Exploring Tokyo’s gardens

The palace gardens

Tokyo may be one of the biggest cities in the world, full of gleaming towers and urban sprawl. But it also has several great gardens.

And gardens were a good option on such a hot day, for we emerged from the efficiently air-conditioned Hilton Hotel to find temperatures well into the sweltering 80s. We quickly ducked into the metro to catch the train to the Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien on the waterfront to the south east. It was, as ever, busy with the usual collection of commuters, school kids, pensioners and folk wearing their masks to avoid spreading germs.

As I’d noticed in Hong Kong, in Tokyo it’s unusual to find anyone reading a book or newspaper on the train. Everyone’s fixated on their mobiles.

A tea house in the lake
A tea house in the lake

We left the metro by a ghastly flyover that runs alongside the much more tranquil gardens, which were once a duck-hunting and pleasure ground for the shoguns who ruled the land.

With tidal lakes, the gorgeous expanse of perfectly manicured garden was both beautiful and weirdly out of place, for it’s surrounded these days by giant modern offices and hotels, industry and apartment blocks.

The staff were so friendly and helpful I wanted to hug them. And there were plenty of them.

The Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien
The Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien

We donned our electronic guides and set off for a trek around the ponds and waterways, along paths cut through lawns and woods. The commentary didn’t mean too much to us, quoting countless feudal lords I’d never heard of.

Along the way we discovered restored duck-hunting grounds, charming tea houses that looked out over the lakes, exquisitely pruned pine trees that looked like artworks and the pink azaleas that make the whole city smell of marijuana.

Sparrows fluttered and butterflies rode the breeze but we couldn’t avoid the sound of traffic thundering not too far away or the buzz of helicopters overhead. Still, it was a wonderful place, a real highlight of our stay.

The shopping streets of Ginza
The shopping streets of Ginza

We walked to the shopping district of Ginza and found relief from the steaming heat in an air-conditioned coffee shop.

And then we went on to the gardens of the Imperial Palace, traipsing across vast expanses of tarmac and lawn with no shade to get there. I felt as if I was being roasted alive. The palace itself was hidden behind towering trees and a tarpaulin-draped gatehouse, obviously in a state of restoration.

The gardens were a bit of a disappointment after the morning. The highlight was a beautiful iris garden with a delightful pond, countless streams, more pink azaleas and some fancy planting, but it was very busy with coach-loads of tourists and their selfie sticks.

The Imperial Palace gardens
The Imperial Palace gardens

The rest of the grounds, punctuated by a number of massive fortifications and moats, was just OK. Perhaps the sweltering heat was affecting my mood…

We returned exhausted to the hotel, had a rejuvenating beer and later found a restaurant at the top of the nearby Nomura building in Shinjuku. 50 floors up, it offered impressive views of the city lit up at night.

The moon shone brightly, we spotted a few stars, and red lights blinked repeatedly on the tallest of the buildings out to the horizon. However, the restaurant also offered a translated menu that left us none the wiser, such was the quality of the English!

Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien
Towers dominate the Hama-rikyu Onshi-teien

My mood was sagging but the food ended up being really good and the waiter couldn’t have been sweeter or cuter if he tried.

Later we dragged ourselves back to the gay district and had a rather quieter evening at Dragon Men – minus the drunk Americans of the night before.