Project Description

The National Imperial Garden of Tokyo

A few minutes after boarding the subway on the Yamanote Line from Harajuku, here I am in the heart of Shinjuku, specifically in its huge train station! It is the main connection point between central Tokyo and the western suburbs of the city and it connects the metro, regional and JR East trains. It is not less than 3.67 million passengers who are travelling here every day, slightly less than half of the Swiss population! I know, it’s not interesting to compare what is not comparable, but isn’t Japan the land of superlatives? Besides, it gives you an idea of the size of some places like this train station for instance ! Including the subway, the complex has more than 200 exits, so pay attention not to take the wrong one; it can happen quickly and you may get completly lost! I remember my first trip to Japan with a friend of mine; we were reaching Ikebukuro Station, near which our accommodation was, and we had quite a hard time finding the right exit! However, signposts in English are everywhere and like in every other stations in the city, you can always count on the famous yellow signposts indicating important monuments nearby.

Anyway, I would love to hang around within Shinjuku station to discover all its little shops, stores and restaurants, but I think I have better things to see outside. And I have a pretty full day of sightseeing waiting for me, so let’s not waiste any more time! First of all, I have to find the right exit; “New South Exit” is the one I am looking for and as it is a major exit, it is not too difficult to find. Each station has at least four of them, one for each quarter. Well, I won’t go into details as I am sure you got the idea; exits are everywhere! Right outside of the station, I open my bag and take out a small map that will help me to easily reach my destination. Remember to seek the help of locals if you are lost! Again, most will be happy to help assuming they understand where you want to go. Personally, this is without any issue that I arrive a few minutes later in front of the entrance gate of Shinjuku Gyoen, the National Imperial Garden of Tokyo!

Before entering in the heart of this vast green area, all visitors must wait a few minutes, just the time to go through a quick security check where the contents of my bag if verified. It must be said that right now, the season of cherry blossoms (sakura in Japanese) is in full swing and the park will surely be be crowded with tourists! Therefore, it is normal to make sure that nothing dangerous gets inside and the same goes for alcohol, totally forbidden in the park. As you can imagine, it is so me to have a bottle of Japanese whiskey in my bag… Just kidding, I don’t usually drink alcool (even if Japanese whisky is delicious), so I get quickly through Shinjuku Gate, one of the three access to the park. Then, I grab a Japanese map of the area and start my visit! Well, I don’t understand a word of what is written, but the map will just help me to situate myself as the park is very big! And it’s not my fault if all English maps were already gone… Based on the map above, I will start my visit to the northwest and will walk clockwise round the park. In doing so, I will admire the English garden, the French garden and finally the Japanese garden! Pink flowers shaped symbols obviously symbolize cherry trees and if the number present on the map doesn’t seems that big to you, maybe some of my picture will make you change your mind! I will also take the opportunity to write a few words about the park and its history because I am not seeing myself commenting on each and every flowering tree that can be seen in Shinjuku Gyoen!

With an area of 58.3 hectares and a circumference of 3.5 km, Shinjuku Gyoen is one of Tokyo’s largest parks with the gardens of the Imperial Palace and Yoyogi. With more than 20,000 trees, the park is particularly famous for its 1,500 cherry trees that come in three kinds; shidare (crying cherry tree) somei (Tokyo cherry tree) and Kanzan cherry tree, offering a varied bloom in early spring, between late March and late April. Earlier, it is the Japanese plum which can be admired, allowing visitors from early March to enjoy a very pretty sight. Personally, I’m very lucky because the weather is perfect and we are in the middle of the flowering peak, undoubtedly the best time to visit Shinjuku Gyoen. Moreover, there are not as many local or tourists that I had imagined so I take the opportunity to smell the cherry tree flowers through the various gardens. The beauty of the place is breathtaking and although I have spent part of the morning admiring other cherry trees, I remain in awe before their number and color of the petals swaying in the wind. Just as I reach the heart of the park, I can see in the distance some of the skyscrapers of the business district of Shinjuku. It’s amazing to think that we are still at the heart of a city that never sleeps, especially in one of these most vibrant neighborhoods. Yet the place is full of quietness and serenity that I enjoy with great pleasure, as do a few tens of Japanese who seems as happy as I am!

