The Best Outdoor Spaces In Tokyo: A (Highly Biased) Round-Up
In the year of our lord 2020, there are precious few activities left that are safe and socially acceptable to do outside our homes. Restaurants? Unwise. Parties? Forget it. Concerts? Madam, please. So to keep from going stir-crazy these days, even certified indoor cats like myself need to don our bucket hats and sunscreen and get the hell outside every now and then.
Lucky for us, Japan is an absurdly green country and even in the concrete mega-city that is Tokyo, there are numerous pockets of nature to enjoy. Here is my highly biased, extremely comprehensive list of favourite outdoor spaces that are not only in Tokyo but are all (except 1) right in my own little neighbourhood.
- Komazawa Olympic Park
As the name would suggest, this park was built for the 70’s summer Olympics and so is a marvel in terms of construction and layout with numerous areas for activity including tennis courts, soccer fields, a baseball diamond, multiple children’s playgrounds and a dog run. The park itself is ringed by a running and cycling track that can get quite busy on weekends and during special events, but is perfect for a night time jog thanks to its ample lighting and marked distance.
This is quite a personal pick for me because it was the park nearest to my house for the majority of my time in Tokyo. What’s great about this park is that it feels like home. You’ll rarely find any tourists here. Just families and their children, kids front the nearby university and couples on dates. It’s got pic-nic tables (a true rarity in Tokyo) and plenty of shade. But if you really want to see the true splendor of this park, you have to visit during cherry blossom season, when the circular track is framed by those famous pink blossoms. In short: bringing your friends to this picturesque, uncrowded spot will secure your place in the hanami hall of fame.
- Todoroki Ravine
Fans of Jurassic Park take note: this one’s for you. The lush, tropical foliage of this spot is no joke. Walks taken here feel a world away from the bustle of the big city, despite being just a few yards from the station. It’s not a long walk, but strolling along this little river has a healing effect brought on by the 360 greenery and peaceful sound of the trickling water.
It also leads to several small, charming shrines that make for some indisputably grammable photos. Other highlights include a small tea shop with a terrace that sells traditional Japanese sweets like kakigori (shaved ice with flavoured syrup) and anmitsu (a tasty medley of sweet red beans, agar jelly and fruit) which are a perfect way to relax and cool off after your walk. The shade provided by the trees makes this a perfect escape from the heat of Tokyo summer, but visitors beware: the ravine can be VERY buggy during the wet months, so either double-down on mosquito spray and wear long sleeves… or consider coming at a different time of year.
- Senzoku Ike Park
Most people know (and love) Kichijoji park. And yah, she’s a beauty. But she’s also pretty much ALWAYS crowded and, for me, a trek-and-a-half to get to. Enter Senzoku Ike Park, Kichijoji’s humble little sister. This park is nestled in a residential neighbourhood which is why I reckon it is never as busy as KJP. However it is no less lovely to visit and boasts many similar charms, like a large, man-made pond at its centre, complete with rentable swan boats.
Also in that pond are some truly enormous and alarmingly friendly koi, turtles, ducks and more, making this the ideal spot for wildlife lovers. There are also several very pretty shrines, one of which sits nearly on the water, making it an excellent spot for photos (particularly the romantic variety, if I do say so myself). Another rare feature of this park is its numerous benches which allow visitors to actually sit and take in the pond while enjoying a snack. Visitors can also check-out some of the agricultural activities going on in some unique water gardens.
- Kuhonbutsu Joshinji Temple
While neither a park nor a garden, the spacious grounds of this temple are almost as lovely as the temple itself which contained a massive statue of Buddha, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. With a postcard-worthy entrance marked by a towering gate and dotted with Japanese maples, Kuhonbutsu looks more like something you’d seen in Kyoto than Tokyo. It also boasts 3 smaller halls, each containing 3 larger than life golden statues of Amida Nyorai.
But Jenna, you might protest those aren’t -outside- and you’re right. So, back to the offerings of mother nature.
Joshinji is the home of one of Tokyo’s oldest trees, a 700+ giant that is itself worthy of a visit. But my favourite part of the Joshinji is the sprawling cemetery. Granted, I am a bit of a morbid weirdo, so this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However the meandering paths and moss-covered grave markers make for a lovely walk which is also a great opportunity for butterfly spotting. Because this is a place of cultural and religious significance, it’s not a great spot for pic-nics or graveside photo ops, but it is perfect for peaceful strolls and nature appreciation.
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
I grappled with whether or not to include this one as it isn’t in my neighbourhood and charges an admission fee (500Y for most and 250 for students and seniors). But there is one thing that makes it worth the trek and the Yennies. And that thing is: grass. You may not have noticed, but lawn-type grass is incredibly rare in Tokyo. So rare that when you do find a wee patch of it, it’s usually cordoned off. Only for looking, not for touching. That’s because that type of grass doesn’t grow well in Japan and is both difficult and expensive to maintain.
So while Shinjuku Park has many stand-out features such as a lovely Japanese-stype garden and an astonishing row of highly photogenic sycamore trees, the true star of the show is multiple fields of grass that you can walk on with your bare human feet. It’s a pure joy that I didn’t know I’d missed until I got the chance to do it again, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a place to sit and read a book outdoors. The only downside to this park, in my opinion, is that they don’t allow badminton, frisbee or alcohol. Honestly, the nerve.
So there you have it. Several gorgeous, free and accessible spots to enjoy the great outdoors without leaving the city.