A guide to the quiet side of Tokyo

As any local will tell you, finding tranquillity in the frenetic, neon-lit Japanese capital is perfectly possible — temple gardens and blossom-strewn parks are peppered between skyscrapers, if you know where to look.

Monday, June 15, 2020,
By Oli Smith
Inokshira Park, which was a gift from the Japanese emperor to his subjects.

Inokshira Park, which was a gift from the Japanese emperor to his subjects.

Photograph by Getty Images

Tokyo is a city with a soundscape like no other. Walking its streets is like experiencing a symphony orchestra, tuning up for a performance. There are the deep bass notes of underground trains; setting buildings rumbling on their foundations; and the reedy drone of traffic. There are the percussive beats of the railways, too; the snare and cymbal crash of their brakes.

And piped into the public spaces are competing jingles: high-tempo beats and high-pitched songstresses ring from every shop, restaurant, vending machine, ticket machine, advert. It seems everything with an electrical circuit can sing a song in Tokyo.

Mostly it's exhilarating. To some, it might become maddening. Perhaps, seeking a moment's peace, you return to your hotel room — through the music in the lobby and the lift — and lock yourself in your bathroom to seek respite. Only to find your electric toilet plays a panpipe version of ‘Greensleeves’.

Tokyo is the largest urban area on Earth, and silence is as scarce a commodity as space. But there are a few green pockets amid the neon and the skyscrapers, where you can hear birdsong, footfalls and the wind in the trees. It’s an aspect of the city the locals treasure, and one rarely recognised — or savoured — by travellers.

Yoyogi Park
The green expanse of Yoyogi Park is all the more remarkable when you consider its location in Tokyo: there’s hedonistic Shinjuku to the north, Shibuya Crossing to the south, and the teenage hangout of Takeshita Street to the east. The setting for the 1964 Olympics, today Yoyogi is the principal playground for citizens of central Tokyo. Crowds descend at the weekends for picnics, frisbee and cosplay gatherings. Arrive early on a weekday for maximum serenity, to see locals practicing tai chi and yoga on its rambling lawns.

Meiji Jingu
To the north of Yoyogi Park is the shrine of Meiji Jingu, dedicated to the eponymous emperor who transformed Japan into a modern, industrial nation in the 19th century. One of the main Shinto shrines in the capital, it’s entered through giant torii gates, which symbolise the threshold between the mortal and spiritual worlds. Walking through the surrounding gardens is also like crossing into another realm; its meandering woodland trails, at the very heart of the city, are quiet enough in places to allow visitors to hear the sound of a falling leaf.

Happo-en Garden
This tiny pocket of greenery was once the private garden of a Japanese nobleman, enduring as a serene and green sanctuary for three centuries as a megacity erupted around it. Today, it’s connected to a modern conference centre and is a popular haunt for wedding photographers, but it remains a great place to get to grips with the Japanese formal garden tradition. Branches of maple and cherry trees lean out over a little pond, with teahouses perched on the shore. The garden occupies a sunken hollow, so the sounds of the city are muted; instead, you can hear churning waterfalls and the ripple of koi in the ponds — and the occasional click of wedding a photographer’s camera. Try a green tea experience here, from £8.

Inokashira Park
Inokashira Park was first opened in 1917 — a gift from Emperor Taishō to his subjects. Today, it’s western Tokyo’s primary green lung, huddled around a long, thin lake. A shrine to the goddess Benzaiten is set on a little island — legend has it that if a couple hires a swan pedalo for a trip around the lake, they’ll soon break up, as the deity is notoriously jealous. Visitors can also wander beneath the cherry trees lining the shore.

Yanaka Cemetery
The Yanaka district is a vestige of bygone Tokyo, an unscathed survivor of the 1923 earthquake and Second World War bombing that destroyed so much of the city. Catch an echo of Tokyo’s Edo era among its narrow alleyways, especially when lanterns illuminate at dusk. Amble among its temples and shrines, and pass fishmongers and butchers, teahouses and stands serving sizzling octopus tentacles. Its quietest corner is probably Yanaka Cemetery — famous for its resident cats — where tombstones rise against a backdrop of skyscrapers and all is quiet but for the ding of cyclists’ bells.

For more information, visit gotokyo.org

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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