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Rikugien Garden

Rikugien-Fall-NightRikugien Fall Illumination


  • Address: 6 Chome-16-3 Honkomagome, Bunkyo City, Tokyo 113-0021
  • Nearest Station: Komagome Station
  • Website: https://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/teien/en/rikugien/
  • Hours: 9:00 – 16:00
  • Price: ¥300

Rikugien is one of those places where art mimics art. When the noble samurai Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu founded this garden some 300 plus years ago, he was inspired by classical Waka poetry and sought to give it shape within earth, stone, water, and plant. In fact, the word Rikugi refers to the “Six Forms of Waka Poetry” while en means garden. If you’re lucky to find a full English translation of Kokin Wakashu (古今和歌集) perhaps you gain some insight into Yanagisawa’s own ascetics – seeing as he was inspired by this literature published by an Emperor some 800 years before the Edo period samurai himself!

Today Rikugien is open to the public and is one of Tokyo’s highly renowned gardens in addition to being designated as a “special place of scenic beauty” by the Japanese government.

When to Go

Spring – Weeping Cherry Blossom Viewing

From mid-March to early April, Rikugien lights up its prodigious weeping cherry tree (also known as the Shidarezakura) for an annual illumination viewing. The Shidarezakura is truly a massive tree and measures at 15m high and 20m wide. During the day, the tree looks like a soft pink cloud, while at night the lights create an illusion of cascading blossoms.

Rikugien Cherry Blossom Illumination
Rikugien Cherry Blossom Illumination at Night

Summer – Hydrangeas

Japan has a very long history with the Ajisai (紫陽花) or Hydrangea. It was first cultivated in Japan. There is even a tea called ama-cha (甘茶 “sweet tea”) made from the Hydrangea serrata, a specific breed whose leaves contain an ingredient which develops a sweet taste. A legend has it that on the day Buddha was born, nine dragons poured Amrita over him. So every April 8th, during the Buddha’s birthday ceremony, monks will substitute ama-cha for Amrita and pour the tea over a statue of Buddha.

Sitting next to Rikugien’s hydrangea trellis while enjoying a cup of ama-cha is the perfect way to enjoy the verdant green of high summer. Followed by a stop at the tea house to enjoy wagashi in the shape of hydrangea,

Hydrangeas symbolize Gratitude in Japanese culture

Autumn – Fall Foliage Illuminations

From mid-November to December, Rikugien holds its annual Autumn Evening Illumination. As the lights turn on at sunset, the central pond sparkles with the vibrant colors of fall as the water reflects the image of the trees and their foliage. Taking a stroll through the garden circuit will guide you through over 400 maple trees and all their glorious hues of vivid red, deep orange, or flashy yellow.

Rikugien Fall Illumination
Rikugien Fall Illumination

Rikugien Highlights

Tsutsuji-chaya – This Meiji era tea house was built using azalea wood. It avoided damage during World War II and is a style rarely seen today. This is one of the best spots to sit and enjoy the fall foliage of Rikugien.

Togetsukyo – Not to be mistaken for the one in Kyoto, this bridge was created from two large slabs of rock linking a man-made island in the middle of the lake. It was named after the Waka Poem: “Shadow of the moon moving at night and cry of a crane in the mash of reed in the sore of Waka, makes me feel so lonely.”

Takimi-chaya – Takimi means “waterfall viewing” and next to this small tea house, you can enjoy the sounds of cascading water.

Horaijima – In Japanese and Chinese legends “Horaijima” is an island inhabited by immortals and represents a kind of paradise. Its often a feature found in Japanese gardens and is intended to be watched and pondered from a distance. So, find a bench near the pond shore and meditate upon this particular Horaijima.

Fukiage Chaya – Inside the gardens is a tea house that serves tea and sweet wagashi in shapes that reflect the season. In summer, the matcha will be iced and the wagashi in the shape of a hydrangea. In fall, the wagashi will be a maple leaf, while in spring they will offer a sakura shaped confection

Matcha and Wagashi
Matcha and Fall Wagashi

A Garden for Meditation & Art

During the few times I visited Rikugien, it was crowded with people. I have a feeling that if I had a moment of solitude, it would have been easier to enjoy the gardens and to meditate on the original creator’s intention behind each vista and vignette. I also wish I had access to the poems associated with Rikugien. Regardless of these minor regrets, I felt that Rikugien represents a single facet of Japanese art and literature – all in a single perfectly groomed floriferous edifice – and that alone makes it worth visiting.

Shidarezakura – the Willow Cherry Tree
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Bunkyo Civic Center Observation Lounge

North ward viewNorth ward view

Bunkyō shibikkusentā tenbō raunji

The Bunkyo Civic Center Observatory contains views from 130 meters up. With its unique 270-degree semi-circular shape, you can view the Tokyo Skytree at the east, Mt. Tsukuba to the north, and Shinjuku to the west. On a clear winter day, Mt. Fuji will show just behind the Shinjuku skyscrapers. Immediately below the civic center is Tokyo Dome City and the seventeenth-century garden of Koishikawa Korakuen. If you want good photos, use your best zoom lens, which is hopefully a 200mm or better.

The elevators to the observatory deck can get a bit tricky. If you enter from the first floor you first must take the escalators up to the 4th floor, then make your way to the elevators. You then take the elevator up to the 11th floor and then switch elevators which will stop at the 25th floor.  The elevators can get quite congested at around lunchtime and at around 5 pm as folks head out to go home.

