Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) in summer

Take a sharp right as you enter the turnstiles of Shinjuku Gate of Shinjuku Gyoen and follow the big loop along the western end of the park, you arrive at the traditional Japanese koi pond (Kami No Ike, Upper Pond). This western most located pond is one of the most picturesque in the park complete with arched stone foot bridge and rolling Japanese pines through years of deliberate stunting. Perched on the northern end to one side of pond is a shaded pavilion with the vantage point to pause and take in the idyllic scenery. Tokyo heat and humidity in the summer can be punishing and braving the bench out in the open would be ill-advised.  Walking over the footbridge, pond surface bristles and you notice the koi’s race towards you with their jaws wide open. These guys are smart (and some are alligator-proportions).

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Looking out from the pavilion, ever-present Docomo Tower looms tall over the Japanese Garden

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Shaded pavilion perched on the northern end to one side of the pond

Another way to escape the heat and mosquitoes is to head straight into Rakuutei traditional tea house as you cross the bridge. This is the smaller of the two tea houses in the Japanese Garden and perhaps less atmospheric as it is encased by opaque Japanese sliding doors and windows. It does have the advantage of being less crowded.  Red bean paste Japanese sweet served with matcha is Y700 and comes with completely atmosphere killing, voucher dispensing ticket vending machine from which you buy the voucher and present to the kimono-clad matron to be served. Matcha is perfectly foamed and I nurse my mosquito bites nibbling at the red bean sweet.  Recharge here to brave the heat once more and walk towards Taiwanese Pavilion.

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Matcha at Rakuutei, foamed to perfection

The lawn in front of Taiwanese Pavilion is the perfect spot for a Japanese picnic (read bento and sake from the nearest combini). Shoutentei, the larger of the two tea house is near by to supply ice bars to cool you down. Taiwanese pavilion was presented by the Japanese residing in Taiwan to the crown price (later the Emperor Showa) for his imperial wedding ceremony and built in the Minnan (southern Taiwanese) architectural style. Taiwanese Pavilion marks the eastern end of Japanese section of the park and you can cross the bridge to enter the English section where the vast flat lawn opens up.

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View to the lawn in front of Taiwanese Pavilion from Shoutentei, larger of the two tea houses

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Vast and open, English section of the garden.  Bring mat and SPF 50, sun tanning is allowed

Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) in winter

Of all the parks and gardens in Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen evokes to me the most Central Park in Manhattan.  It’s not the size (it is less than one fifth of Central Park) but rather how the park is completely encased by the maddest section of the city yet feels peacefully detached from it.  Minutes after you enter either through the Shinjuku or Okido gate, the wide and flat plane is laid out and you are instantly in a different world.  Yet the juxtaposition of skyscrapers in the background, particularly that monstrosity NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, is a reminder that the hustle and bustle is never too far away.

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Maple tree boulevard in French Formal Garden

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NTT Docomo Yoyogi towers over the park

As you  pass through the vast French Formal Garden and English Landscape Garden, meander cross the duck ponds and delve deeper into the smaller and denser sections the park, the city starts to fade away.  Looking out to the Japanese Garden from Taiwan Pavilion and sitting lazily watching the warm afternoon sun idle by, now I own this park all to myself.  I visited in mid-Jan, three days after a rare snowstorm in Tokyo, and it looked and and felt like early fall when the pines are blue enough and the grass softly tanned.

Shinjuku Gyoen was constructed on the site of a private mansion belonging to an Edo era feudal lord.  It was first completed as an imperial garden in 1906 and then was opened to the public as a national garden after the Second World War.

Y200 entrance fee (this less than $2 fee is in fact what keeps this park rather sparse, so please oblige), open everyday except Monday, best to enter and exit through either Okido or Shinjuku gates and walk the entire park.  Shinjuku gate  is 5min walk from Shinjuku Sanchome station, Okido gate is 10min walk from Shinjuku Gyoenmae Station.

Hamarikyu Gardens (浜離宮庭園) of Shinbashi

There’s the vast gardens of Imperial Palace and bustle of joggers and dance groups in Meji Jingu/Yoyogi Park but Hamarikyu Gardens hold its own with its classic Japanese aesthetics and tranquility. Even on the most pleasant public holidays, Hamarikyu is sparsely populated and devoid of tourists.  The garden’s placement at the foot of Shinbashi monoliths of sky scrapers  (a special shout out to the noticeably ugly Dentsu building) and on the shores of Tokyo bay give it a uniquely contrasting back and fore-drop and quietly dramatic atmosphere.

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Manicures gardens accentuated by stunted growth of pine trees ooze Edo period style and the two duck hunting ponds add to the charm.  The main pond was designed to draw in sea water from Tokyo Bay and change appearance as the tide ebbs and flows.  Lock gates open and close according to the water levels of Tokyo Bay to adjust the rise and fall of water in the pond.  Salt water fish (mullets, sea bass, goby and eel) abound in the pond.

Nakajima Ocha-ya (Nakajima tea house) floating on one of the duck ponds serves up matcha paired with Japanese sweets and Matcha here is served with cappuccino-like foam.  It must be the sifting and whisking… and the correct matcha to water ratio.  Absolute beauty.

Hamarikyu originates from the 17th century Tokugawa Shogunate private residence. It served as the outer fort for Edo Castle with tidal pond of sea water drawn from Tokyo Bay and two duck hunting grounds.  After the Meiji Restoration the garden became a Detached Palace for the Imperial family and in 1945 the Imperial family gave the garden to the City of Tokyo to be open to the public.

Y300 entrance fee, 10 minutes walk from Shinbashi St. (JR, Ginza & Asakusa Line), Open Everyday