Where is the heart of Tokyo? After spending nearly a week pounding the pavements of the Japanese capital, I think I have an idea.
Because while London has Piccadilly, New York its Times Square, and Paris the grand Champs Elysess, I find Tokyo a little harder to pin down.
Some would say it’s the trendy shopping boulevards of Ginza, or perhaps the revamped cityscape of Shiodome. The frenzied alleyways of Harajuku make the biggest waves in the world of fashion, while the railway madness of Shinjuku garners its fair share of the postcards. Or perhaps it’s ancient Tokyo, and the tree-lined pathways of the Imperial Palace?
In short, the city is a conundrum. Built and ruined by emperors and shoguns, earthquake and fire; modern-day Tokyo is less a city than a collection of sprawling sky-rise villages.
Confusing and contradictory it may be, but the capital of ‘the land of the rising sun’ has – along with Hong Kong and New York – become one of my favourite cities on the planet. And while the neon, asphalt and crush of locals are all part of Tokyo’s charm, there’s comes a time in every city when I say enough is enough. Enough of the crowds, the elbows and the queues. Enough of sardine subway cars and pavements overflowing with humanity; I need to escape.
And surprisingly, in the city that’s surely earned the term ‘neon jungle’, salvation is usually close at hand.
Because this city, against all expectations, boasts some of the finest urban parks on the planet. Of course, with 35 million people living in greater Tokyo you’re never going to have them all to yourself, but it’s certainly never hard to find a quiet spot.
A spot like the bench in Shinjuku Gyoen, where I first jotted these words in my notebook under a wooden pagoda overlooking a formal Japanese garden.
The garden is barely 500 metres from the world’s busiest railway station – handling over three million passengers per day – yet only a handful of people have wandered past to greet me with a shy ‘konnichiwa’. As in Central Park, the skyscrapers loom just beyond the trees, but are a world away from these peaceful acres.
Shinjuku Gyoen (entry just ¥200) is perhaps Tokyo’s most beautiful public space, and certainly my favourite park in the city. French, English and Japanese-style gardens stretch out across 58 hectares of open space, with wooden boardwalks and gravel paths blending seamlessly from formal avenues to bucolic woodlands.
It’s a quiet spot away from the throngs that is particularly beautiful during the annual cherry blossom season; without doubt the best time to visit Japan’s gardens.
From late-March to mid-April – depending on the weather – thousands of trees across Tokyo, and millions more nation-wide, explode into a confetti of white and pink petals and for a short, magical time the usually-reserved Japanese revel in the colours of spring.
It’s a time when hanami parties fill the city’s parks, and everyone from suited salary-men to dolled-up teenagers arrive armed with bento boxes and cartons of sake to enjoy the evening sun filtering through branches heavy with blossoms. The Imperial Palace East Garden throngs with visitors, and even the humble Hama Rikyū Teien – once the duck-hunting grounds of the shogun – draws crowds to Bayside Tokyo.
But of them all, Ueno Park is the most festive place to soak up the hanami happiness. It’s not the city’s most attractive open space, but Ueno is famed for its wide avenues lined with cherry trees, and in spring the hanami parties line the walkways as petals swirl in the spring breezes like drifts of fallen snow.
Petals and parties aside, Ueno is also home to a surprising number of attractions.
On the path up from the subway station the red-lacquered Kiyomizu Kannon-do temple dates back to the 1600s, a reminder of the sprawling complex that one stood on this hillside. From the temple, there are also views over the Shinobazu Pond; a small wetland that’s home to an array of migratory birdlife.
Wandering north, the Ueno Zoo and National Science Museum are popular with families, while the Tokyo National Museum and Metropolitan Art Museum attract cultural types.
But before I can admire the collection of Japanese art, an impromptu food market draws me in with the smell of fresh squid on a teppanyaki grill; flash-fried with a dollop of soya sauce. Alongside, the popular okonomiyaki cabbage pancakes are topped with egg and mayonnaise and given a final sizzle before flying off the skillet. It makes for a perfect Japanese dinner, and a steal at just R100.
The next morning I’m back in this northern corner of Tokyo, drawn to the quiet suburb of Yanaka by the dearly departed.
I love wandering through foreign cemeteries; they’re both an escape from the living and a fascinating insight into how they revere their dead. Ostentatious crypts in Buenos Aires, humble headstones in England’s country churchyards and – here in Yanaka Cemetery – simple family tombs where ashes, not coffins, are stored.
The cemetery is one of the oldest in Tokyo, and most of the temples nearby date to the aftermath of the ‘Long Sleeves’ Fire that destroyed much of the city in 1657.
Today, it’s a serene spot where humble graves line quiet pathways awash with cherry blossoms. At a handful of headstones there are families paying their respects; polishing the marble and pouring sake for departed loved ones.
On the southern edge of the cemetery the quiet suburb of Yanaka is also a delight. A far cry from the high-rise neon-clad postcard image of Tokyo, this quiet residential neighbourhood is instead filled with art galleries and low-key restaurants, while tiny temples hide between the houses.
And Tokyo knows a thing or two about temples, so from Yanaka the ever-efficient subway system whips me down to Harajuku station in the southwest of the city. The Emperor is waiting.
While this corner of Tokyo may be better known for the dolled-up ‘Harajuku Girls’ and crazy fashions of the boutique-lined Takeshita-dori, the expansive Inner Garden of Meiji-jingū shrine is a far cry from the crowded streets.
Instead, wide gravel pathways lead through a forest planted specifically to surround Tokyo’s most revered Shinto shrine: a memorial to the much-loved Emperor Meiji, the 122nd emperor that transformed Japan from feudal backwater into world power.
While the temple is impressive – and crowded on weekends – it’s the woodland and gardens around it that are the highlight. Dramatic gates fashioned from 1500-year-old cypress trees guard the walkways that lead past the traditional Jingū Naien; a formal garden at its most beautiful in June, when over one hundred varieties of Iris begin to bloom.
As I wander away from the shrine I see newly-weds and pensioners, lovers and families, all coming to pay their respects in the gardens surrounding the Emperor’s final resting place.
So where is the heart of Tokyo? If you ask me, it’s not in the neon dazzle of Kabukicho, or the scramble crossings of Shibuya. It’s here, in the gardens and temples of the urban jungle, where Tokyo’s quiet spaces offer a delightful foil to the crazy crowded streets waiting just outside the gates.