Tokyo’s Finest Japanese Gardens

A Japanese garden is a living work of art, a place of exquisite natural beauty, arranged and guided by human artistry to afford moments of profound aesthetic pleasure. Like a sculpture, it presents new aspects and revelations as you change your perspective. Like a contemporary art installation, you are invited to move through it rather than simply looking at it from outside. A Japanese garden changes with every season, and even from week to week, as flowers bloom and fade, and in the fall as Japanese maples take on their fall colors.

This is a personal list of my favorites among Tokyo’s many delightful Japanese gardens.

Practical information: Most of the gardens charge admission of 150 to 500 yen (half that for seniors) and are typically open until 4:30 or 5:00 pm, with the last admission half an hour before closing. All are within a reasonable walk from a subway or commuter rail station. All the gardens supply colorful and informative English-language pamphlets. More information on the Tokyo city gardens is offered on their web site: http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/en/index.html

Kiyosumi Garden

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This charming Meiji-period (19th century) garden is kaiyu-style: a circuit around a central pond. The path affords many lovely views of the pond and its several islands, two accessible by stone bridges and two accessible only to the abundant wildlife. Iso-watari stepping stones are a particular pleasure of this garden. Additional features include an Iris garden (best seen in the latter part of June), a monument to Basho’s haiku about the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond, and a small grouping of Buddhist statues. The park also offers a number of large characteristic stones collected from all around Japan.

Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens

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More Photos of Koshikawa Korakuen Gardens

This lovely garden is also kaiyu-style, but from the early Edo period (17th century). In addition to a large central pond there are several smaller ponds with distinct characters. There are also shady wooded areas and groves, as well as modest hills that can be climbed. A spectacular Iris garden blooms in June. There are several small stone bridges, a Full-Moon bridge and a vermilion-colored wooden bridge.

Kyu-Shiba-rikyu Gardens

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More Photos of Kyu-shiba-rikyu Gardens

This is a small but exquisite Edo period (17th century) kaiyu-style garden. Despite its modest size it offers varied vistas from several climbable hills, a tiny gorge you can walk through, and several islands accessed over small stone bridges. I found it a fully satisfactory experience.

Rikugien Gardens

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This is a fairly large later Edo period (18th century) kaiyu-style garden. It offers many different environments and vistas intended to capture the many moods of Waka poetry. Visitors can rest or read in either of two charming tea houses, one of which was built of azalea wood in the pre-war Meiji era. A man-made hill affords a panoramic view, but there is also a network of forest paths leading to exceptionally beautiful wooden bridges. Highly recommended.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens

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More Photos of Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens

This is one of the largest gardens in Tokyo, really a park more than just a garden. It has a large pond with a kaiyu-style circuit, but also a long stream with a series of pavilions and smaller ponds along its length. The Shinjuku Gyoen even has a French-style garden, which is mildly interesting although not up to comparison with Parisien parks. Conveniently located near downtown Shinjuku, it can get crowded despite its size. It’s a delightful place even though it may seem a bit generic compared with other more intimate gardens.

Hama-rikyu Gardens

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More Photos of Hama-rikyu Gardens

This is the former family garden of the Tokugawa Shogun. It is much larger than any of the other municipal gardens and has many unique features:

  1. it is completely surrounded by the tidal water of Tokyo Bay, and has regular water taxi service as well as bridge access from the land,
  2. a 300-year-old pine tree is featured near the main entrance,
  3. there are two duck hunting sites, complete with blinds, and a memorial to the ducks killed there, and
  4. paths along the shore afford panoramic views of the busy inner harbor.

The garden has a kaiyu-style circuit, with a series of footbridges giving access to a island tea house. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting Hama-rikyu, but I would encourage visitors to also experience the more intimate charms of some of the other gardens I’ve listed.

Garden of the Nezu Museum

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More Photos of the Garden of the Nezu Museum

The Nezu museum offers varying art exhibits in a modern building, but I was more impressed by its remarkable garden, which is comparable in size to the smaller municipal gardens, and their equal in attractiveness. A maze of paths flows down a rather steep slope to a long, narrow pond at the foot. There are four traditional tea houses, and a cafe where you can and should take a tea or coffee break. Because the garden is only accessible through the museum there are attractive statues and other features throughout. It was raining when I visited, but umbrellas are provided and I found the experience compellingly atmospheric even though the chilly drizzle discouraged me from exploring every nook and cranny. I plan to do so on my next visit!