If you want a fine meal with your view, make reservations at the Civic Sky Restaurant Chinzanso also on the same floor, but on the southern portion of the building. Lunchtime is from 11:30 to 16:00 and meals cost as little as 1300 yen. Dinner starts at 17:00 and ends at 23:30.

If you’re in the area, I highly recommend visiting Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, a seventeenth-century garden done in the design of both Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. For more substantial entertainment, go to the Tokyo Dome City for events, amusement rides, matsuri-style foods. Personally, my favorite (although a bit pricy) Tokyo Dome spot is LaQua, a full-service onsen! If you’re looking for something more subdued and free, the University of Tokyo is roughly 20 minutes away by foot and offers a delightful scene of fall colors in November.

Bunkyo Civic Center Building
Bunkyo Civic Center Building
View of Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
View of Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
Bunkyo Civic Center View
Bunkyo Civic Center View
Tokyo Dome City Amusements . . . and Onsen!
Tokyo Dome City Amusements . . . and Onsen!
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Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine North ToriNezu Shrine North Tori

Nezu Shrine (根津神社 – Nezu-jinja) hides well like a precious jewel inside a small pocket of Tokyo’s thick cloak of concrete. Nestled away within the eastern portions of Bunkyo Ward, stands a beautiful set of red painted buildings walled in by verdant greenery.

Since Nezu Shrine is a mere 15-minute walk from where Sig and I were staying, we made it one of our first stops after setting foot in Tokyo.

Tunnel of Torii

From the busy street, the area looks like a simple park, until we wandered deeper into one of the three entrance paths. According to Shinto belief, a tori entrance indicates a transition between the mundane to the sacred.

Although the looming Torii main gate did impress me, I found the path of a hundred or so vermilion torii beautiful — something about repeating patterns feels comforting. This torii tunnel leads me through the hillside just west of the main hall.

Stooping slightly as not to hit my head, the steps took me to a viewing platform with a small shrine and pavilion. From here I could see the main shrine and a koi-filled pond below. Nearby, a cozy Otome Inari Shrine sits guarded by two fox statues.

Otome means “maiden,” and the Inari is the god or spirit of foxes, fertility, rice, tea, sake, and anything agriculture related. I was told that newly wedded ladies often pray here for a good marriage. I’m hardly a maiden, but I did drop a customary five yen coin into the box and make a quick wish.

Tunnel of Torii
Tunnel of Torii

Tower Gate

We make our way down the hill through a shorter path of torii, and then through a rōmon (楼門). Beneath this two-story tower gate, two zuishin or guardian statues sit in alcoves, ready with their bows and arrows. I guess if the shrine came under attack, the warrior-gods would spring to life and ascend the tower to rain arrows upon the enemy.

Court Yard & Lattice Wall

Before we reach the Main Hall, we crossed beneath an embellished karamon (唐門 – Chinese gate) and into a courtyard surrounded by a sukibei (透塀 – latticed wall). Against a sacred camphor tree, lines upon lines of paper fortunes tied to strings swing lightly in the wind. Dozens of small wooden plaques hang in hopeful anticipation of the new year. As we approached the offering box, I noticed two large Komainu or “lion dogs” guarding the shrine, each with a fierce stony gaze.

Main Hall

Also called a honden in Japanese, Nezu’s main hall is ornately designed with golden embossing along its lintels and pillars. Even the steps leading up and into the chamber seem to shimmer. I peek inside the worship hall and see a wall-to-wall tatami floor and a shrine in the back. I am awe-struck that this beautiful structure survived the firebomb attacks during World War II.

According to nearby kiosks, Nezu shrine itself is built in the Ishi-no-ma-zukuri (石の間造) style, where the worship chamber (拝殿 – haiden) and the inner sanctum (本殿 – honden) are connected under a single roof. If you’re wondering, the haiden is where people gather, and service is held. The honden is off limits to the public since this is where the enshrined kami lives, customarily signified by a mirror or statue.

Main Shrine
Main Shrine

The Legend

Although not officially captured in historical texts, legends say that Nezu shrine was founded in Sendagi during the 1st century by Prince Ōsu (also known as Yamato Takeru), son of Emperor Keikō. At that time, the shrine was dedicated to Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of the sea and storms. If this legend were proven to be true, it would date Nezu Shrine as the oldest Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

But in full disclosure, nothing of that 1st-century shrine remains. The Nezu Shrine we see today comes from Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. The shogun moved and entirely rebuilt Nezu Shrine in its current location, and what he kept or didn’t keep from the original shrine is hard to say. However, historical records do state that Tsunayoshi undertook the move of Nezu Shrine in 1705 in a successor-naming celebration.

Nezu Shrine Bunkyo Azalea Festival

Every April, the hills to the west of the Torri tunnel comes alive with thousands of Azalia blossoms from over a hundred different varieties. Amid the colorful blooms, performers and food stalls delight any and all. With the various azalea breeds, the blooming can last a well into May or later, resulting in one of Tokyo’s longest running festivals during the spring season.

I should note that Nezu Shrine for much of the year is free to the public, but during the Azalea Festival you have to pay a small fee of ¥200

Otome Inari Shrine
Otome Inari Shrine