Away from the crowds Yoyogi Park.

Editors note: At first I hesitated in publishing an article with “party” in the title after such a short period of time since the devastating tsunami, but this post is part of the #JapanLife and #Blog4Japan which aims to bring attention to Japan from bloggers around the world.

Before publication, author Tom Shuttleworth assured me that the “recent terrible events in the north of Japan have reverberated as far as Tokyo. Yet despite reports of a capital in crisis, Tokyoites are a resilient bunch and are getting out and getting on with life. This year’s hanami (cherry blossom parties) will go ahead and will offer the city a chance to reflect and kick start the rebuilding of a damaged, but not defeated, nation.”

By Tom Shuttleworth

Tokyo is unlikely to be competitive in any list of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing cities.  Yet, at the end of March/early April, when the cherry blossoms bloom, the ashtray grays and prefab designs of the urban sprawl only serve to highlight the delicate beauty of this ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ flirtation with stunning nature.

Sakura (cherry blossom) draws the city’s residents out in their droves to set up camp under the trees for a picnic and a party.  If you want chaos, contemplation, romance or a personal photo worthy of any coffee table publication, this is the time to come to Tokyo.

So, where’s the party at?

Ueno Park

Not the best place for a quiet nap Ueno Park.

Ueno used to be the big hitter in Tokyo.  That was until the more important transport links (and thus all the money) moved to Shinjuku and Marunouchi.  Its last remaining glory is its park.  Whilst the rest of the area begins to resemble a back street of Bangkok’s Khao San Road area, the park brags about having the highest concentration of world class museums on the planet, and a whole load of cherry blossom trees to boot.  This idle boast keeps Ueno firmly on the tourist map.  Indeed, what could be more civilized than strolling around a park littered with Rodin’s sculptures framed by the fragile beauty of cherry blossom?

Well, not quite.  Ueno’s beat streets have always crept into the park.  It has a large homeless community, student layabouts from nearby Tokyo University and a smattering of budget backpackers looking to kill time in a free museum.

The park has no grass (a bit odd for a park) which makes comfy seating tricky.  Space under cherry blossom trees during weekends is at a premium and sheets of tarpaulin are laid down under the best trees earlier than a German holidaymaker’s towel on a sun lounger.  That said, the robust, no frills Ueno character makes for a hearty atmosphere, with everyone enjoying the simple pleasures of beer, the outdoors and the company of friends.  Plus, if staring at flowers for hours on end is likely to induce boredom then there are those world class galleries and museums to break up the day.

Elbows out! – Main sakura avenue, Ueno Park

 

Shinjuku Gyoen

Whilst most visitors to Shinjuku are siphoned out of the chaos of the world’s busiest train station into tower blocks and strip clubs, Shinjuku Gyoen remains a stately oasis of calm.  In fact, with so much hallucinatory neon in Shinjuku, it’s easy to forget that it’s here at all.  Strange then, that it should be so arrogant as to have ticket gates and an entrance fee.  It must be trying to keep out the riff raff.

This is a park that frowns upon frivolity and unchecked fun.  Breaking out the Frisbee or football on its inviting swathes of manicured grass is forbidden and be sure not to leave behind beer cans and cigarette butts.

The landscape here has been thought about.  Everything has its place, its design and it affords plenty of romantic views through trees to towering skyscrapers.  What it lacks in party atmosphere it makes up for in aesthetic appeal and abundant space.  The photo opportunities couldn’t get more Japanese unless you moved the whole set-up to the base of Mt. Fuji.

Shinjuku Gyoen is a place to enjoy the serenity of sakura rather than it being an excuse to get drunk outdoors.

 

Yoyogi Park

Away from the crowds Yoyogi Park.

Yoyogi during cherry blossom season (everything is a season in Japan, even two weeks) is a toned down version of your favorite summer music festival, with petals.  No surprise really, given its proximity to the ‘I’m hipper than you are’ districts of Shibuya, Harajuku and Omotesando.  So, expect lots of funky young hipsters, groups of students and Western guys ogling the local talent.  All of which comes replete with a turntable trance soundtrack and the lingering whiff of empty beers cans.

Away from the main areas, however, Yoyogi is welcoming to all with plenty of space to breathe and do, well, anything you want – play sports, jog, strum your guitar, rehearse your one man art show or smooch with a lover.  In a way, Yoyogi is like McDonalds, a leveler of society.  Whoever you are, however much money you have, no one cares.  Just hang loose and do your thing.

Yoyogi comes highly recommended.  Just don’t come with your parents, you square!

 

Marunouchi

Marunouchi occupies the geographical heart of Tokyo.  It’s an area of wealthy business and national politics.  The Tokyoites around here wear Italian made leather shoes and shop for hardback books on business plans and economic futures.  No one would dream of Shinjuku’s sleaze or Shibuya’s pop trash.  Hell, there isn’t a ‘red light’ establishment to be seen.  And, for Japan, that is unusual.

The centerpiece for this civility is the residence of the Imperial family, an unseen palace surrounded by cherry blossom trees, imposing grassy banks and a network of moats.  At one point, this was the site of the largest castle in the world, hence the moats.  The castle no longer stands but the pathways that circulate the area make for a pleasant stroll through some beautiful avenues of sakura.

Seating in this area is limited and thus very crowded.  However, setting up camp misses the point here.  This a place to walk arm in arm with a partner or stretch your legs whilst setting the world to rights with a good mate.  Along the route (maps are available but not needed) there are some great places to get that quintessential ‘Japanese’ photo—branches of cherry blossom reaching out to the water, framed by the exotic curl of a temple roof.

If you want a hassle free, fluid viewing experience, this is the place to come.

 

Yasukuni Shrine

For anyone in the know, Yasukuni might seem an odd place to enjoy the casual frivolity of a sakura party.  This is a shrine that houses the spirits of Japan’s war dead along with some Class A war criminals.  Annual visits by leading politicians draw understandable anger from neighboring Korea and China whilst draconian, right-wing, lunatics often use it as back drop for their brain hemorrhage inducing diatribe.

The shrine and its grounds are a juxtaposition of the imposing and the fragile, perhaps befitting of its purpose.  There are authoritarian pillars and delicate gardens, a mighty looking tori (gate) and of course, lots of cherry blossom.

When it blooms, Yasukini becomes inexplicably popular.  The long avenue that leads to the shrine plays temporary home to myriad of stalls and BBQ’s.  Tables and chairs are laid out under the blossoming trees and the robust food is washed down with plenty of cheep beer.  Things here really kick off late afternoon/ early evening when the office workers clock off.  You’ll be sharing space with business types who don’t want to get their suits dirty by sitting on the ground and giggle like school children when the breeze causes an impromptu shower of nature’s confetti.

Is having fun in such a somber, controversial place inappropriate?  Is it a sign of remembrance infused with a desire to look forward positively?  Or, is it simply the nearest place to catch some cherry blossom after work?

Do some research and decide for yourself.

 

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