Meiji Jingu Inner Garden

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More Photos of the Meiji Jingu Inner Garden

Most of the Meiji Jingu temple complex is free, but if you have 500 yen burning a hole in your pocket you can take a quick tour of the Inner Garden. It’s constructed along a stream, with a variety of water views but without a kaiyu-style circuit around a pond. There are a few clearings, but for the most part paths run along the stream or through the woods. There’s a lovely tea house (shown above) and a pavilion with a view of a large bed of iris, blooming from late May to late June. The overall experience doesn’t measure up to Tokyo’s other gardens, but it’s a pleasant and peaceful place to take a bucolic stroll if you’re in the neighborhood.

Tonogayato Garden

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More Photos of the Tonogayato Garden

Like the last two, this is also a predominately wooded garden, and like the garden of the Nezu Museum it takes advantages of its dramatic topography. An upper lawn is pleasant enough but the drama begins when you first view a small pond down a steep slope. Trails lead down and around the pond, which is overlooked by a tea house. This is a rather small garden, without as much to offer as others I have mentioned. But the way in which it uses its topography is interesting.

Garden of the New Otani Hotel

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More Photos of the Garden of the New Otani Hotel

Last but not least is the Japanese garden of the New Otani Hotel. The upper part is pleasant and typical, but if you follow the signs you are taken on a rather long path around the back of the garden, leading to a large shady slope studded with interesting objects, and finally to a vista of a magnificent artificial waterfall, which originates in the upper garden. Everything is of course beautifully maintained. The hotel claims that the garden has a history of more than 400 years, and is #7 on Trip Advisor’s list of free attractions in Tokyo. Its version of the garden experience feels a little bit packaged — not least because of the over-the-top waterfall — but its definitely worth a visit.

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Japan Travel Tips

Just a few suggestions based on my six weeks in Japan.

JR (Japan Rail) Pass. This is worth getting if you plan any train travel within Japan. At about $250 for a one-week pass it pays for itself even if you take a single round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. You can also get two-week or longer passes, and you can choose whether to pay extra for first class (not necessary in my opinion). To get the discounted rate you must buy the pass before you arrive in Japan. You get a voucher that you must present with your passport at a main JR office, such as the ones in Tokyo and Shinjuku stations. You then get a pass that starts immediately, or on the day you specify. The pass is good to midnight on the seventh day, including the day it starts, so be smart about the start date. The JR pass works on all JR lines, including bullet trains, except a few super-luxurious trains. It also works on JR subway and commuter lines, but it doesn’t work on competing subway, commuter or long distance lines, so make sure you use JR to get free travel. The first time you go through a gate with the pass you get it stamped by an agent, but after that you just flash it at the agent and go through the gate (in and out) for free. If you don’t use the voucher you can get a refund, minus a $25 handling fee.

IMG_6139 Tokyo Subway Map

Tokyo Metro Card. Tokyo’s subway/commuter rail system is extremely efficient, but on my first visit to Tokyo I constantly struggled to determine how much I needed to pay to get to my destination so that I could buy the correct ticket. Then I either put in lots of coins or got lots back in change. It was a real hassle, especially on the few lines that didn’t show English station names on their route maps!

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Ticket Price Map for the Tokyo subway system.

There’s absolutely no need to go through this, however. Just buy a Suica card at any JR station, or one of the competing cards sold by the other lines.

All the cards work on all commuter/subway lines (and also at various vending machines). You just brush the card against the “IC” reader at the gate; normally I don’t even have to take it out of my wallet! When you enter it confirms that you have enough on the card for any trip, then when you leave it deducts the correct amount. Just top it up when it starts to run low. There’s a 500 yen ($4.50) deposit for the Suica card that you get back when you return it.

Google Maps and Mobile Data Service. Google Maps is profoundly valuable anywhere, but it’s especially helpful for planning trips on the Tokyo metro because of the complex map and the many competing lines (which sometimes have completely separate stations using the same name but requiring you to walk down the street to connect). Google Maps quickly shows you the options, including time and cost, then lets you decide how to travel.

