TOKYO 4: Sankeien Gardens, Shinjuku Gyoen, Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi Park, Tokyo Skytree, Tsukiji Market, Imperial Palace East Gardens, Jindai Botanical Gardens, Tonogayato Gardens, Kiite Rooftop Garden, Ginza



If you’re starting to get tired of reading about all of the places Phil and I visited during our Tokyo trip just imagine how tired we were when visiting them all! Once Hirata sensei left we started leaving our rooms in ‘Flexstay Inn’, Higashi Jujo even earlier in the morning and getting back even later – some days we didn’t sit down for over 12 hours! Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’d rather be a little worn out having seen everything I wanted to see then full of beans but with a list of things I’d missed out on.

The one downside to operating the hours that we did was that we hit Tokyo’s equivalent of rush hour in both the morning and the evening. It was quite something! I’ve commuted into London for work on a number of occasions but if you think London’s tube trains are jam packed, you haven’t seen anything until you board a rush hour JR train in Tokyo! That’s if you can board at all. Phil and I let the first two trains pass by without us embarking – surely the carriages were too crowded and the body heat oozed, sickeningly from the train doors. By train number three we had no choice but to board and by now we had watched enough commuters board the seemingly un-boardable that we were ready to try the Tokyo rush hour train boarding technique for ourselves. No space on a train and need to get somewhere in a hurry? No problem – when the train doors open at the station simply turn around and step backwards onto the train, pushing everyone further and further back until the very definition of ‘sardines in a tin’ has been achieved. With any luck, as further passengers board the train at each station and you find yourself pushed to the opposite train doors those doors may open at you chosen stop so that you can disembark without difficulty!

Such was our scenario on Wednesday when we took another trip out of Tokyo to visit Sankeien Gardens in the neighbouring city of Yokohama.



Sankeien Gardens are famous throughout Japan yet not mentioned at all in any of my guidebooks. I can’t understand why, as they were utterly beautiful. I think Phil and I spent longer here than in any other garden so far. At the heart of Sankeien is a traditional Japanese pond- centred landscape garden which was designed and constructed in 1906 by Hara Sankei, a wealthy businessman in the silk trade. That explains the name then. A man of refined taste, Hara had an interest in preserving ancient architecture and set about ‘collecting’ a number of buildings of high historic value from Kyoto and Kamura and reconstructing them mostly in an area to the north west of the pond. Today Sankeien is home to 17 ‘important cultural properties’ including an elegant daimyo (feudal lord) residence, several tea houses, a main hall and a three-storied pagoda from Tomyogi Temple in Kyoto. The gardens are also famed for their plum blossom; thankfully Yokohama has a milder climate than Mito so the ume were at their beautiful blossoming best.

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As we’d made an early start to the day we had time to take in a couple of gardens when we returned to Tokyo in the early afternoon. The first of these was Shinjuku Gyoen, one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular public parks. The original gardens at Shinjuku were created by the Edo era daimyo, Lord Naito, but were later converted into a botanical garden. In the late Meiji era ownership of the land was transferred to the Imperial Household Agency, who significantly modified and added to the gardens from 1903 to 1906. (A little aside: you may have noticed the word ‘Gyoen’ attached to a number of the gardens Phil and I have visited so far in Japan – it means ‘Imperial Park’ or ‘Park of the Imperial Household’.) Sadly the gardens were almost completely destroyed in 1945 by World War II air raids, but following extensive restoration they were opened as a public park in 1949. Considered one of the most important gardens of the Meiji era, Shinjuku Gyoen comprises three distinctly different garden styles – Japanese, English and French. Four if you count the beautiful glasshouse with its artful display of over 2,400 tropical and subtropical plants. The current glasshouse is a 1950s reconstruction of the one originally erected on the site in 1892. The Japanese garden is a traditional landscape garden with a large pond beset with islands and bridges and encircled by meandering paths and traditional planting. The French Garden is formal and symmetrical in design, although many of the plants have a Japanese twist, for example the Allée of a Platanus sp. which also flanks many of Tokyo’s roads, and the azalea ‘hedges’. The English Garden is an interpretation of an English Landscape Garden with its wide open lawns and plantings of trees. Around its perimeter are some 400 some yoshino cherry trees, making it one of Tokyo’s most popular spots for Haname.

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With all this racing about from one garden to another in our quest to see and experience as many gardens as possible I am reminded of the immortal opening lines of William Henry Davies’ poem, Leisure:

‘What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.’

I wish I’d had longer to enjoy and appreciate Shinjuku Gyoen, for it really was a beauty. Needs must though, so Phil and I hopped on a train to Harajuku to visit the next place on our list.



