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5 Tokyo Gardens

I’m not particularly into gardens. I enjoy them, but don’t enjoy gardening. In Tokyo, I visited a few because I was curious about Japanese gardens in particular, and also curious as to how they are used by people in such a big city. But mostly I went to them because I wanted to visit a temple or castle, and the garden was part of the package.

I visited a number of different gardens in Tokyo and each had a different atmosphere.

Atago-jinja Temple Garden

Atago-Jinja temple has a tiny, but wonderfully peaceful, garden. The temple is on a hill that used to be the highest point in Tokyo. To get there involves climbing a very steep stairway, though fortunately it’s not very long.

view looking up the stairway to Atago-Jinja in Tokyo

the stairway up to Atago-Jinja

The temple is small and pretty, and the hill is forested, which meant some very welcome shade in the heat. A small pond with koi—which seems to be a requirement for a Japanese garden—is surrounded by neatly pruned shrubs. Trees shade the clearing in front of the temple and it’s easy to ignore the clangor of the traffic below.

pond with koi outside Atago-Jinja Temple in Tokyo

the tiny pond in the Atago-Jinja Temple’s garden

Ueno Park

Of all the gardens I visited, Ueno was the best for people-watching. That may have had to do with the fact that it was Sunday, when many Japanese are off work.

view down a long walkway toward a temple in the distance, in Ueno Park in Tokyo

a view toward one of the temples in Ueno Park

It was crowded with families and young people taking part in all sorts of activities: eating and walking, of course, but also bird-watching and swanboat rides, listening to buskers, watching acrobats, and more.

three South American musicians performing in Ueno Park in Tokyo

buskers in Ueno Park. Notice the lotus plants behind them.

Ueno Park is known for its cherry blossoms in the springtime, long past when I was there. A lake in the park, though, is covered with lotus flowers, which were just beginning to open when I visited.

close-up of a lotus flower in Ueno Park, Tokyo

a lotus flower

Meiji-jingu

Meiji-jingu is a Shinto shrine set in 70 hectares of forest, once owned by the Meiji emperor. It’s forest, rather than garden, so it’s much less manicured and tidy. I liked it better than the formal gardens for its wildness, its dripping, humid, shadiness. The shrine is impressive in size as are the massive tori (gateways) leading to it. None of it is particularly old, though, since the original temple was destroyed in the Second World War.

Enormous torii gateway in Meiji park in Tokyo

One of the enormous Torii in the park

Unfortunately, the whole forest is wired with loudspeakers that from time to time, in both Japanese and English, belt out instructions about what’s not allowed within the gardens, such as smoking.

Hama-rikyu Garden

Hama-rikyu Garden is one of nine Metropolitan Cultural Heritage Gardens in Tokyo. Once containing a palace of the Imperial Family, it has a similar story to many “historic” places in Tokyo: it was virtually entirely destroyed in the war, so the buildings you see within the garden now are reconstructions. The pond, interestingly, is saltwater, fed in from Tokyo Bay.

view of a field with carefully pruned trees in Hama-rikyu Garden in Tokyo

You can see how tidy and manicured Hama-rikyu is.

Hama-rikyu is much more formal than Meiji-jingu, with every inch of land carefully manicured. It’s big and mostly flat and includes some wide open, grass-covered spaces, and also some shadier parts, with shrubs that are all pruned into rounded blobs. The teahouse, picturesquely set on a pond, but with tall office towers looming over it, offers traditional powdered green tea and Japanese sweets.

a bowl of green tea and a small sweet in the teahouse of Hama-rikyu Garden in Tokyo

I chose iced green tea because of the heat.

Imperial Palace East Garden

In order to visit the Imperial Palace Gardens, you have to sign up for a tour ahead of time. I didn’t. However, the Imperial Palace East Garden is offered as a consolation prize of sorts: anyone can go in, without reserving.

neatly pruned shrubbery and trees surround a low building in the Imperial Garden East in Tokyo

inside the Imperial Garden East

This garden is formal and includes a large open, grassy space. Unlike at most gardens, the grass wasn’t off limits, so people were letting their children play on the grass, though it was too hot to spend a lot of time lounging. The remaining moat walls are impressive, and the ruins of the original castle keep (Now long gone: the current Imperial palace is modern.) can be climbed to see the view over the garden. Unfortunately, it doesn’t afford a view into the rest of the Imperial Palace Gardens.

a pond with trees overhanging in the Imperial Palace East Garden, in Tokyo

a pond with trees overhanging in the Imperial Palace East Garden

There are other gardens in Tokyo, so this isn’t a comprehensive list, (Click here for a comprehensive list.) but the variety of the ones I visited surprised to me. My favorites are the small, more detailed ones, like Atago-Jinja or any of the gardens of the many shrines in Yanaka. On the other hand, the Ueno Garden was by far the best in terms of people-watching.

With so many options, you should be able to find a piece of nature to your liking near you wherever you go in Tokyo, or at least a carefully-groomed version of nature. In a big, overwhelming city like Tokyo, you’ll need it!

If you’ve been to Tokyo, do you have a favorite garden you’d recommend?

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11 Comments

  • Nancie

    September 3, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Rachel. I love gardens, and can never pass one by. I visited both Uneo and the Imperial Palace East Garden. I enjoyed the Imperial Garden for its sheer calmness and tranquillity. There were’t many people there the day I visited, which was a nice change from the Tokyo crowds.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      September 4, 2015 at 7:14 am

      Many of the parks in Tokyo have teahouses, usually very prettily arranged on a pond. They usually offer green tea and a sweet too. This was the only one I stopped at because I was on a very tight budget!

      Reply
  • budget jan

    September 4, 2015 at 5:03 am

    I too visit Japanese Gardens as a package deal with a Temple Entrance. I actually enjoy the gardens better than the temples. In the Kyoto Imperial Palace Garden there were announcements being made. They were in Japanese so we had no idea what they were about, but the Palace was closed that day so maybe it was something about that. Who Knows lol. I do tend to like smaller temples though – and quiet ones.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      September 4, 2015 at 7:19 am

      Those announcements really annoyed me at Meiji-Jingu. I don’t mind if they’re warning people that the park is about to close, but at Meiji-Jingu it was frequent, and just for broadcasting rules. Ruins any chance of peace and quiet.

      Reply
  • Michele {Malaysian Meanders}

    September 4, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    Ueno Park was one of my favorites in Tokyo because of the people watching. We were there during Cherry Blossom season, and so many workers were having hanami parties. It was so interesting to see them in their black suits relaxing on blue tarps under the trees. I liked Meiji also because it felt very serene at the end of the day when we were there. I didn’t get to visit the others you mentioned, so I am glad to see them through your eyes.

    Reply

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