Romantic Fall in the Busy city center of Japan, Tokyo.
By Darren on 26 Nov 2018
Tokyo’s relative lack of open, green space struck me on my first trip here before my flight into Narita had even landed. The sea of neon-punctuated gray unfolding endlessly beneath my window promised plenty, I figured, but likely not much in the way of natural beauty. And while it is true that Tokyo possesses fewer parks than many other world capitals, the city boasts a few sprawling parks verdant enough to make one temporarily forget that they are in the heart of the metropolis.
Timing is key to enjoying Tokyo’s best parks. Sure, the summer months make them great spots to enjoy an ice cream with someone special, or take a lazy nap on the grass (with none of the security concerns that plague other capitals). But with Japanese culture and aesthetics traditionally having a deep sensitivity to the changing seasons, it is the sakura cherry blossoms of spring and Momiji red maple leaves of fall that show Tokyo’s parks at their most magnificent.
Visiting Japan to coincide with either of these two all-too-brief phenomena is likely to be a memorable experience, but if pushed I would recommend the latter. Perhaps the deeper, more understated and contemplative beauty of the Momiji (also known as kōyō, with both words meaning literally, ‘red leaves’) simply suits my character more than the rather ‘showy’ Sakura, but on a practical level too there are solid reasons to advocate a fall sojourn.
Tokyo’s maple leaves turn red, with the gingko trees simultaneously becoming a nicely coordinated yellow, at the very end of October or beginning of November (with exact dates forecast with pinpoint accuracy by the Japanese meteorological agency and excitedly broadcast by the media). The weather at this time of year is generally moderate and with few of the nasty climatic surprises that Japan can throw at the traveler: perfect for strolling about without getting unpleasantly sweaty, with a jacket or light coat sufficient.
Whereas the cherry blossom season is all too volatile: for every year that sees hanami (cherry blossom viewing party) revelers happily drinking sake under the trees, we have one in which spring temperatures remain low, rain falls, and a strong wind cruelly blows the sakura petals to the ground as soon as they have appeared. One further reason to consider fall: airfares to Japan are as low as they get.
So now that I’ve sold you on a fall vacation, where best to see the autumn leaves in all their poignant glory? Don’t make the mistake of simply looking for anywhere marked as a park on the map: the Japanese definition of the word is broad, with even tiny, entirely concreted public spaces often described as ‘parks’ since they contain a slide or a few swings. Instead head to one of the major locations recommended here, all in central Tokyo.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which dates back to 1906, is a vast space that occupies not only a considerable chunk of central Shinjuku but also reaches into neighboring Shibuya. It has stricter rules than other Tokyo parks as it is nominally a ‘garden’: bicycles, ball games and dogs (except guide dogs) are all forbidden, as is alcohol. The upside of this is that Shinjuku Gyoen is immaculately kept, with separate zones designed according to Japanese and Western aesthetic ideals; an art gallery; and several lakes whose placid waters stunningly reflect their surroundings. For those feeling a little claustrophobic due to Tokyo’s limited personal space, this is the widest open-feeling spot in the whole city.
Also in Shinjuku, just a stone’s throw from both the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and the Shinjuku Park Hyatt hotel made famous by the movie ‘Lost in Translation’, is Shinjuku Chuo Park. Translating as the city’s very own ‘Central Park’, here the twin towers of the government offices loom over you, reminding you that you’re in green (red in fall!) oasis in the heart of the city, just as much as Shinjuku Gyoen causes you to forget your urban setting. Thus the two parks present two extremes of experience, with both being arguably at their most appealing in fall.
To the south-east of Shinjuku meanwhile, in between the Sendagaya and Aoyama districts, lies Meiji-Jingu Gaien (not to be confused with the similarly-named Meiji-Jingu shrine over by Yoyogi Park). This park, which is also home to the Jingu baseball stadium and Tokyo’s first Shake Shack gourmet burger restaurant, is famous in this season for the gingko trees that line the long Icho Namiki Avenue. When the leaves turn briefly yellow before falling and carpeting the sidewalk, the entire street is closed to traffic for the sole enjoyment of sightseers.
Finally one personal favorite: Saigoyama-Koen is a smaller, slightly lesser-known park in the hip district of Daikanyama. Popular without getting overly crowded in both cherry blossom and autumn leaf seasons, it is set on top of a hill overlooking the city and gives a real sense of ‘Tokyo is mine!’ as you gaze out on the rooftops. Small benches, sized just right for two, line the perimeter of the park making it a great place to round off a romantic dinner at the nearby Ivy Place restaurant.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
11 Naitomachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Access: Shinjuku-gyoemmae, Shinjuku-sanchome, or Shinjuku stations
Admission: Adults ¥200, elementary and junior high school students ¥50, infants free
Shinjuku Chuo Park
2-11 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Access: Nishi-Shinjuku, Tochomae, or Shinjuku stations
Hotel nearby Shinjuku;
Hotel ATLAS , room for 2 from 10,300...
Hotel the Hotel, room for 2 starting 12,900...
1-1 Kasumigaokamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Access: Aoyama-itchome, Gaienmae, Kokuritsu-kyogijo, or Shinanomachi stations
Hotel nearby Shibuya
2-10-28 Aobadai, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Access: Daikanyama, Nakameguro, or Shinsen stations
Darren came to Japan to study 11 years ago, and never made it back home to the UK. Since then he’s built up a detailed ‘mental map’ of Tokyo by intentionally getting himself lost, and loves taking visiting friends way off the well-beaten tourist track. In his free time Darren can usually be found in the backstreets of Koenji or Asagaya, with camera in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other.