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Monday, April 1, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 22 - Tokyo's Amazing Parks

Over the past 20 weeks, we've explored all kinds of fun stuff in Japan, but the truth is, that exploring Tokyo can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming.  Aside from the fact that you probably don't speak the language, it's a busy city.  There are trains, taxis, subways, people and all manner of lights and sounds around you.  Every now and then, you just feel like you need a break.

Well, you're not alone.  Most city-dwellers in Tokyo feel the same and thanks to a very strong cultural push to keep some reverence for nature, the city is filled with parks.  In the collective month of time that we've spent in Tokyo over the last two years, we've explored quite a few.  Some we just stumbled on.  Others, we sought out on recommendations.  In almost every case though, they do exactly what's intended.  They give you a chance to take a breath, relax and recharge.

When you should visit Tokyo's parks really depends on what you're looking for.  If you're just looking to relax or wander aimlessly, then go during the week (preferably mid-week).  Most people will be working and you'll have few visitors around you.  If you're looking to people watch, then go on a weekend.  You will find way more people doing strange things than you would ever dream.

At Yoyogi Park, right next to Meiji Shrine, you'll find a huge area with ponds, bike paths and large gatherings of clubs.  On the weekend, many people gather here and specific clubs dedicated to things like photography or juggling can be found hanging out and practicing together.  The picture below is actually the juggling club we stumbled on.

Yoyogi also gets its fair share of sunbathers around the main pond.  Karen and Lil were especially drawn to observing one guy in a thong.  I have a very candid picture of them staring that they had no idea I was taking.  It won't be posted here but trust me when I say it's the best photo I took on the entire trip.

At Yoyogi you can also rent bikes and there's even a small bike course for beginners and young children.  It's a great place to kill an hour or two between visiting the shrine and heading to Harajuku which is just a quick walk from the park entrance.

Let's say you're not up for a lot of people though.  Then head to Ueno Park.  It's actually the site of the oldest dedicated park in Tokyo.  

There are paths to walk, pedal boats to rent and the entrance to the Ueno Zoo butts up next to it.  On the weekend you will find food stalls here and we even found a couple while walking through on a weekday. 

The park is full of flowers and very close to an outdoor shopping mall that's pretty huge.  You can easily spend half a day in this area just wandering and sightseeing.  

However, if you want to go to our favorite park in all of Tokyo, you need to visit Shinjuku Gyoen.  This is actually a gigantic botanical garden.  You'll have to pay an admission to get in but it's generally around $2.00 pending the exchange rate.  It's totally worth it.  

Inside, you'll find gigantic old growth trees. There are large ponds and flower gardens throughout. Sections of the park are set up in traditional Japanese, English and French garden settings. 

Paved paths will take you around the majority of it, but there are also offshoot paths that will take you through more heavily wooded areas.  It's easy to forget that you're in a city while you're here, but every now and then you'll catch a glimpse of the skyline.

On one end of the park there is also a greenhouse open to the public.  Inside, you'll find plants from around the world along an easy to walk path that takes you along two levels of greenery.  

I swear that picture above looks like a Pokemon character.  

Anyway, you won't find any clubs or craziness in this park.  It's truly just for people who appreciate nature and want to enjoy the peacefulness of it.  There's even a tea house on site if you're looking for something else to do.

There are plenty of other parks I could mention.  For instance, the large one outside the imperial palace has life-sized Bonzai trees, cut into fantastical shapes.  Below you can see a man working on one.

Our favorites though tend to be those top three, with one exception from me.

One day, Lil and Karen had a reservation at a butler cafe near the Sunshine City Mall.  I decided to wait for them in a small park nearby.  I went to a Lawson's store and picked up a sandwich, some chips and a beer.  Then I headed over and found a bench in the far corner of the park.  From where I sat, I could see other people coming out to eat their lunches here.  It was cool just being one of the locals.  Then I started noticing the cats.  They were everywhere.  They were obviously part of the allure of the park because many people were feeding them or just petting them. 

This fascinated me, partially because I'm highly allergic to cats yet love them.  If I even pet one, my hand itches almost instantly, yet often I'll do it anyway and then run to a sink to wash up.  It also grabbed me though because it was so obvious that they were just part of the scenery.  I have no idea the name of the park, but we just call it the Cat Park.  When Lil and Karen met me after their lunch, I insisted they come look.  Lil walked up to this cat lounging on the ground and said hello.  He didn't mind a bit.

So if you're headed back there for a vacation, keep the parks in mind when you start to feel sick of being in a big city.  Just a 30 minute stop in the middle of a bunch of trees and flowers can be enough to reset your sense of adventure.

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