Is there anything more glorious than spring? In Tokyo, this past winter seemed especially harsh, so the arrival of cherry blossoms brought a collective sigh of relief from Tokyoites, who flocked to favorite viewing spots like Ueno Park, Yasukuni Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen, the Aoyama cemetery, Sumida Koen Park in Asakusa, Chidorigafuchi Park on the Imperial Palace moat, and other popular sites. To my mind, walking under a cloud of shimmering pink is like heaven on earth, but like life itself, the blossoms are fleeting, expiring all too quickly.
Luckily, Tokyo has a number of fine parks and gardens that provide a brilliant show of colors from early spring through autumn, making them a must on a trip to the capital and wonderful oases in the metropolis. My favorites are those with traditional Japanese landscaping, especially if I have foreign travelers in tow. Although Hama Rikyu Garden, which once served as the private hunting ground of the Tokugawa shoguns, is one of Tokyo’s best known, it doesn’t make my short list of gardens any more, for the simple reason that the neighboring skyscrapers of Shiodome have robbed it of picturesque views. There ought to be a law.
There is, however, a garden smack dab in the heart of Tokyo that remains one of my favorites: East Garden. Occupying what were once the main grounds of Edo Castle, it’s located next to the Imperial Palace, an easy walk from Tokyo Station and the Ginza. Although the stone foundations of Edo Castle attract the biggest crowds, I always head to East Garden’s Ninomaru, a formal Japanese garden with a pond, stepping stones, and winding paths. It’s particularly beautiful when the azaleas, wisteria, irises and other flowers burst forth, making it a hit also with office workers for an al fresco obento lunch. Best of all, admission is free.
Farther west is 144-acre Shinjuku Gyoen National Park, one of Tokyo’s largest parks. Formerly the private domain of a feudal lord and then of the Imperial family, it achieved its present layout more than a century ago, making it a classic example of a modern western landscape garden of the Meiji era. In addition to wide grassy expanses popular for school outings and picnics, it boasts three distinct styles: an English landscape garden, a French formal garden with central rose beds flanked by sycamores, and – my favorite – an exquisite traditional Japanese garden, buried in the park’s center like a hidden treasure. Flowers bloom throughout the growing season, starting with plum and 75 different varieties of cherry trees in spring to water lilies in summer and chrysanthemums in autumn.
But for my favorite garden in Tokyo, travel north to Rikugien Garden, which lies off the beaten path but is absolutely worth the trip. It was created in 1702 by a trusted confidante of the shogun, who rose from the lowly position of a page to the highest rank as a feudal lord. Later, during the Meiji Period, it became the second home of the founder of Mitsubishi, Iwasaki Yataro. It’s hard to imagine any one person possessing such a large, incredibly beautiful piece of property, and apparently Mr. Iwasaki thought so too because luckily for the rest of us he donated it to the city in 1938. Today Rikugien serves as a fine example of an Edo-era garden, dominated by a large pond at its center complete with islets, bridges, and viewing hills. Strolling paths circle the pond’s perimeter, providing enchanting views from all angles. Weeping cherry trees, magnolias, camellias, hydrangeas, crape myrtle, and other flowering bushes, trees, and plants provide splashes of color much of the year, but Rikugien is especially noted for its fiery red maple leaves in autumn. Life may be fleeting, but as Nature so poignantly demonstrates, the cherry blossom season is only a small part of the big picture.