In Tokyo, green spaces can be hard to come by. While residential areas are dotted with small lots for children, in denser parts of the city the truly large parks can be counted on one hand.
One need only spend a day or two shopping, sightseeing and riding packed trains to appreciate the importance of parks and wide-open spaces, and as they go, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is easily Tokyo’s finest.
Unlike Yoyogi Park, where the focus is on recreation, Shinjuku Gyoen is a sprawling, exquisitely tended space just southeast of JR Shinjuku Station that is actually meant to be viewed.
The gardens are spread over a piece of land about 3.5 km around that once belonged to the descendants of a daimyo, a feudal lord named Naito Kiyonari, who was granted it by the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, for one of his Edo residences. Naito and his forces had proved loyal at Sekigahara, the battle that ended a long period of civil war and unified Japan in 1600.
The land itself was of strategic importance, as key roads leading to the city passed through it, which is why it was given to a trusted retainer. The Naito clan completed a garden on this spot in 1772.
Following the fall of the shogunate and the Meiji Restoration, Japan underwent an intense period of modernization, including the import of culture and technology from the West. In 1870, some of the old Naito land was appropriated for use in experiments with Western flora.
Here the first investigations into the farming of foreign fruits and vegetables were conducted, and cypress, tulip and cedar trees from abroad were planted. The space became an Imperial Garden, took its present layout in 1906, experienced total destruction during WWII, and was opened again to the public in 1949. The funeral rites of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously named Showa, were performed here after his death in 1989.
Shinjuku Gyoen today
Shinjuku Gyoen today is a unique blend of three distinct elements: a French formal garden, an English landscape garden, and a traditional Japanese garden. It also has a greenhouse that boasts a wide variety of tropical and sub-tropical species, two tea rooms where visitors can enjoy macha green tea and sweets for a small fee, ponds and bridges, walking paths, and several washroom facilities.
Make no mistake, this space is designed for quiet repose and reflection. Every aspect is manicured and tirelessly cared for, and the result is less the awe inspired by a natural forest and more the calm composure exuded by a bonsai. It’s ideal as a spot to stroll and think, chat with friends, and otherwise take a step back from the city to gain some perspective.
For these reasons, activities ranging from badminton, soccer and frisbee to the use of drones are prohibited, as are animals (those that assist the disabled are excepted), music and alcohol. Anyone looking to enjoy such things is directed to Yoyogi, Inokashira, or any of Tokyo’s other parks.
The gardens are open year round, but the best times to visit are the fall, to see the changing leaves and blooming chrysanthemums, and the spring, when its more than 1,500 cherry trees briefly bloom. The act of viewing cherry blossoms is called hanami, and despite the park’s rule against alcohol, many Japanese flood the gardens during this time, have small picnics, enjoy alcohol covertly, and make sure not to leave trash of any kind behind. Those seeking livelier festivities are again directed to other parks.
Hours: 09:00 – 16:00 (gates close at 16:30)
Closed: Mondays, but open continuously from March 25 to April 24 and from November 1 to 15.
Fees: Adults ¥200, children ¥50, people with disabilities and their caregivers free of charge.
Access: Shinjuku Gyoen has three entrances:
Shinjuku Gate – Walk from JR Shinjuku (New South Exit), Seibu shinjuku, Shinjuku gyoen mae (Exit 1) and Shinjuku san chome (Exits C1 & C5) stations.
Sendagaya Gate – Walk from Sendagaya or Kokuritsu kyougijyou mae (Exit A5) stations.
Okido Gate – Walk from Exit 2 of Shinjuku gyoen mae Station.
For more information, visit the official website.