It would be possible to always plan your trips when you had WiFi coverage, and if you don’t have mobile data service I recommend this approach. It’s much more convenient, however, to have data service on your mobile phone so you can plan a trip any time. T-Mobile has relatively poor coverage in the U.S. but its basic service includes nearly worldwide 3G data coverage (as well as free texts and inexpensive phone calls). I suffer from T-Mobile’s poor U.S. coverage sometimes but I travel enough that T-Mobile’s worldwide coverage makes up for it. If you have another carrier the options are more complex: You may be able to substitute the SIM card in your regular phone with either a global SIM card or one from a local service provider, or you might want to get a second cheap smartphone with Japanese data coverage.

Money. A surprising number of smaller stores and restaurants in Japan are cash only, so you will be carrying around some yen. Currency exchange windows typically seem to charge something like a 6% spread, sometimes plus a fee, although the currency exchange at the airport wanted a 20% spread! Credit card companies offer market exchange rates (i.e. minimal spread), but typically hit you with a 3% foreign transaction fee, plus, for cash advances, an additional 3% (or more!) fee and exorbitant daily interest starting when you get the advance. My approach is to get a credit card that has no foreign transaction fee and no cash advance fee. While this is rare, some credit unions do offer these features. Whether or not you’re able to line up such a perfect card, there’s very good news about Japanese ATMs. When I was here in 2013 I was able to withdraw cash only at Chase bank ATMs, which were few and far between. But now 7-11 convenience stores — which are everywhere in Tokyo — allow cash advances on U.S. cards with no additional transaction fee. Other stores also accept U.S. cards, though sometimes with a 1% fee. I prepay my credit card to avoid interest on my cash advances, so I incur only two minimal costs: (1) the loss of interest on the amount prepaid, and (2) currency exchange costs on any yen I end up having to convert back to dollars at the end of the trip.

Toilets. You will still occasionally see old-fashioned squat toilets, but more often you will encounter amazing space-age toilets with heated seats that offer to wash your rear end and/or a woman’s private parts, as well as disposing of your waste. They are highly addictive!

The control panels for these toilets can be daunting, however. The photo on the right provides a very rare English description of all the functions of this otherwise mysterious control panel.


Who needs magazines when you have all that reading material right on the wall! (Pro tip: The button with the red square stops it!)

Shower/Drying Rooms. The first thing you notice when you step into a Japanese shower/drying room is that there is no shower curtain. There’s no need because you can shower either on the floor or in the tub — both have drains.

Showering is straightforward once you get over the idea of standing outside the tub. (The Japanese typically sit on a stool while they shower but I frankly don’t understand what’s going on with this.)

But the room has more to offer! When you get over language shock at the control panel — or if someone has helpfully added English captions — you will realize that the entire room can also be used to dry your laundry. Put your clothes on rust-free hangers along the not-a-curtain-rod, push the button for “dry clothes” and they will be crisply dry in a couple of hours.

Breaking the Language Barrier. At the risk of being an Ugly American I propose that you need to learn just four key phrases to stumble by on the tourist track in Japan:

  1. Konichiwa — “Hello.” Using this shows that you’re trying, at least a little, to meet people half way. If you want to be fancy you can use konichiwa only during the middle part of the day. In the morning the Japanese say ohio gozaimus — literally, “it’s so early!” and in the evening they say kon bahn wa — good evening. But you’re likely to get the times of day wrong anyway so feel free to just say konichiwa. The point isn’t to fool people into thinking that you can speak Japanese, just to show a bit of respect for the fact that not everyone in the world speaks your language.
  2. Sumi ma sen — Excuse me. This phrase works exactly like the English equivalent. You can use it to get someone’s attention, such as a waiter or clerk. It also works if you need someone to get out of your way, as when you’re getting off a subway train. And you say it if you need to apologize, as in the case of inadvertently bumping someone.
  3. Hai — Yes. Say this if you actually understand something and agree with it. “No” is too hard to say in Japanese, and potentially impolite; just look puzzled and pantomime if something is amiss.
  4. Arrigato Gozaimus — Thank you very much. Say this early and often. Just don’t try to get in the last arrigato gozaimus, since a Japanese clerk or waiter will always do you one better, not infrequently following you out the door of the establishment to make sure!

