Nature in Tokyo: the ultimate guide to the city's islands and green spaces

It might be the world’s largest urban area, but finding space and silence in Tokyo is surprisingly easy. Dig deeper to discover an archipelago, spacious gardens and peaceful city nooks.

By TOKYO CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU
Published 9 Feb 2021, 10:27 GMT, Updated 26 Feb 2021, 12:11 GMT
A statue of Buddha on a lotus flower at Sensoji Temple.

A statue of Buddha on a lotus flower at Sensoji Temple.

Photograph by Getty Images

Tokyo is a city of mind-boggling immensity: it sees a population of 14 million people crammed in between green hills and Pacific tides. But inquisitive visitors to the capital soon realise that stillness and nature are never too far away — places where the rumble of traffic gives way to birdsong, where skyscrapers are replaced by avenues of cherry trees and where cooling onshore breezes banish any sense of lingering claustrophobia.

Many of these sites exist right next to some of the busiest corners of the city. Within a short stroll of the bars of downtown Shinjuku, you’ll find yourself alone among the pools and pagodas of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Just north of the famously lively crossroads of Shibuya is the tranquil beauty of Yoyogi Park, the spiritual sanctuary of Meiji Jingu shrine and the evergreen forest surrounding it.

Tokyo’s gastronomy, nightlife, shopping and culture are all world-renowned — and for good reason. But less celebrated is the landscape that lies beyond the city limits, where you can hike in volcanic foothills around Mount Fuji or find seclusion in the archipelago beyond Tokyo Harbour.

How to explore Tokyo in three days
 

Whether it’s cycling through leafy districts, admiring the city’s temples or navigating a plethora of museums, here’s a guide for exploring the city away from the crowds.

DAY ONE
 

Morning
Shinjuku is famous as Tokyo’s nightlife district — but it’s worth exploring during the quieter daylight hours too. Start at Ichiban-gai gate and look out for the Godzilla statue, which roars at passing pedestrians. Potter around Omoide Yokocho — an alleyway that delivers a delicious waft of bygone Japan, with hanging lanterns and fragrant clouds billowing from yakitori (skewered chicken) stalls. For a fix of greenery, turn westward to Shinjuku Gyoen or south to Meiji Jingu. 

Afternoon
Meiji Jingu is home to a broadleaf forest crisscrossed by gravel paths, at the centre of which stands an ornate Shinto shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who transformed Japan in the 19th century. Stepping inside the shrine is kind of a transformation too: with towering torii gates and pilgrims ritually purifying themselves with water. Continue on into Yoyogi Park — a green enclave beloved of Tokyoites on their lunch hour. 

Evening
Tokyo Skytree may be the tallest tower in the world, but the open-air Sky Deck at Mori Tower is more evocative: especially at dusk, when ferries putter past the harbour, and rush hour sets the highways ablaze with car lights. Access is dependent on weather. 

Don’t miss: Tomigaya, a bohemian district of coffeeshops, food trucks and boutiques at the southern end of Yoyogi Park.

A traditional doorway at the Meiji Jingu shrine in Shibuya.

Photograph by Getty Images

DAY TWO
 

Morning
Neon, noisy and nerdy, Akihabara is Tokyo’s ‘Electric Town’ — the spiritual home of arcade games, video billboards and stores selling almost anything with an electric circuit. Get to grips with Tokyo’s ‘otaku’ subculture at the eight-storey Mandarake Complex, whose shelves stock an encyclopedic array of manga. Akihabara can get busy in the evenings, so go early to avoid crowds. 

Afternoon
Comprising the districts of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi, Yanesen is home to many leafy alleyways that are too narrow for motorised traffic — making them ideal for cyclists and pedestrians. Hire a bike from Tokyobike, and pedal eastwards to the avenues that traverse Yanaka Cemetery, west to the serene Nezu Shrine, or take a pit stop in Kayaba, a traditional coffeeshop dating back to the 1930s.

Evening
Already a millennium old when Tokyo was made capital in 1868, ancient Senso Ji is a Buddhist temple of towering pagodas and clouds of incense, sited at the end of the shopping street of Nakamise-dori. It’s a little quieter after dark, when the complex is illuminated against the night sky.

Don’t miss: The lively shopping street of Yanaka Ginza, flanked by historic houses that survived the Second World War.

Sunset over the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo skyline from Odaiba.

Photograph by Alamy

DAY THREE
 

Morning
Inokashira-koen is a beloved weekend retreat for residents of western Tokyo: a park centred around a tapering pond shaded by cypress and cherry trees. On an island in the lake, you’ll find a Shinto shrine to Benzaiten: the Japanese goddess of everything that flows, including water, music, words and eloquence. The fascinating Studio Ghibli museum is located in the southwest corner.

Afternoon
Studio Ghibli’s animations are some of Japan’s greatest cultural exports, and this museum offers a chance to see the incredible sketches of Hayao Miyazaki in real life. For fans of the films, the fun doesn’t stop there — there’s also the chance to meet the robot from Castle in the Sky, board the famous Catbus from My Neighbour Totoro and come face to face with No-Face from Spirited Away

Evening
An artificial island in Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is the perfect place to watch the sunset over Rainbow Bridge — bag a spot near Aqua City shopping mall. Later, let off steam at the adjacent Oedo Onsen Monogatari — a theme park centred on the sacred Japanese institution of the onsen. 

