When you think of Tokyo, it would often seem to be a glistening city: the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, the crossing at Shibuya and geek towns of Akihabara and Ikebukuro. But Tokyo has magnificent parks and equally impressive aquariums and zoos. If you’re looking for a nearby green park and open sky, here are the top picks.
1. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Shinjuku
Located in southern Shinjuku, Shinjuku Gyoen is an endless stream of flowers and greens everywhere you look. The garden is heavily forested and the shimmering ponds make for the perfect scene. Shinjuku Gyoen was built on the site of a feudal lord’s residence, became an Imperial garden in 1906 and was opened to the public in 1949.Shinjuku Gyoen consists of three different types of gardens; Japanese landscape garden, French garden and English garden with a stunning view of Shinjuku, a greenhouse and tea houses where you can have Japanese tea and seasonal sweets. Shinjuku Gyoen is the most gorgeous park in Tokyo and it has a variety of events on offer throughout the year with a chrysanthemum exhibit in November, tea ceremony, cherry blossom festival and Noh play.The best known season is spring with the sight of its 1,100 cherry trees, but my favorite season is early summer with well maintained green lawns to lie down on. You can enjoy magnolia in the middle of March, cherry blossoms from the end of March to the beginning of April, roses in June and September and chrysanthemums in November. The breeding of chrysanthemum began as one of the samurai warriors philosophical accomplishments and this breeding method has been handed down to the present day.
Morino Takigi Night Noh Play at Shinjuku Gyoen
I had a chance to watch Noh Play and Kyogen at Shinjuku Gyoen at night. The stage was set on the lawn and we felt the winds from green forest. The origin of Noh is from the classical performance of dance, drama and music from China dating back to the Nara period and it accomplished its current form by Kanami and Zeami in the 14th century. Kyogen is a classic sophisticated comedy performed alongside the slightly serious Noh. Kyogen is much easier to understand, Noh is difficult to understand, even for the Japanese, and some of the audience, including my kid, fell asleep during the Noh performance.
The Nomura family is one of the most popular Kyogen performers these days and three generations of the Nomura’s play Kyogen. The grandfather has been designated as a living national treasure. It sounds strange, but a ministry appoint people who have high skill in some area in order to protect and preserve Japanese traditions and about 100 people have been designated. He was really funny. His facial expressions playing dumb were very natural but caused a storm of laughter. I worried that my son would be bored, but he often laughed loudly, even though he didn’t fully understand what they were saying in Japanese.
The performance has been passed down through several families for numerous generations. When I explained it to my friend who was born overseas he was so shocked. I felt the tradition sounded very old and odd, but that the learning process must be efficient.
How to get there
The nearest station is Shinjuku Gyoen-mae Station and it’s a 10-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station to Shinjuku Gate. You need to purchase a ticket and you can ask for a readmission ticket for re-entry.
2. Ueno Oncho Park in Ueno
Ueno Oncho Park originated from Kaneiji Temple which used to be a family temple of the Tokugawa clan during the Edo period. After the Boshin War (1869), the last civil war in Japan, the site was nearly destroyed and it was converted into Japan’s first public park and opened to the public in 1873.
The Ueno Oncho Park has the Ueno Zoo, several of Japan’s finest museums and galleries, gardens, cultural sights, woods, a large fountain and hundreds of cherry blossoms. This picturesque and convenient location makes it the ideal retreat for visitors who want a taste of nature in Tokyo. You also have a good chance of seeing some high quality street performers.
My favorite museums are the International Library of Children’s Literature, National Diet Library, built in 1906, where you can read children books from several countries and Kuroda Memorial Hall, built in 1928, exhibiting paintings by Kuroda Seiki.
Ueno Zoo was built in 1882 as Japan’s first Zoo and has been breeding Pandas since 1972. The zoo is a 5–minute walk from Ueno Station. It is definitely a must visit if your passion is animals, or if you at least like to look at them.
There is much to see and do in Ueno Zoo including interacting with monkeys, riding the monorail and plenty of great reptile watching opportunities. When I was a child, I saw a polar bear who seemed to suffer from neurosis, but now the enclosure has been renovated and the polar bear seemed relaxed. Ueno Zoo has become absolutely fascinating and it is so close to a natural habitat, it takes you momentarily to wild nature.
Tokyo National Museum
Tokyo National Museum is the main national museum with a collection of historical arts from all over the world but mainly from Asia. The central building was built by Josiah Conder in 1881, thought the original building was destroyed by the earthquake in 1923. Hyokeikan was designed by Tokuma Katayama and built in 1908 using authentic European-style architecture. Tokuma Katayama also designed the State Guest House of Akasaka Palace. The site is so huge that we couldn’t see around during my first visit with my kids, so we revisited several more times. Our favorite place was the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures which exhibits some of the 300 valuable objects donated by Horyuji Temple in 1878.
3. Sunshine Aquarium in Ikebukuro
In Japan, there are over 150 aquariums and Sunshine Aquarium is the easiest one to visit in Tokyo. The Ikebukuro area boasts overwhelming popularity as a sightseeing spot for geeks and Kawaii culture. People flock to Ikebukuro to experience different types of entertainment. If you find yourself in Ikebukuro, you simply cannot miss the chance to visit Sunshine Aquarium which is home to more than 750 kinds of fish from all over the world and is a nature lover’s delight in the variety of species and beauty of its shape.
Sunshine Aquarium is located on the rooftop of a nine-story office and shopping complex. You can watch sea lions and other marine life swimming against skyscraper backdrops. A circular pool allows the penguins to swim around above the fascinated onlookers.
In Tokyo, there is Shinagawa Aquarium, located in Shinagawa Kumin Park near Haneda Airport, Aquapark Shinagawa, near Shinagawa Station and Sumida Aquarium, which is part of the Sky Tree complex.
4. Benkei Fishing Club in Akasaka-Mitsuke
Benkei Fishing Club is surrounded by hotels and office buildings and is right underneath the highway in the center of metropolitan Tokyo. Benkei Moat was formerly a part of the second circular moat protecting Castle Edo and the Imperial Palace. When you cast a fly line near Benkei Bridge, you might have a strange feeling when catching the eyes of passersby, but if you go to the inner the moat you’ll find a much quieter place and be able to see green forest and blue sky. Cherry blossom season is the best time to do fishing at Benkei Fishing Club, but make sure to visit in early morning.
How to get there
The most convenient way to get to Benkei Fishing Club is from Akasaka Mitsuke Station. Take D exit and you’ll come across the entrance on the left-hand side.
5. State Guest House Akasaka Palace in Yotsuya
Last but never least – this wouldn’t be an adequate list of parks without reference to the State Guest House Akasaka Palace at Yotsuya. Located just a short walk from Yotsuya Station, it’s tranquil scenery provides a relaxing escape from the busy Tokyo center surrounding it.
The Yotsuya area near Shinjuku is home to a large number of cherry trees which are spectacular from late March to early April. Somei Yoshino cherry blossom can be found around the old outer moat, turning the area into one of Tokyo’s most popular and pleasant places.The State Guest House Akasaka Palace was originally built as a residence for the Crown Prince in 1909 by Tokuma Katayama. He had traveled and studied in European architecture and built it with all the available resources of Japanese architectural technology and craft industries at that time. You can see the mixture of Japanese craftsmanship and European sophisticated design everywhere. From the front yard, you will notice samurai-themed decorations on the top of the building. Nowadays, the State Guest House Akasaka Palace is a place for diplomatic activities. Despite needing an advance reservation, I recommend joining a guided tour to see the Japanese-style Annex.