TOKYO 3: Ueno Park, Kyu Iwasaki-tei Gardens, Rikugien Gardens, Kyu Furukawa Gardens, Kiyosumi Gardens, World Trade Centre Seaview Observatory, Odaiba, Mito Kairakuen, Tokiwa Jinga, Hinamatsuri, Scramble Crossing, Shibuya and Harajuku



Yesterday had been our last day with Hirata sensei as a guide so today Phil and I were free to explore the city at our leisure. Well I say leisure, but actually we decided to make an earlier start to the day to try to fit in as many gardens as we could before the cut off point of 5pm when they all seem to shut. First stop was to Ueno Park. Although we had visited here very briefly with Hirata sensei on Saturday to visit Tokyo National Museum, one of many museums situated inside the park, we had not had time to explore the park itself.



Along with Shiba, Asakusa, Fukagawa and Asukayama, Ueno Park was established by the Cabinet decree in 1873 and is one of Japan’s first public parks. It is also one of Tokyo’s most popular. During the Edo era Ueno Park was part of the grounds of Toeizan Kaneji Temple but it became government property after the Meiji Restoration and was later donated to Tokyo City. When it first opened to the public Ueno contained only the Kaneji Temple mausoleum, Toshogu Shrine and a number of cherry trees, but over the years many more buildings and visitor facilities have been established in the park, giving it a very cosmopolitan feel.

Today, in addition to Tokyo National Museum there are other modern buildings such as Tokyo University of Arts, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Science Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall, Ueno Royal Museum, and The Japan Art Academy. There is even a baseball field and a zoo! I thought the park was attractive in places but I felt it didn’t seem to have a particularly Japanese character – we could have been in any city in the world as we strolled along the expansive paved paths. Here are some of the park’s key features.

Takenodai Plaza and Fountain provides a grand entrance to Tokyo National Museum.

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I had to try very hard to resist the call of the Sakura-clad Starbuck’s in this area though!

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Shinobazu Pond – at its best in July and August when the lotus are in flower this pond contains Tokyo’s largest collection of lotus.

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The statue of Takamori Saigo, one of the most influential samurai in Japanese history, is so endeared to the nation that it has become the park’s symbol.



Benten Shrine

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Toshogu Shrine and Pagoda

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Daibetsu yama (Great Buddha Hill) and the Daibetsu face, which fell from the Great Buddha in Kanei-ji Temple in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

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There was plenty more to see besides…

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Perhaps we would have been more enchanted by Ueno Park had we not been too early for the main cherry blossom season. We did enjoy a few early blossoms though. The park is famous for its 800 cherry trees, the blossoming of which was immortalized in Basho Matsuo’s famous haiku poem, “Clouds of blossoms. Is that the bell from Ueno, or Asakusa?”

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As Phil and I had already visited a number of Tokyo’s nine Metropolitan Cultural Gardens we were by now on a mission to see them all, so our next stop was to Kyu Iwasaki-tei Gardens. Originally part of the Echigo Takada clan’s Edo era mansion, ownership of the gardens later passed to the Iwasaki family who constructed buildings and gardens which merged Western and Japanese styles. The conjoined Western style and Japanese-style house, and the Billiards Hall are the only remaining buildings of the original twenty, and they are really the main attraction at Kyu Iwasaki-tei over and above the gardens. It was interesting to see how ‘Western-style’ was interpreted in Japan and how such a building could sit in harmony with a Japanese-style neighbour.

While the buildings were both interesting and attractive we found the gardens rather disappointing and, with little information available about them at the time, it was hard to gain a clear understanding of their history or significance. This was particularly frustrating as it is sold as ‘Kyu Iwasaki-tei Gardens’ in all literature concerned with it. The gardens feature a large ‘Western-style’ lawn (brown and dry at the time of our visit as all grass appears to be in Japan in winter) flanked with traditional Japanese elements including stones, stone lanterns and an artificial hill. The vast lawn was laid over the top of the original daimyo pond, which was filled at the time of the construction of the main house. It seems a shame but it is interesting to see the effect that the West had on Japanese gardens during the Meiji period, when the country first opened its doors to foreign influences.