Meiji Jingu is Tokyo’s grandest Shinto Shrine and a justifiably popular tourist destination. The story goes that on Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912 the Japanese government sort to commemorate his role in the Meiji restoration by building a magnificent shrine in his name on the site of an old Iris garden in Tokyo. Meiji Jingu was founded in 1921, enshrining the deified spirits of both the Emperor and his wife, Empress Shoken. Yet again, World War II air raids destroyed most of the original buildings but they were reconstructed in 1958. The shrine buildings themselves, part of the Naien (inner precinct), occupy only a small area of the grounds; the Gaien (outer precinct) covers some 175 acres of land. The 120,000 or so trees planted in the mostly wooded Gaien were donated by people all over Japan when Emperor Meiji’s shrine was first built. Magnificent though the shrine buildings undoubtedly are it was the journey through the pine-studded forest that is most memorable for me, from the 12 metre tall torii gate at the entrance, constructed from a 1,500 year old Taiwanese cypress tree, past the intriguing assemblage of wine barrels and straw-covered sake barrels to the shrine itself. The Meiji period was a period of enlightenment in which Japan first embraced Western culture and civilisation; the policy was to merge the best of this with Japanese tradition and culture. Emperor Meiji was at the forefront of this movement and had a certain penchant for the age-old Western drink, wine. In recognition of this many barrels of wine (shown in the photos below) have been donated for consecration at Meiji Jingu by the celebrated wineries of Bourgogne, France.  Similarly, every year barrels of sake wrapped in straw are donated to the shrine by members of the Meiji Jingu Zenkoku Shuzo Keishinkai (Meiji Jingu Nationwide Sake Brewers Association) in recognition of the Emperor’s patronage of industrial and technological development during the Meiji era. In the wider park at Meiji are some of Tokyo’s major sports facilities. These include the Jingu Ballpark and the National Stadium, which was originally constructed as the mains stadium for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

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Of course our real reason for visiting Meiji Jingu was to visit the delightful gardens – correctly referred to as the Meiji Jingu Inner Gardens. The gardens are the only part of the Naien whose history predates the Emperor and his Empress. In the 16th-17th century they were establishes as part of the suburban residence of Kiyomasa Katō, a powerful political and military figure of the time. Ownership later fell to the Ii clan, then eventually to the Imperial Household Agency, who renamed it Yoyogi Gyoen (Yoyogi Imperial Garden). Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken were frequent visitors of Yoyogi Gyoen: Indeed, the Emperor himself designed the iris garden, fishing spots and paths for the Empress for her restoration and re-energising. The beautiful south pond and iris garden aside, the gardens are most known for Kiyomasa’s Well, which is today believed by many to be a ‘power spot’ for its restorative and invigorative capabilities.

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By now the sun was setting on the 5pm threshold at which all of Tokyo’s paid entrance parks and gardens seem to close. Luckily just next door to Meiji Jingu is Yoyogi Park, which can be visited at any time of day or night. Tokyo’s fifth largest public park, Yoyogi was used as US Army barracks after the Second World War, then later as the site of the Olympic Village for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It opened as a public park shortly after the Games. Interestingly, during the 1964 Olympic Games 22 of the competing countries brought with them native tree species from their home countries to be planted in a ‘Sample Garden’ in the Olympic Village. Of these only 51 trees of 10 species remain.

The park is bisected by a major road: one half contains a number of buildings including a stadium, outdoor stage, athletic field, and soccer and hockey field, while the other half is a forested park, with mature woodland trees blending into those of Meiji Park. The surrounding skyscrapers are entirely obscured by the mature trees – a real rarity in Tokyo today. A large field covers a third of the forested section and the trees include Ginkgo biloba – the symbolic tree of Tokyo. Also is this half of the park are a Rose Garden, Plum Garden, Cherry Garden, three fountains, a cycling centre and several monuments, including the Statue of Happiness and a Monument to the Greening of Japan. A graffiti-clad pedestrian bridge links the two sections of the park and provides an observation deck with good views of the forested section. Yoyogi certainly wasn’t as beautiful as some of the other public parks we had visited but it had some interesting design elements. Some of the plant supports were rather unusual – particularly in the rose garden – but I’m not sure I would have chosen to paint them white.