All right, what about a few lines on the history of the park? Come one, it’ll be quick, I promise! The garden was the residence of the Naito family in the Edo period (1603-1867), and the site was redeveloped after the Second World War and opened to the public shortly after. Quickly, people of Tokyo and tourists made it a privileged walking spot and when spring came, the charm of the cherry blossoms of Shinjuku Gyoen was transforming the gardens into a real attraction. I am still amazed by the admiration of Japanese for this time of year. I even remember quite a funny scene I’ve seen: a group of ten people, all equipped with brand new cameras with high-end lens mounted of the latest tripods, all grouped around a single tree and all hoping to get the best possible shot. I forgot to take a picture of this moment, but I remember it very well and I found the situation quite amusing, although maybe a bit exaggerated. In any case, if it is cherry blossoms you want to admire from a distance or even up close, you’re in the right place, for sure!

However, let’s not forget to enjoy a proper lunch break! For this, no need to travel with your own food: there are two or three pavilions where friendly vendors provide packed lunches (the famous bento) at very affordable prices. Beside, a picture of my rather vegetarian lunch. I sit on a bench alone and as I was about to start eating, a Japanese man in his forties asks me if he can sit next to me. I agree and we start talking about our countries and we even share our travel experiences. Meals like this, I’d like to have them every day when I travel!

Alongside French and English spaces, a Japanese garden with cherry, tulip, cypress, plane and cedars trees of the Himalaya cordially invites me to continue my walk. The Japanese garden is definitely my favorite part of the park and the presence of a large pond there is probably the reason why. Indeed, I love beautifully landscaped ponds surrounded by large green spaces! A little further away is a tea house and a greenhouse known to house stunning subtropical plants. Unfortunately, the latter being full of tourists, I prefer walking slowly but surely towards Shinjuku Gate through which I entered the park a bit earlier. As I am walking, I can see that there is more and more people in the park and once at the gate, I can even tell you that the waiting line through which I passed earlier has tripled! Since it is almost noon, I imagine that many Japanese workers are about to spend here an hour or two to have lunch, talk or sing under the cherry trees in bloom. This is a traditional custom called “Hanami”, literally “flower viewing”. I had vaguely mentioned it in my article on Ueno, but know that the Hanami is practiced wherever there are cherry trees, that is to say… in almost every single public park in the capital! You can also leave the park through Okido Gate in the northeast or Sendagaya Gate in the south. Finally, know that Shinjuku Gyoen is open from 9AM to 4.30PM daily, last admission being at 4PM. As for the entrance, it costs 200 yen, which is clearly cheap to a few hours of pure happiness and calmness in the middle of Tokyo!

But as I’ve told you before, my schedule is tight and therefore far from being over! Since I am in Shinjuku and the weather is nice, I plan to go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the Town Hall of Tokyo. In the “skyscrapers forest” of Shinjuku, the Town Hall building stands out from its counterparts by its unusual shape. Indeed, its two slender towers evokes the Gothic architecture of our European cathedrals, even though my picture beside doesn’t show it, thanks to the sun facing me and because I was too lazy to walk around the huge building! But its physical feature isn’t just the elegance of its forms. With its 243 meters high, the Town Hall of Tokyo was one of the tallest buildings in the Japanese capital until 2006. To get there from Shinjuku station, just walk to the west: it is almost impossible to miss the building, but if you follow the underground path, follow the yellow signs! The reason for my visit here? Nothing less than the very privileged observatory located on the 45th floor. Well, I should say observatories, because there are two of them, one in each tower! Both (north or south) are clearly worth it and are accessible for free, making it one of the only free observatory in the capital; enjoy! After another quick security check, a special elevator takes us to the 45th floor in 55 seconds! At a height of 202 meters, the least I can say is that the view is simply amazing! I watch off Shinjuku Gyoen where I come from and of course, the rest of the megalopolis that stretches before my eyes. On a clear day you can even see Mount Fuji, but as for my visit to the Tokyo Skytree, I won’t see it today… Whatever, the views are fantastic!

Observatories also house a coffee shop (north tower) and souvenir shops offering all kinds of items. It is a place I highly recommend and for many reasons: free access, opening hours (see below), proximity to Shinjuku station and the fact there are significantly less visitors than in any other observatories of the city. The observatory of the south tower is opened from 9.30AM to 5.30PM (until 11PM the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month) and is closed on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. The observatory of the north tower is opened from 9.30AM to 11PM and closed on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month. The north tower is also the one I recommend if you must choose only one of them, just because of the late closing time! I finally get back on dry land, then towards Shinjuku Station to continue my trip aboard the Yamanote line towards the Imperial Palace on the other side of the city!

Here we are for a very short “night tour” of the northern observatory. As you would expect, the night offers a totally different view of the city. Impossible for me to spot anything I’d know in this ballet of light and shadow dancing at my feet. Here, only a still lighted football field emerges from the darkness and three, windows of a building go off one after the other while the weary workers return home after a long day of work. Tokyo never really sleep, she dozes a few hours before waking up, more attractive and vibrant as ever!