While Japan itself may conjure images of picturesque landscapes and cherry blossoms backlit by a full moon, Tokyo gets a bit of a different wrap. When people think of Tokyo they tend to focus in on the ideals of big city life, multi-coloured lights, constant noise and the busiest intersection in the world.
While all these things are certainly a lot of fun for the senses, too much exposure can have even the most intense city dweller gazing off longingly towards the hills in search of some green, wide open spaces.
Luckily, Tokyo has over forty parks and gardens to help keep you in touch with nature. Some are superb, lavish affairs and others nothing more than patches of much needed greenery between greyish buildings. All are appreciated by locals and expats alike.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan (or have already been) then names like Shinjuku kōen (kōen is ‘park’ in Japanese), Ueno kōen and Meiji Jingū (shrine) are no doubt familiar to you. While these places are quite famous, not many people initially put a trip to a park into their travel itinerary. Which is why I thought that I’d take a moment to introduce you to my all-time favourite park, not only in Tokyo, but in the world.
The area has a rich history with both the Olympics and the military before officially becoming a public park in 1967. Today it is a large patch of sculptured greenery sandwiched between two super districts of Western Tokyo. A playground for everyone, it is a must see and do when in Tokyo, and here is why!
Something is always happening.
From free concerts to Japanese buskers practising the didgeridoo, Yoyogi kōen is always teaming with life so vibrant that it rivals the lights of Kabuki-Cho.
I personally have watched a drama class rehearse a Gokusen-like script, marvelled at a young school student practising the violin, watched the filming of a J-drama from behind a roped off fence and danced with a group of rockabillies around and old school Boombox. I’ve even spent an afternoon doing an impromptu photo-shoot after an elderly Japanese photographer asked me if I’d like to be his model for the day.
Musicians, artists, photographers, fitness junkies, bookworms, cosplayers and otoku’s, nature lovers and even activists flock to this central space to been seen or heard, to meet people or to simply escape the maze of streets and electric wires that dominate Tokyo’s inner suburbs.
It’s good for fitness.
Joining Shibuya to Shinjuku, the park encompasses a whopping 134 acres. That’s a lot of jogging track and even more stretching space. Or, for those less inclined to step out in their athletic gear, it makes for a nice long stroll between the two shopping hubs of Western Tokyo. Shibuya in the morning, lunch in Yoyogi and evening shopping and dinner in Shinjuku is not only a day well spent, but an easily doable one when using this park as a giant pedestrian crossing.
People from all walks of life and all countries in the world come to this park. Japanese people love it and expats have long since clued onto the healing benefits of some time spent among the trees and away from the concrete jungle.
Everyone is always welcome.
It’s always open.
While I’m not encouraging you to go walking through a dark park at night, the fact that the gates never close is something to keep in mind. There are not many places to see the stars in Tokyo, but from the centre of Yoyogi kōen you stand the best chance. It’s also good for romantic walks by the fountain and through the trees, or evening picnics with friends.
Remember, while Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, always proceed with caution.
There’s amazing food right about the corner.
Close to both vibrant Harajuku as well as upmarket Omotesando, there is seriously food everywhere. Café’s, ramen shops, American Fast Food joints and Seven 11’s are crowded in and built on top of each other, giving the hungry a world of tough lunch decisions.
But why dine in when you can get something take away? Grab a bento box from one of the corner stores, or treat yourself to a pizza-man from the combini and nibble on your treat under a shady tree next to a water garden.
It can be a better way to meet people than sitting at a bar.
The other amazing thing about this park is that you’ll never be alone for long (unless you want to be and say as much). Not if you’re clearly a foreigner and a tourists. Japanese people – especially the younger generations – want to talk to you, they want to know your story and try their hand at English. They want to hear about your country and what you are enjoying about theirs. You don’t have to scream over music or worry about alcohol slurring your words and communication charades is always easier in a well-lit area.
Yes, you read that correctly. A visit to the park is free! While it may sound like I am making a big deal out of this fact, it is important to remember that a lot of parks and gardens in Japan do actually cost a small admission fee. While normally only around 200yen (with the profits going towards the upkeep of the area), to find one as beautiful and big as this for absolutely zero cost is something to be treasured.
A trip to Yoyogi Park can not only calm your soul and remind you that fashion shopping and hi-tech gadgets aren’t the only things to life in Tokyo but it can also lead to a world of wonderful memories. I’ve met amazing people in that park, and experienced incredible things that no other part of Tokyo could offer.
So next time you’re in town, head on down to the Harujuku station and take at least an hour (though preferably much more) to recharge your batteries in this incredible park.
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