinjuku Gyoen turns a riot of oranges, reds and browns. In November the chrysanthemums flower, bringing the photographic hordes back to the park for the riot of colour. This being Japan, though, some of the blooms are supported by a tiny wire frame, emulating the ideal of a perfectly ordered society.
At times you can feel that you are in the middle of the countryside, walking on rolling grasslands amidst mature deciduous trees. It is possible to be so far away from the metropolis that not even the noise of the ever-present traffic will intrude, and no buildings can be seen on the horizon.
Shinjuku Gyoen was founded in 1906, and was laid out during a time when Japan moved closer to the west. There are a number of non-indigenous plants here, and even whole English- and French-style gardens. In one corner of the park there is a large glass conservatory with a number of more tropical species.
One of the best ways to see the scale and positioning of the Shinjuku Gyoen is from the observation decks at the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No 1 (or indeed from the bar of the Park Hyatt Tokyo Hotel, made famous by the film Lost in Translation). This is a spectacular way to see just how much of this great city is given over to parkland.
- If you'd like to stay in your very own 400-year-old gardens, within the outer moat of the Edo Castle, then head for the Hotel New Otani Toyko
- If you've seen Lost in Translation and would like to stay in the hotel that Bill Murray stayed in, head for the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel in Shinjuku.
- The Conrad Tokyo overlooks the Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien, giving you some stunning views.
- If you are like me, don't have a great deal of money and would like to stay in a budget hotel close to the lively Shinjuku district, then go to the Hotel Tateshina.