Oh, actually, there’s one more: Sorry, I only speak English. Trying to say that in Japanese would be hopeless, but anyone on the tourist track hears some variation of this many times a day, and is particularly unsurprised to hear it from someone who doesn’t look Japanese. Very often they will have an English menu or explanation. I only got stumped a couple of times in my six weeks here, and if I’d had patience to employ Google Translate I probably could have gotten through those occasions as well.

Japan’s Strange Love Affair With Western Words

IMG_6101 Hysteric Glamour

One encounters scrambled English around the world. The most typical example is a sign that is intended to communicate information to English-speaking travelers, but which is rendered more-or-less unintelligible, or at least funny, by inept translation. These afford a slightly guilty pleasure, but our amusement is derived from the earnest efforts of someone who is probably knows far more English than we have troubled to learn of their language. While funny, scrambled translations don’t offer any deep insight into another culture.

Something stranger and more interesting is happening in Japan, however. Of course one sees the occasional scrambled translation, as well as perfectly correct usage. But much more frequently one sees western words — or at least letters — used in a completely different way. Nearly every stylish shop has a western name, and often one or more additional western catch phrases. These sometimes make sense, but often make little or no sense in the ostensible language. They are not, however, defective translations, since the audience is Japanese, not English or French speaking. The creators of these brands and slogans could not care less what they mean in the ostensible language; their sole purpose is to make an attractive impression on their Japanese patrons.

On my first visit to Japan I found these twisted uses of English or French upsetting, and even disorienting. One’s brain automatically tries to “make sense” of writing that appears to be in a familiar language. In Japan this effort often produces puzzlement, or complete failure. The sense-making system eventually becomes fatigued by so much meaningless input. That, at least is how I explained how I reacted on my first stay here. This time, four years later, I had steeled myself in advance not to expend too much energy trying to parse the pseudo-English that surrounds one here. I continue to find the phenomenon fascinating, but I’m happy to report that it no longer upsets me as it initially did.

My approach now is to give the text a light once-over for actual meaning. Sometimes it will make normal sense! Then to consider — as best I can from outside the culture — how the phrase might look and sound to a Japanese speaker who has a nodding acquaintance with the ostensible language. It seems clear, especially with regard to fashion, that foreign words and phrases carry a cachet of sophistication, whether or not actually used correctly.

One distant parallel, going in the other direction, is college kids getting a tattoo in Chinese or Japanese characters, even though they have only a dim idea of what it actually means (or if it means anything). The meaning doesn’t really matter; they get the tattoo because they like how it looks, and what it says about their embrace of Asian culture to friends who also won’t be able to read them. In both cases the elements of the foreign language are being re-purposed as design elements, not employed to communicate any specific meaning.

We don’t see widespread use of Chinese or Japanese characters in western commerce, because westerners typically can’t read them at all. While they may impart an exotic aura to certain brands of tea or perfume, in most cases they would just be mystifying. While most Japanese speak limited English, they would know what the letters sound like, and would be familiar with many common words. This creates the necessary conditions for the astonishing proliferation of western lettering in Japanese commerce.

I’ve come to distinguish several overlapping categories of how English and French are used here. The most anodyne uses words correctly, just in an odd way, perhaps saying something that we would blush to express so directly. The second category mashes words together, mangles apostrophes and/or grammar, but is still basically intelligible. A third category uses words purely for their look and sound, with no discernible “meaning.”

Here are some examples of Japanese Shops Using English (or French)

My First Trip to Japan

Some pics from my 2014 visit.

My first trip to Japan was during Golden Week, 2013. I had met Taka when he was in Boston for an accelerated masters degree at MIT. When he invited me to visit after his return to Tokyo he didn’t have to ask twice! The first half of the trip Taka was still working so I was on my own in Tokyo during the days. Taka had the second half of my visit off so we were able to travel to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka.

Here’s a link to my 30 Best Pictures from 2013, and if you want to see more, here are All my Pictures from 2013.

I enjoyed my 2013 trip, but ten days went by awfully fast. Since 2010 I’ve spent a month or two in Paris each spring, but had always felt that it would be interesting to try a long stay in another great city. 2017 turned out to be the year for a long stay in Tokyo!