There can be few things more pleasant than sitting in Tokyo’s spring sunshine contemplating a cherry tree in full bloom while making your way through a freshly prepared bento box and chatting to friends. With its variety of cherry trees, some flowering early and some late in the season, and wide open spaces, Shinjuku Gyoen is a lovely place to indulge in the quintessentially Japanese spring pastime of hanami.
Shinjuku Gyoen has lots more to offer as well. Spring merely marks the beginning of the rainbow of flowers and plants from fluffy cherry blossom, through exquisite roses, to flaming momiji, that adorn the park for most of the year. Even in the winter, when most of the trees have lost their leaves and the grassy spaces are not as lush, the garden still has a certain bleak elegance.
Near the Shinjuku Gate (one of three entrances to the garden) is a small wooded area called the mother and child forest. Have a look around, whether you’re a mum with kids or not, as there is a nicely designed walkway that takes you past some interesting greenery. Weirdest of all are the bald cypress roots, which bend themselves out of the ground like knobbly kneecaps.
Carry on into the main section where you’ll find a beautifully elegant traditional Japanese garden, complete with ponds, wooden bridges and tea houses nestling in the trees. Here there are spaces to sit on the grass and relax while contemplating the order and precision with which the garden has been laid out. Check out the giant koi in the ponds too! Head to the top of the hill away from the Japanese garden to find the English garden, an expansive grassy area lined with cherry trees. At one end is the French garden which is particularly beautiful in the summer when the roses are in bloom.
Like many of Tokyo’s parks and gardens, Shinjuku Gyoen operates with a policy of no ball games and no loud music. In addition, it’s a no-alcohol garden, which means that even when it’s busy, the atmosphere is a little calmer than in the likes of Ueno Park. The 200 yen entrance fee also ensures that the garden and all the facilities are kept beautifully tidy and clean.
You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering at a leisurely pace around Shinjuku Gyoen. Make a day of it by combining your visit with a trip to the Meiji Shrine, the observatories in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and an exploration of the area next to the train tracks at Shinjuku Station. It’s a good way to see the contrast between traditional serenity and modern frenzy that is such a fundamental feature of Tokyo’s character.