Don’t miss: The Unicorn Gundam, a 65ft statue from the Gundam anime series who puts on an impressive light show after dark.

Coastline of Hachijojima, an island ideal for hiking. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Which Tokyo island is best for you?
 

The volcanic Izu Islands feel worlds apart from the futuristic metropolis of Tokyo — stretching some 400 miles from the mouth of Tokyo Bay into the Pacific Ocean. Fast hydrofoils link Tokyo to the inner islands of Oshima, Niijima, Shikinejima and Kozushima, with outer islands served by passenger ferries. Most of them can also be accessed via a short plane ride from Chofu Airport or Hachijojima. All that’s left to do now is decide which islands should be on your must-see list.

1. Best for volcanoes: Oshima
Oshima is the largest of the Izu Islands — it was here that the Japanese government imprisoned Godzilla in one instalment of the famous movie franchise. In reality, Oshima is home to another fearsome beast — the 2,507ft Mount Mihara — an active volcano where you can hike to the summit. Soothe trail-weary limbs in one of the island’s onsens — Motomachi Hama-no-yu has views to the mainland. Oshima is also famous for its beautiful camellia flowers, which bloom red in winter.
Distance: 1h45m by boat from Tokyo, or 25m by plane from Chofu Airport.

2. Best for stargazing: Toshima
Toshima is truly an island off the beaten track: it claims just one solitary village. Being fairly close to the mainland, it affords fine views of Mount Fuji — especially from the 1,417ft summit of Mount Miyatsuka. For intergalactic scenes, take a night walk to Minami ga Yama Park on the far side of the island. It’s a popular spot for stargazing, due to the minimal light pollution.
Distance: 2h30m by boat from Tokyo.

3. Best for surfing: Niijima
This long and thin island served as a prison up until the 19th century, but is now a paradisal hotspot beloved by locals and tourists alike. Niijima’s defining feature is Habushiura Shore, an almost four-mile stretch of white sand, whose breaks are beloved of Tokyo surfers. Novices should watch out for strong currents, or head to the more sheltered Mamashita Beach for a gentle paddle. This island is also a great place to try sashimi — a delicacy of raw fish.
Distance: 3h by boat from Tokyo, or 35m by plane from Chofu Airport.

4. Best for swimming: Kozushima
Strong currents make the waters around the Izu Islands the domain of strong swimmers only. One exception is the Akasaki Promenade in northwest Kozushima, where a timber walkway traverses the cliffs, and steps lead down to shallow, sheltered bays where all comers can splash about. The island lends itself to being explored by bike, with rental available from local shops.
Distance: 3h10m by boat from Tokyo, or 40m by plane from Chofu Airport.

Camping-style sashimi with freshly caught fish on Niijima Island. 

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Best for diving: Miyakejima
Miyakejima makes for an arresting sight — a volcanic eruption in 1983 left mighty lava flows leading all the way down to a rugged coastline of sea arches and tidal pools. Below the surface, it’s equally enthralling — underwater lava formations, coral reefs and a staggering variety of marine life all make Miyakejima popular with divers. It’s easy to arrange scuba expeditions out of the village of Miyake.
Distance: 6h30m by boat from Tokyo, or 45m by plane from Chofu Airport.

6. Best for dolphins: Mikurajima
The smaller sister island to Miyakejima, Mikurajima’s slopes are home to rare orchids, mulberry trees, beech woods and fewer than 400 human residents. Its most famous characters, however, are the population of dolphins that frequent its shoreline from April to November. Swimming tours start from £200. 
Distance: 7h30m by boat from Tokyo.

7. Best for hiking: Hachijojima
A distinct language and cuisine sets Hachijojima apart from the other islands, but so too does its landscape. It claims two mighty volcanoes, including the tallest in the archipelago, Mount Hachijo-Fuji (2,802ft). Take a nine-mile hike from Sokodo Campsite to the summit, passing windswept grasslands, meadows where cows graze and soaring ridges, from which you can scan the sea for breaching whales.
Distance: 10h25m by boat from Tokyo, or 55m by plane from Haneda Airport.

8. Best for isolation: Aogashima
Aogashima is a little landmass set some 220 miles from Tokyo. However, its remoteness is all part of its appeal — a steep road from the port leads to a verdant caldera, a volcano-powered sauna, a huddle of houses and little else. The striking Kanju Monument commemorates the return of the islanders after the volcanic eruption of 1785 forced them to evacuate for half a century.
Distance: 20m by plane from Hachijojima — no direct services from Tokyo.

Essentials
 

Getting there: Japan Airlines, British Airways and ANA all offer direct flights from the UK to Tokyo. To discover more about Tokyo, visit gotokyo.org. For the latest Covid-19 updates and prevention measures, visit gotokyo.org/en/plan/coronavirus-information

For more information on Tokyo, visit tokyotokyo.jp

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