TOKYO, July 10 — Many first-time visitors to Tokyo are struck by the contrast of hyper-modern buildings that vie for space with ancient temples. Yet the Japanese capital is more than skyscrapers and historical sites, just as the Japanese are more than simply salarymen or pious devotees. The locals love to have fun too, especially now that summer’s here.
Where is the best place to be in Tokyo during summertime? (Hint: it’s not indoors.) There’s no one answer, but nearly everyone flocks to Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Koen). Why?
Perhaps to answer that question, we need to begin with what it is. Yoyogi Park is basically a forest in the middle of a metropolitan city. Spanning 54.1 hectares, it is one of Tokyo’s largest parks. Unlike the famous Shinjuku Gyoen (popular for hanami, or viewing cherry blossoms in spring) which forbids alcohol or the scenic Koishikawa Korakuen which doesn’t allow picnics or sports, at Yoyogi Park you can enjoy all these activities and more.
The word most associated with Yoyogi Park is fun.
Situated near the JR Line’s Harajuku or Yoyogi-koen stations, Yoyogi Park was formerly an army parade ground and also housed the military barracks for American officers during the Allied occupation of Japan. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (located within the park) was specially built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Three years later, it was officially converted into a city park.
Today, the park is free to the public and open from dawn to dusk all year round. The best way to experience the park is to make a day trip out of it, whether for some exercise, a picnic, or simply to enjoy Nature at its greenest (even when surrounded by the ultimate concrete jungle that is Tokyo).
Walking in, the first thing you may notice are rows upon rows of bicycles with baby carriers on them. Stay-at-home mothers find Yoyogi Park a boon, an opportunity to escape the claustrophobic confines of a typical Japanese city apartment yet ensure their children play in a healthy and safe environment.
In fact, you will see entire squadrons of children in their school or kindergarten uniforms, accompanied by teachers and parents. This is a chance for the tender-aged urbanites to learn about something outside of their books or digital devices. There’s something altogether heart-warming seeing a young boy or girl pick up a leaf or a feather and run to their teacher or parent to ask them what it is.
Do pack a picnic. While some picnic-goers pack a veritable feast in their basket, there’s no need, really. The best picnic fare may be purchased directly from Japanese convenience stores, known as konbini, found on every street corner.
You could start with an umeboshi onigiri (rice balls) with pickled plum), followed by a savoury torikatsu sando (a deep-fried chicken cutlet sandwich). The cutlet is coated in Japanese panko breadcrumbs and generously smeared with tonkatsu sosu (a type of thick Japanese Worcestershire sauce) and karashi (mustard). Complete your meal with a chilled cup of orange jelly, every citrus segment a treasure to dig out.
Mind the crows that may try to hop closer to catch a stray piece of dropped food. You may wonder why there are so many crows in the park. Here in Japan, the crow is considered the messenger of the gods. Legend has it that Yatagarasu, the great crow-god was sent from heaven as a guide for Emperor Jimmu during his journey from Kumano to Yamato. It’s a beloved bird.
The best way to keep them at bay is dispose of your rubbish properly after your meal. The Japanese, like the Germans, are absolutely dedicated to recycling and reducing waste, so there are plenty of recycling bins and rubbish bins all around the park. After that, just lean back against your bench or lie down on your picnic mat and enjoy the wind rustling the leaves in the branches above you.
Had enough rest? Time to walk off your lunch by taking a walk. In the centre lawn, you will find many young people engaged in sports and games, chasing balls or frisbees. Sometimes there are entire troupes of rival cheerleaders practising their craft (and spying on their competitors, watching out for new tricks or stunts).
Due to its proximity to Harujuku, the ultimate haven for alternative-style denizens of Tokyo, you can often spot various street performers entertaining the park-goers. There are acapella singers and rockabilly dancers (looking as though they came straight out of the 1970s). There are jugglers and folks playing their ukuleles — and their appreciative audiences dancing around them.
Further down the path, closer to the water fountain and ponds are the sunbathers. There are some foreigners but most are locals, lounging on the banks and worshipping the sun. Others are skating or jogging. Japanese men, in particular, find a decent tan a sign of health and there’s no better time than summer to bake away for free.
Even our furry and feathered friends are joining in. Dogs, from large golden retrievers to tinier toy poodles, rest alongside their human companions. In the shade of the trees, you can spot sparrows enjoying a sand bath.
Though the time for sakura (cherry blossoms) is long over, flowers are still out in full force in Yoyogi Park. Be it roses in various shades of pink, the brilliant white and gold of daisies, or the dark crimson of poppies, there is something for every flora fanatic. Flowers, alive and growing, are better than their counterparts in vases or a bouquet, surely.
Set some distance apart from the main lawns of Yoyogi Park is the dog run, where dog owners can release their pets in a fenced-off space to frolic and play with other canines. Dogs in Japan are all properly trained before they are taken outside so all the four-legged friends are feisty at most, and never fight. They are having fun, certainly, but so are their masters, getting a much-needed time out playing with their pets in midst of nature.
You can also rent a bicycle — there are some paths that are reserved solely for cyclists and this is a good way to cover more ground and see the entire park. If you and your partner are up for it, try a tandem bicycle.
But why rush? The best way to enjoy Yoyogi Park — and summertime in Tokyo — may well be to choose a bench you like, relax, read a book or watch the world go by. Trust me, you’d be in fine company.
Shibuya-ku, Toyko, Japan. Open from dawn to dusk. Admission is free. To get there, take the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku station (Omotesando exit) or the Chiyoda line to Yoyogi-koen (exit 4), and follow the signs to the park.