Tokyo Parks

Tokyo is a concrete monster you say? Wrong.

While not Yosemite, there is plenty of green space to enjoy with the kids in Tokyo, all accessible by subway and most of it free or very low cost. So, when the asphalt heats up and the kids need to run off the steam, try one of these parks.

Shizenkyoikuen Park

Shizenkyoikuen Park is just minutes by subway from most of downtown/central Tokyo, yet on a beautiful, warm Spring Sunday, we found ourselves alone on many paths, enjoying the walk. Admission is only Y210 for adults and Y60 for kids, though we were told the kids did not need to pay for some reason. There is a small nature center right as you enter, with some stuffed birds you will likely see within the park, and an interesting display on how those polynose seed helicopters fly by twirling. The text is all in Japanese but the displays are self-explanatory.

To avoid trampling nature, you must walk on marked pathways. The paths are unpaved and wide and flat enough for a stroller. The packed earth and leaves makes things pleasant even if the ground is a bit wet as it was for us, and there are maps posted. Almost every path loops around so you can't get lost. Toilets are located here and there, as is the occasional bench.

There are explanatory signs naming just about everything, though only in Japanese. If you can't read the signs, the coolest ones say something like “most of these trees were planted in the 1950's, so you can see how fast they grow.” The biggest trees, however, have their own signs which tell you most are from the Tokugawa Era, some 300 years ago. The whole park sits on the site of a Tokugawa rich guy's former home, so this is historic as well as pretty earth under foot. Impress the kids and/or your spouse who is too lazy to break away from “Nick at Night” to read this.

Shizenkyoikuen Park

There is also an excellent marshy pond in the middle of the park, with many good-sized turtles floating about. If you stand by the side they will come over to you, having been fed by people quite obviously. The sign near the pond does not prohibit feeding, but does remind you to respect nature. We found small bits of bread were quite welcomed by the turtles and had a blast counting and noticing the really big and the really small ones. In other parts of the pond we saw tadpoles and a frog.

Eating (by people) is prohibited in the park, and there are no restaurants right by, so plan this excursion before or after a meal. We spent about two hours wandering around and could have taken a shorter path and left sooner, or explored more and stayed a bit longer.

The park is about four minutes' walk from the Shiroganedai subway station on the Namboku line.

Wedding Parties

Hang out in the gardens of the Hotel New Otani (interesting enough in themselves and rarely as crowded as other formal gardens in Tokyo) on Sundays and sometimes Saturdays to see brides and grooms, dressed in beautiful kimonos, getting their pictures taken. Check with hotel staff, or look for a big signboard with times, rooms and Japanese names on it, to see when wedding parties will be dropping by.

Keep a polite distance, ask if you want to take photos and enjoy the parties' happiness. Most other big hotels host weddings as well, but the Otani gardens are especially nice and will keep you entertained in case the groom gets cold feet and doesn't show.

Hama-rikyu Gardens

This garden/park was once the playground of the Tokugawa Shoguns, who ruled Japan until they were destroyed by Richard Chamberlain's horrible pronunciation of Japanese words. Seriously, this park was their playground. You can see where they hunted ducks (more in a moment), where they sat and drank (while moon watching), where they sat and drank (while observing the early Spring plum blossoms), where they sat and drank (while viewing the later Spring cherry blossoms), where they sat and drank (while waiting to board their ships) and where they sat and drank (while drinking).

The park also features a delightful garden of yellow rape flowers, chest high, where the kids can hide and run along narrow paths. There is a pretty tea house and a nice walk among newish trees. There is also a pine tree supposedly 300 years old.

Uncharacteristically for Japanese parks, there is only one snack stand and no piles of rubbish formed cone-like around each trash can. Even on a busy afternoon the place has some more secluded paths, and makes a nice place to stroll. There are restroom everywhere, almost all with Western-style non-squat toilets and sinks to wash hands in. The toilets are pretty clean by any standard, amazingly clean by Japanese public toilet standards (though the men's rooms have a musty stink to them).

Sad as it is, the park has a Y300 admission price for adults; kids 11 and under are free, as well as free admission for kids studying in junior high school in Tokyo. The fees are becoming more and more a feature of Tokyo parks, in large part I have heard told to keep homeless people from moving in.

The park is minutes' walk away from the Tsukiji fish market (another major tourist attraction weekday mornings between like 2am and 6am) and the Tsukiji Honganji Buddhist temple. The temple is kind of an eastern Asian architectural mess, but welcomes visitors and will allow you to watch services without feeling creepy.

Take the Hibiya Subway line to Tsukiji Station and follow the signs kind of south-ish for a 15 minute walk (you will pass a McDonald's on the west side of the street, second floor if you a) want cheap eats or b) want to avoid McD's and need to hide your kids' eyes).

The Toei-Oedo subway line brings you to Tsukiji Shijo Station, and from there it is only a 5-10 minute walk, with no McDonald's.

Duck Hunting

Oh yeah, the duck hunting. There's an English sign that explains the Shoguns built these cool earthen bunkers at the end of long, narrow channels dug off of nearby ponds. They then used domesticated ducks to lure wild ducks into the narrow channels. From inside the bunker, one Shogun waited and made noise by banging old bones together, through a tube, which also somehow was supposed to attract wild ducks. Once you lured them up the channel via the confederate ducks/bones, servants snared the wild ducks in a net, or maybe with an iron grille work thing, it is not clear.

Equally unclear is why the Shoguns didn't just shoot the ducks with arrows, or, given the complicated way they seemed to approach hunting, perhaps they could have taught the wild ducks French, then invited them to dinner, where they would be lured into a narrow channel and set upon before dessert.

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