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I have to say that by the time we left Yoyogi Park my feet were literally dragging on the ground; I was so tired from a whole day’s walking without any opportunity to sit down. Still, as I don’t know when I will next have the opportunity to visit Tokyo, I really wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Phil and I make a rather complicated journey over to Osiage to view the Tokyo Skytree illuminated at night. Completed in February 2012 and opened to the general public in May that year, Tokyo Skytree is the world’s highest free-standing broadcasting tower. It also replaced Canton Tower as the tallest structure in Japan and is the second tallest structure in the world after Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The tower stands at 634m high, a number chosen for its memorability: in Japanese the numbers 6, 3 and 4 sound like ‘mu-sa-shi’, reminding people of the old Musashi Province which today comprises Tokyo Metropolis, much of Saitama Prefecture and part of Kanagawa Prefecture. A fusion of ‘neofuturistic’ and traditional Japanese design, the Skytree is painted a unique ‘Skytree White’ – a colour based on ‘aijiro’, the lightest shade of Japanese traditional Indigo blue. The colour is designed to represent harmony with the tower’s surroundings and to resemble the pale blue glow of traditional white celadon ware.

Interesting, but perhaps night time wasn’t the best time to observe the subtlety of colour. It was, however, a great time for viewing it at its illuminated best!

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Bizarrely, when I think of Tokyo it’s not skyscrapers and city lights which first spring to mind but the world-famous Tsukiji Market. Must be all those cookery programmes my dad watches…

Tsukiji is one of three wholesale markets set up by Tokyo City to replace the20 or so private markets destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

While the market handles fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, meat and flowers for the wholesale market, it is for its fish and seafood that the market in best known. Over 700,000 tonnes or 600 billion Yen’s worth of seafood are handled each year at Tsukiji, making it the biggest fish and seafood market in the world! Indoors the wholesale market begins at around 3am with the arrival of produce via ship, aeroplane and train. The tuna auctions, for which Tsukiji Market is famous, begin at around 5am, and by about 9am most of the wholesale trade has been done for the day.

I would love to tell you that Phil and I made it to the market early enough to see the tuna auctions for ourselves, but sadly our location in Tokyo made it too difficult. And in any case we had Chisato for a guide that day – we could hardly ask her to meet us at the market before sunrise. The number of visitors permitted to witness the auctions from a designated spot within the market is strictly limited to 120 per day and people can frequently be seen queueing for the entrance long before the 5am auction; even had arrived sufficiently early there is no guarantee that we’d have managed to see an auction.

The market may have been winding down when we arrived at a fairly respectable 8:15am, but there was still plenty to see, including some of the huge Tuna being carved up. Seeing this literally made my day.

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There is also an outdoor market at Tsukiji which sells a wide range of products and produce, including fresh fish, to the general public. So after the indoor market had more or less been cleared away we had a little stroll through the streets of the outdoor market, stopping here and there to sample some unusual delicacy or purchase a little souvenir, before heading off to our first garden of the day.

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You may remember that Phil and I paid our first visit to the grounds of the Imperial Palace on our very first day in Tokyo, on that occasion to spend a very wet afternoon exploring the Imperial Palace Park (Kita no Maru Koen) -see my previous blog post for more information . Today we returned with Chisato to visit Kōkyo Higashi Gyoen, or the ‘Imperial Palace East Gardens’. The gardens were some of the most beautiful we had yet seen in Tokyo and they are very well-known too, so I was surprised at how little information I have been able to uncover on them for the purposes of this blog.

While the transformation of the site of the old Edo castle (destroyed in 1657) into a new Imperial Palace took place was completed in 1868 the building of the beautiful Japanese landscape garden next to the Palace was not begun until nearly 100 years later, in 1961. It was completed in September 1968, opening to the public for the first time in October of that same year. Contained in this part of the garden are traditional landscape garden features such as a large pond and encircling paths, bridges, stone lanterns, stepping stones and plants including pines and azaleas. Adjacent to the Japanese landscape garden on one side is a lovely iris garden, and on the other side an azalea garden. The Imperial Palace East Gardens also contain many buildings, and in this part of the garden is the Suwa no Chaya – an Edo era tea house originally located in the Fukiage Garden closer to the Palace but reconstructed in its current position in 1912. It looked particularly attractive on the day of our visit as the plum trees surrounding it were blossoming bounteously.

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Close to this is one of the parts of the garden which I found most interesting – the Ninomaru Garden – which is planted with symbolic trees from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Awaji Island is one of a number of prefectures which uses the cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum camphora) as its symbolic tree. You can see the Awaji Cinnamomum camphora in the photos below.

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Nearing the Ote-mon Gate through which visitors today both enter and exit the gardens, there is a natural woodland area called The Renewed Grove. This area of the garden was established in 2002 at the suggestion of Emperor Akihito, who wished to add to the mainly evergreen planting in the original grove to promote biodiversity. Surface soil containing seeds and insect eggs was brought in from the adjacent Ninomaru Grove and many trees and other plants which provide food for birds and insects were planted.