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Undeterred by our slightly disappointing start to the morning we carried on to visit one of the most famous of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Cultural Gardens – Rikugien Gardens. Constructed in 1702 by Yanagisama Yoshiyasu on lands given to him by the fifth Shogun, Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, the gardens are an excellent example of the Edo daimyo taste for circuit-style (kaikyo) gardens. Yoshiyasu diverted water from the Senkawa water supply and transformed the erstwhile flat ground into a beautiful landscape with artificial hills and pond, islands, bridges, carefully positioned rocks, and plants such as pines and azaleas. The garden is said to reflect Yoshiyasu’s taste for poetry and is thus a tranquil, strolling garden infused with symbolism and meaning. Indeed, while the garden was originally called ‘Mukusa-no-sono’ it was later renamed ‘Rikugien’ to reflect its creator’s interest in the six tenets of ancient Chinese poetry, ‘shi no rikugi’. Many of the scenes and features found in the gardens at Rikugien are also derived from ancient Chinese texts.

The gardens are famed for their beauty and they did not disappoint.

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There are several features at Rikugien which are worth looking at in greater detail, including the following.

Horai-jima – an arch-shaped stone island based on the theme of Taoist immortality.

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Deshio no Minato – a beautifully curved shoreline reflecting the ancient Japanese poem ‘A crane cries sadly as the moon tide washes the shores of Wakanoura’.



Imo-no-yama and Se-no-yama – these two hills on the central island represent man and woman, and promote a good relationship and prosperity of their descendants.



Togetsukyo – a stone bridge named after the famous poem which my guidebook translates as ‘Shadow of the moon moving at night and cry of a crane in mash of reed in the shore of Waka, makes me feel do lonely.’

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Sasakani-no-michi – Sasakani is the ancient name for spider and Sasakani-no michi is a network of narrow paths representing the fine threads of a spider’s web. The area also reflects the words of an ancient poem by Sotoori Hime, one of the three masters of Japanese poetry: ‘My beloved is to come tonight. The spider’s sure movement seems to foretell it.’

Fukiage Pine – this Japanese red pine is believed to have been planted at the time of the garden’s creation and is mentioned in Yoshiyasu’s journal, ‘Rakushido Nenroku’.

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Then it was on to yet another Metropolitan Cultural Garden – Kyu Furukawa Gardens. Like Kyu Iwasaki-tei, Kyu Furakawa features a western-style mansion as well as both western- and Japanese-style gardens. Originally the home of Munemitsu Mutsu, a statesman during the Meiji era, the house and gardens owe their beauty to two well-known designers. The western-style house and garden were designed by the British architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920), who was responsible for the design of many other western-style buildings including the mansion at Kyu Iwasaki-tei. The Japanese garden is the work of the famous Kyoto gardener Jihei Ogawa (1860-1933) or ‘Ueji’ as he is commonly called.

I thought the gardens were very beautiful and the Western- and Japanese-style gardens complimented each other well. Aside from the house itself Kyu Furakawa is most famous for the Rose Garden which forms part of the terraced garden immediately surrounding the building.

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Phil and I were clearly far too early to see the 90 different rose varieties in bloom, but it was interesting to study the pruning of the 180 rose bushes in the terraced garden. The pictures below show recently pruned Hybrid Tea and Floribunda roses respectively; they are much taller than the way that we typically prune them back in the UK.

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Although we were also too early for the azaleas I really liked the way the different foliage colours knitted in the hedge-like backdrop to the terraced garden.

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The terraced garden itself was rather nice too, though it’s a shame it was under maintenance and inaccessible on the day of our visit.

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The deep mountain region both separates and unites the Western- and Japanese-style gardens. The dense plantings of mostly chinquapin nut trees (Chrysolepis sp.) in this manmade gorge are designed to give one the sense of being deep in the mountains.

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Ume! I just can’t get enough of these beautiful plum blossoms!

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At the centre of the circuit-style Japanese-style garden is the Shinji Pond. Constructed from kurama flat stone and iyo bluestone its design is based on the Kanji character for kokoro (heart). The designated position for viewing the pond takes in the rugged shoreline, snow-view lantern, dry waterfall and artificial hill.

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I particularly liked the dry waterfall, which expresses mountain scenery in the absence of water.

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I also really liked the woodland-style planting around the outer perimeter of the pond – the light filtering through the trees and the birdsong reminded me of early spring back home in England.

