An April 2005 trip
to Tokyo by michaelhudson
Quote: Think Tokyo's all neon lights, karaoke bars, and skyscrapers? Think again.
Ueno is dirty and overcrowded but also home to the city’s best zoo and most of its best museums. If you’re in a more reflective mood, try the Nature Study Institute and Park near Meguro Station, fifty aces of primeval woodland in the centre of the city that is open to just a few hundred visitors at any one time.
Among the best places to view the cherry blossom at the end of March are Ueno, Sumida Park, Yasukuni Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen and the Meiji Outer Gardens. Nedujinja Shrine near Nezu Metro Station has an azalea viewing festival every April.
The Metropolitan Government and Japan Guide both have good guides to the city’s parks and gardens.
Ueno Zoo has free admission on Greenery Day (May 4th) and Tokyo Citizens Day (October 1st). The Imperial Palace Gardens are closed on Mondays and Fridays, and all of the major gardens close at New Year.
An alternative way to get to Hama Rikyu is to take the cruise down the Sumnida River from Asakusa Pier. Boats stop at the entrance to the gardens.
Stuck between a concrete road bridge, an apartment building and a children‘s playground, the garden is virtually deserted outside of the month long Japanese Iris Festival, when thousands of kimono clad women and old men in floppy hats converge on the flowers to stroll and take photos. The whole of the small garden can be seen in one sweeping gaze. Near the entrance a stone bridge no more than a foot above water level traces a gentle arc between circular hedges and sloping tree trunks, fronting a square traversed by winding wooden boards and gravel paths between the few other decorative features - a stone lantern and wooden trellis fencing. Visitor facilities are spotted around irregularly - a couple of tatami mat rooms at the front gate, some low wooden benches along the pathways and a tiny viewing hut tucked away at the top of some steps in the back corner. It may not sound very much, but the overall effect is quite lovely - a typically subtle Japanese triumph over the mundane concrete surroundings. Even the garden’s inconvenient location works in its favour - while tourists flock to Hama Rikyu, the East Gardens at the Imperial Palace and Ueno Park, Horikiri is undiscovered by all but the locals. Outside of the festival it’s not somewhere I’d recommend travelling too far to see, unless you really feel a desperate need to tick off every garden in the city. However, if you’re spending time in Ueno and want an afternoon away from the Tokyo tourist trail then Horikiri is a great place to while away an hour or two.
To reach Horikiri Gardens take the Keisei Line from Ueno or Nippori to Horikiri-shobuen Station then walk west for around five minutes. Entrance is free.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 6, 2005
The 200-yen entrance fee gets you into several very distinct spaces. The English Landscape Garden at the centre of the park is instantly reminiscent of London or New York; wide, cedar, plane and sycamore bordered clipped lawns busy with families sprawled across jackets and picnic mats. The jagged peaks of Shinjuku and the lonely spire of Tokyo Tower hang above the tree line, invisible once you’re a few metres along the paths running through the small forest towards Tamamo Pond and the Greenhouse, which has beautiful water lilies, orchids, towering palms and two floors of subtropical plants. At the back, the French Formal Gardens are small but probably the most photographed part of the whole park, the symmetrical rose bushes combining Mozart, Moonlight, Black Tea, Prosperity and a hundred other exotica.
But my own favourite is the Japanese Traditional Garden, at the eastern end of the string of ponds splitting the centre of the park, whose tightly wrapped, gently undulating mounds are dotted with manicured pine, stone lanterns, pavilions and shrubs. Teahouses stand on small islands linked by wooden bridges and the chrysanthemum displays here in October are almost as famous as the cherry blossom that explodes across the park every April.
The park is a short walk from the New South exit of Shinjuku Station and is open daily from 9am-4pm (11am-3:30pm for the greenhouse).
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on September 6, 2005
Tokyo, Japan 160-0022
+81 (0)3 3350 0151
The zoo is famous for its three giant pandas and a five-storied pagoda, one of the few surviving structures from Kan‘eiji. The spacious grounds are split into two sections linked by a short monorail ride and, though cramped and dingy in a few corners, have impressive new facilities such as the Reptile House, Gorilla Forest, and a domestic petting zoo. Definitely Ueno‘s most family-friendly attraction, the zoo gets very crowded on holidays and weekends, especially around the panda enclosure.
Near the entrance to the zoo, don’t miss the approach to Toshogu Shrine, a long path lined with 50 copper lanterns, trees almost obscuring the top of the pagoda to the right, the copper, green, and deep red hall of worship straight ahead just as it was 300 years ago. Along with the tunnel of red torii gates leading down to the modest Gojo Shrine, it’s far and away my favourite place in the park.
Less positively, there’s a disappointing lack of places to sit and relax unless you pay to get into the zoo or the grounds of the National Museum. Shinobazu Pond is indicative of this problem, a few scruffy benches and some food stalls on the ma-made island next to Benzaiten Temple the only places to break your walk. The park’s not even an especially nice place to walk around: the main paths are overcrowded and the trees are strung with blue tarpaulin sheets for the hundreds of homeless people who live here. Outside of cherry blossom season or the summer ice sculpture festival, the only picnickers you're likely to see are old men with cans of beer and cigarettes. Ueno is Tokyo’s best park for culture, but it's well down the list for an afternoon in the sun.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on September 9, 2005
5-20 Ueno Koen
Tokyo, Japan 110-0007
+81 (3) 3828-5644
Attraction | "Kyu Shiba Rikyu"
The pond still dominates the garden, crisscrossed by stone bridges and encircled by paths, a traditional archery field and little mounds of grass decorated with trellises, trees, gazebos, and weather-beaten stone lanterns. In the far corner you can see the place where the tidal waters entered, while a small sandy beach runs along the nearside by the tilting, moss-flecked Yukimi Tohro stone lantern. Everything else is in beautifully crafted miniature, from the tiny arched bridge in the centre of the carp-filled pond to the perfectly rounded peak of Ohyama Mountain, which offers the best vantage point over the garden. Sitting among the pine trees and closely trimmed azalea bushes, Ohshima and Ukishima islands laze on the surface of the water, and a couple stroll hand-in-hand single file across the Saiko-No Tsutsumi walkway, slowly zigzagging their way towards the far bank. Even the clang of metal and the flashing advertising signs don’t seem to matter too much when you realize you’re the only three people around. Hama Rikyu is bigger and much more immediately impressive, but you have to share it with so many people that it’s difficult to appreciate. Kyu Shiba grows on you.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 9, 2005
1-4-1 Kaigan Minato-ku
+81 3 3434 4029
Jarrow, Tyne & Wear, United Kingdom