For a large and modern city, it might come as a surprise to find that Tokyo is actually blessed with some wonderfully natural parks. Of course, people often visit Ueno park with its zoo, museums and sakura trees, yet beyond this well-healed park, are some beautifully structured and calming gardens that can rival even those of Kyoto. Most of the parks included in this list are within the Tokyo Metropolitan area, easily accessible by train and, as you can see from the pictures, make excellent photo spots. The last one, Shakujii, is a little further west, but well worth the time, as it boasts some of the best birdlife I have seen in Tokyo.
Koishikawa Korakuen was founded in the early Edo Period and takes its name from a similar garden in Okayama. Located in Bunkyo Ku near Korakuen Station and opposite Tokyo Dome, it is a wonderfully well presented garden, with simple walking paths, a lovely pond, rustic teahouses and a wide selection of plants and trees. It also has several small wooden bridges and a small island shrine.
Created by the Tokugawa family’s second ruler, Mitsukuni, it was designed to fuse together Japanese and Confucian culture. The park is popular with locals and tourists, and due to its close proximity to the famous Tokyo Dome, is often crowded – although despite the crowds, especially during Spring Cherry Blossom season, it is still very manageable. The park is a cultural asset and important sites have sign boards indicating the significance of the area. While springtime is very popular, I recommend autumn visits, as the changing colours of the trees are astounding.
One of the smaller and most under-visited parks on this list is Higo Hosokawa, a magical gift located within Bunkyo ku. Hidden within walking distance of Waseda University and close to the equally magical Toden Arakawa tram and Chinzanso Hotel, it is a wonderful gem, well worth the visit!
Recently renovated, with an easily accessible teahouse and small museum, the garden is structured around a picturesque pond. The park was originally an estate for the Tokugawa clan but later became the residence of the Hosokawa family who created it in honour of Hosokawa Etchu no Kami. The garden contains numerous plants and easy walkways. It also hosts several plants named after the Hosokawa family, including the camellia, peony and iris.
Higo Hosokawa is very close to the Chinzanso Hotel, which contains a more structured garden, often used by wedding parties. The great thing about Higo Hosokawa is that it is free. It also has a lovely and affordable teahouse which makes for a calming tea stop when exploring this historic part of Tokyo. If you follow the path up from the garden you will find yourself at the entrance of the interesting Eisei Bunko Museum, which contains some wonderful pictures and artifacts from the Hosokawa clan.
Perhaps the most famous park on this list, Hibiya is a 16 hectare public park in the centre of Tokyo city, bordering the Imperial Palace on one side, and the ultra-modern Hibiya midtown plaza on the other. The park is a must see and very popular with locals and tourists all year around. Interestingly it was the first public Western-style park in Japan and is a fascinating mix of West and East.
Historically Hibiya Park was a fishing village near the ocean. After the land was reclaimed, it became a drill ground for the imperial military – due in part to its proximity to the palace. During the Meiji restoration under the planner Honda Seiroku, it turned into a park. Hibiya Park is quite large and split into several zones. There is a western rose style garden area, a Japanese pond with authentic red bridge, and a more open plaza area, where music is often played during the summer months. The park has several restaurants, including the historic and reasonably priced Matsumotoro – with great food and a massive 400 year old “Kubikake-itcho” ginkgo tree. The park also contains a small museum and public tennis courts.
There are a variety of trees in the park; the most beautiful being the Ginkgo lined walking path which splits the park in two, as well as the series of oak trees near the Japanese gardens. These areas are especially popular during the autumn season when the colourful leaves and atmosphere attracts many sight-seers.
Each area of the park is dotted with historic landmarks, including a small site representing Mount Fuji. The park does not have many birds but does have swallows and some water birds – mainly ducks. The park also has its share of “nora neko” (stray cats) who often wonder around the pond closest to the Imperial Hotel at dusk.
Rikugien (Six-Poem garden in English) is the most beautiful of all Tokyo’s gardens. Located close to Kyu-Furukawa Gardens, it is easily accessible from Komagome Station. This Bunkyo Ku garden was built in the 1700s and is a perfect example of Japanese philosophy. Designed to instill zen and chanoyou principles of wa, kei, sei and jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility), the garden’s layout is a combination of serenity and reflection. Its rustic pathways, soothing streams, uncluttered pond, naturally dense forest, organised foliage and simple, man-made structures, all combine to give the visitor a balance between awe and humility.
Rikugien is a spacious park with several walking paths, intertwining their way amongst the various visitor sites. One of the best routes to take is the river stream and natural forested area, that leads you to the garden’s teahouses (which are open to the public). For a very reasonable price you can enjoy Japanese matcha within a stones-throw of such natural beauty.
Rikugien was created by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu during the Edo Period for the dog-loving 5th Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. The garden was themed upon the poetry of ancient Japan, the name “Rikugien” referring to the method of dividing classical poetry into six categories. Each area of the park creates the atmosphere outlined within various waka-based poems. The landscape style, known as Kaiyu-shiki Tsukiyama Sensui Teien, proved so popular that it was used to design similar Tokyo gardens. This style consisted of a large pond uncluttered by foliage, pathways and an artificial hill.
I recommend you visit the park either in late spring or autumn. The classic time to visit is autumn, when the numerous maples trees change their colour, making for a wonderful momiji event. Very popular with tourists, the park is open at night for ‘autumn illumination’.
Shakujii Park is the furthest park in this list. Located in Tokyo’s Nerima ward, it is about a 40 minute train ride from central Tokyo. I recommend you take the train to Ikebukuro, and then an express to Shakujii-koen. Nerima is a little ‘out of the way’ for many Tokyoites, yet it boasts some lovely little shops, shrines, residential houses – with real charm – and the second largest public park in Tokyo. Opened in 1959, Shakujii is about 10 minutes walk from the station. Yet Shakujii is unlike standard Tokyo parks whose spaces are dedicated to runners, picnickers and other human visitors. No, in Shakujii you feel as if you have traveled hundreds of kilometers into the heart of a bird sanctuary, for this park is dedicated not to man, but to nature of the feathered kind.
Shakujii features some of the best water and wildlife in the Tokyo area. It is highly popular with bird lovers, who often wander around the many natural pathways searching for woodland tits and other small birds.
The park itself is about 20 hectares and combines three natural ponds, a variety of forest vegetation, some man-made clear space, and unspoiled wilderness scenery. This is one of the few parks where I have actually heard a wide array of bird calls – usually Japanese parks are relatively silent places (with the exception, of course, of the insects). In this park you will find all the classic water birds as well as goshawks, kingfishers, nightingales and finches – here even the common coot looks wonderful!
Ignoring the birdlife, Shakujii Park has two ancient memorial stones enshrining the spirits of Yasutsune Toshima, the remains of the old Shakujii Castle and a wonderful wooden red shrine perched on the pond edge. Legend has it that the former lord of the castle committed suicide by drowning in the lake – and his ghost still haunts the place. Finally, Shakujii Park borders several significant temples, the most significant are the amazingly structured Daishido and Dojoji temples – but that’s another story.
So there it is, a list of Tokyo’s finest gardens and parks, ranging from the classic to the natural. Some parks and gardens on this list are free to enter, while others charge only a few hundred yen (well worth it). This list of parks should keep any photographer or nature lover happy for months. A tip: try visiting the same park each season, you will be amazed at the differences. Indeed, the range of parks on this list really does highlight the fact that even in modern Tokyo, tranquility can be found.