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More beautiful yuki-tsuri to admire.

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Here is something which has so far struck me about horticulture in Japan compared to that at home in the UK. At home we tend to encourage plants to adopt their natural shape or habit, only pruning when strictly necessary (to encourage flowering, remove dead or unproductive growth, thin to allow light in, etc.), where as in Japan almost every plant is contrived to look ‘natural’ through meticulous training which prevents it from taking on its own shape and form. Two different understandings of ‘nature’ perhaps, and two different ways of controlling her. The pine trees by the entrance to Kyu Furukawa (see photos, below) are a case in point. They look naturally fastigiated but on closer inspection you can see that the branches have been trained horizontally to form a pyramid shaped tree and that pruning of even large branches takes place on a regular basis. Ditto the pines which mislead the viewer into thinking they are falling into the lake; they are designed to look this way.

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The last garden of the day was Kiyosumi, yet another of Tokyo’s nine Metropolitan Cultural Gardens. The gardens at Kiyosumi are the premier example of the Meiji era Japanese garden style in which a central pond is surrounded with woods, paths, artificial hills and a dry garden. Although gardens have existed on the site from the Kyoho era onwards (1716-1736) the gardens as they stand today are the work of the Mitsubishi founder, Yataro Iwasaki, who purchased the old residence and transformed the grounds into a garden to be enjoyed by his employees and by visiting dignitaries. Water from the Sumidagawa River was drawn to create a large pond complete with islands, and famous rocks were brought on steamship from all over Japan for arrangement in the gardens. Kiyosumi suffered extensive damage in the fires after the Great Kanto Earthquake, during which time they were used as an evacuation point, saving many people’s lives. Recognising the garden’s value in future disasters the Iwasaki family donated the eastern side to Tokyo City in 1924. It opened as a public park in 1932, joined in 1977 by the western side.

Key features at Kiyosumi include the following. Dai-sensui – the large pond containing three islands was originally fed by the Sumida River but is today supplied by rainwater. Meiseki stones – the most famous stones in the garden are ‘Izu-iso-ishi’, ‘Iyo-ao-ishi’, ‘Kishu-ao-ishi’, ‘Ikoma-ishi’, ‘Izu-Shikinejima-ishi’, ‘Sado-akadama-ishi’, ‘Bitchu-Mikage-ishi’, ‘Sanuki-Mikage-ishi’ and ‘Nebukewa-ishi’. Iso-watari – stepping stones arranged intermittently at the shoreline. Their placement is designed so that every step taken provides a changing view of the pond. Fuji-san – named after Japan’s greatest mountain, this is the tallest artificial hill in the garden. Ryotei – originally built by the Iwasaki family in 1909, this teahouse underwent a significant restoration project in 1985 and was designated as a ‘Selected Historical Buildings of Tokyo Metropolitan Government’ in 2005. Basho monument – a stone monument to Japan’s most revered Haiku poet, Matsuo Basho. The inscription on the stone translates as ‘The sound of a frog jumping into an old pond’. Taisho Kinenkan – this building was relocated to Kiyosumi some years after it served as the venue for Emperor Taisho’s funeral. It was reconstructed in 1953 following a fire, and was completely renovated again in 1989.

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Although we had virtually walked ourselves off our feet with all our garden viewing today we keen to see yet more of what Tokyo has to offer at night. Our first stop that evening was to the World Trade Centre where we bought a ticket for the Seaview Observatory on the Top Floor. Here we were greeted by a 360 degree panoramic view of Tokyo at night. It was well worth it for the view of Tokyo Tower alone. Phil and I had decided not to travel to the top of this iconic tower but that we did want to view it at night. The view from the Seaview Observatory didn’t disappoint – I could have spent all evening gazing at the orange and white tower which, at 333 meters tall is 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, on which it is modelled.

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Lastly we travelled to the manmade island of Odaiba in the port area of Tokyo to view the famous Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo’s replica of the Statue of Liberty. Another stunning view and a pretty special journey too – the train travels in a corkscrew as it approaches the bridge from the mainland to Odaiba Island, then all of a sudden you are whizzing across the bridge in between two lanes of traffic!