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In a separate part of the garden is the base of the Edo Castle’s main keep – the Tenshudai Donjon. Constructed in 1607 the five-storied donjon stood at 58 metres tall above the ground, making it the highest donjon ever built in Japan. Also in this part of the garden is an expansive lawn, popular with locals and tourists alike.

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Several of the gardens Phil and I have visited in Tokyo have had a number of trees swathed in bandages. We have no idea why. If anyone can solve the mystery of the mummified trees please write in to let us know. This one is a Prunus species which looks to have been recently planted – perhaps the bandages are to reduce transpiration through the lenticels (pores)?

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All this and there was a lovely grove of plums in full bloom too…

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…and even an early and rather spectacular cherry tree!

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Next it was off to the Tokyo suburbs to visit a couple more gardens, stopping, of course, for a bite of lunch with Chisato. Soba noodles were today’s plat du jour. Interestingly, after eating a dish of soba noodles it is custom to drink the water in which the noodles were cooked – ours was served to us in a traditional teapot.

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Our next garden was originally a nursery which was used to raise the trees that today line the streets of Tokyo. After the Second World War it opened to the public as Jindai Green Zone then, in 1961 it became Jindai Botanical Gardens – Tokyo’s first botanical garden. Jindai Botanical Gardens are divided into 30 blocks according to plant type or genus; there are around 100,000 trees and shrubs contained within the gardens and some 4,800 different species. The gardens include a Dahlia Garden, Azalea Garden, Wild Grass Garden, Magnolia Garden, Cornus Garden, Maple Garden, Camellia garden, Iris Garden, Aqua Plants Garden, natural woods, Lawn Field with pampas grass, and a huge formal rose garden planted with 5,200 rose bushes of 400 varieties. Happily, there was also a Japanese Apricot Garden in full flower on the day of our visit.

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Our last gardens of the day were in another of Tokyo’s suburbs, Kokubunji. They weren’t quite as close to Jindai Botanical Gardens as I’d thought when looking at the map so were not easily accessible from here via public transport, so we ended up having to take a taxi to get us there before the 4:30pm last entrance time. We made it by the skin of our teeth!

Tonogayato Gardens are the eighth of Tokyo’s nine Metropolitan Cultural Gardens which Phil and I have managed to visit during our stay in Tokyo, and they are perhaps my favourite. I generally prefer to research a garden after I have visited it so that I can experience and enjoy it on my own terms rather than trying to photograph all the ‘must see spots’. I came away from Tonogayato feeling that although it was undoubtedly very Japanese in terms of its landscaping and design elements there was also something very English about its character – some quality to the woodland which surrounds the central pond I think. I was delighted to discover during my research post-visit that the gardens, constructed from 1913-15, were designed to fuse Western and traditional Japanese elements. Tonogayato gardens were originally part of the grounds of a villa belonging to Teijo Eguchi, Vice President of the South Manchuria Railway Company. In 1929 ownership passed to the Mitsubishi’s Iwasaki family; finally in 1974, following several years of campaigning by local residents, Tokyo Metropolitan Government purchased them in order to preserve them for the nation. The gardens are formed on a landscape that includes stepped hills, artfully blending it into the surrounding natural landform of the Musashino valley; the use of wild grasses and flowers in the gardens at Tonogayato also help to blend garden into landscape. A forested pond with traditional Japanese elements is at the heart of the gardens with the best views provided by the teahouse on a rocky hill above the pond. Other interesting features include the enormous stems of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis) in the bamboo woods at the bottom of the pond, and, reputedly a favourite of Koyatu Iwasaki, the 300 or so Ternstroemeria japonica at the entrance. Tonogayato Gardens are truly beautiful and are up there in my top then list of gardens visited in Japan.

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After saying our thank yous and goodbyes to Chisato over a cup of coffee in a rather delightful organic coffee shop just around the corner from Tonogayato Gardens, Phil and I made our way back into Tokyo City. Phil had identified a particular shop he wished to visit that evening in the Kiite Building by Tokyo Station, and I was happy to go along for the ride as I’d read in my guidebook that this recently extended and renovated Post Office Building had a rather nice rooftop garden with excellent views out over Tokyo Station and the Maranouchi area. The guidebook wasn’t lying – the gardens and the views were both well worth the visit.

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Last stop of the evening was to Ginza, Tokyo’s designer shopping district, to view the architecture at night and to pay a visit to the Tokyo branch of the famous Dover Street Market. While Phil explored the men’s clothing department I chose to study the interesting art installations around the store.

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