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When I said that Phil and I were spending ten days here in Tokyo I wasn’t being one hundred percent truthful. Although the majority of that time will have been spent in Tokyo there were a number of places we wanted to visit further afield which were conveniently within travelling distance of Tokyo. The first of these was Kairakuen in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. With a name meaning ‘a garden for everyone’s pleasure’ Kairakuen is considered one of Japan’s top three most beautiful gardens; we had high hopes for our visit and were quite prepared to spend an hour and a half ‘special limited express’ train to get there. However we were quite disappointed in what we found.

According to the guidebooks Kairakuen’s hillside setting bestows it with breathtaking views out over a beautiful forests and lakes. Well, yes in a way I suppose it does, but that view is utterly spoiled by a dirty great road running between the garden and the wider park, as well as countless insensitively positioned telephone pylons. I struggle to understand how such ugly pieces of urban necessity could be positioned so close to a garden considered by so many to be so beautiful, or how, having been so spoilt it could continue to be regarded as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. Looking back at my photographs the garden looks more attractive than I remember – one of the few occasions when the photos do the garden justice.

Constructed in 1842 by Tokugawa Nariaki, the ninth feudal lord of Mito, as a garden to share enjoyment with the people these 18-acre strolling gardens are particularly famous for their ume blossom – there are around 3,000 plum trees of 100 different varieties in the grounds. Our visit coincided with the Mito Ume Matsuri (Mito Plum Festival) so we had to jostle with the crowds to enjoy the blossoms. Not that there were many to see – Mito had experienced a cooler than late winter so the blossoms were a little behind their usual opening time and thus the trees were not at their spectacular best whilst we were there. Perhaps had we visited the garden on a sunny day when the ume were in full blossom we’d have come away with a better impression. I’d be very interested to hear the opinions of anyone else who’s visited here.

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Still, the few early plum blossoms were a delight to behold…

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…and I did get to have my picture taken with a couple of Japanese women in traditional dress at the Mito plum festival. I felt a little underdressed!



An area which I did really appreciate at Kairakuen was the forested area full of Japanese Cedars and huge bamboos. I enjoyed strolling through this more secluded part of the garden.

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One of my favourite parts of Japanese gardens are the old, propped up trees, which look like they’ve stepped right out of one of Salvador Dali’s surrealist paintings. There were some lovely examples of what these ‘walking stick trees’ at Kairakuen.

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In exploring the wider parkland of Kairakuen we happened upon this Shinto Shrine – Tokiwa Jinga. This has got to be one of the most interesting pieces of car parking I’ve ever seen – talk about spoiling the scenery!

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The day of our visit, the 3rd of March, coincided with Hinamatsuri, or ‘Doll’s Day. On Hinamatsuri traditional Japanese dolls are displayed on red-carpeted steps in homes, department stores, shrines and other public places depicting the Emperor and Empress and their courtiers in traditional Heian era dress. The exact positioning and placement of the dolls can differ between regions. On the top tier are the two Imperial Dolls in front of a byōbu (gold screen); on the second tier are the san-nin kanjo – three court ladies with sake equipment; the third tier is reserved for the gonin bayashi – five male musicians; whilst on the fourth platform are placed two daijin (ministers), often with bow and arrow; the fifth tier contains three samurai or helpers to act as guardians for the Imperial household; finally, on the sixth and seventh tiers are displayed a variety of other items such as carriages, furniture and tools.

There were lots of Hinamatsuri platforms on display at Tokiwa Jinga so we were able to see a fair variety, and it made up somewhat for our disappointment at Kairakuen.

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By now midafternoon it was time to make the long journey back to Tokyo. We did not have time to take in another garden so decided to split up for an hour or so to explore Tokyo by ourselves before regrouping later in the evening at Shibuya station to watch the pandemonium that is the great scramble crossing from the Starbucks overhead. It was quite a spectacle – it’s a shame I can’t post videos on this blog to show you what it is really like!

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After this we had a wander around the Shibuya/Harajuku area to see some more of Tokyo’s bright lights.

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This statue of Hachikō, an Akita dog, at Shibuya Station is famous. Hachikō used to greet his owner, Professor Hidesaburō Ueno, at the station at the end of every day, and continued to do so for 9 years after the Professor’s untimely death in 1925!

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