Shinjuku is one of the busiest cities in Tokyo and in the entire world; in fact, Shinjuku station handles more than 3.5 million people every day (as of 2016). Skyscrapers and office buildings blanket the sky on one side of the train station, while the other side is home to Tokyo’s most active neon light district, Kabuki-cho.
However, just a 15-minute walk from Shinjuku station lays a hidden gem, Shinjuku Gyoen. Shinjuku Gyoen is a long loved national park with lush greens unimaginable from its surrounding metropolitan maze, that provides locals and tourists with an ideal oasis of nature.
History of Shinjuku Gyoen
Beginnings of Shinjuku Gyoen
The history of Shinjuku Gyoen starts in 1590, when the shogun (military commander) Ieyasu Tokugawa gave Naito Kiyonari, a loyal daimyo (feudal lord) a large portion of land. The land, measuring 58.3 hectares, was granted for defense purposes; for Naito to look out and protect the area. Naito eventually built his own compound on the grounds, which is the area we know of as Shinjuku Gyoen today.
Shinjuku Gyoen Began as an Agricultural Testing Ground & Botanical Garden
In the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912), what was once Naito’s land was bought by the new imperial government for the purpose of setting up an examination center for agricultural advancement. It was named the “Naito Shinjuku Examination Center” and used for cultivating fruits and vegetables along with stock and silk farming. After five years, it was renamed the “Shinjuku Botanical Garden”, as it became maintained and served as an imperial estate. This transition into a Botanical Garden can be seen as the real first step into its development as Shinjuku Gyoen.
Shinjuku Gyoen Becomes a National Park
In 1898, plans to recreate the botanical garden in to an imperial park started to take place. Fukuba Hayato, an acclaimed gardener, was at the core of this project, and eventually ended up serving at Shinjuku Gyoen for 40 years. His works received great recognition from world-famous gardening professor Henri Martine at the Exposition Universalle de Paris in 1900. Martine took part in the Shinjuku Gyoen project, and construction began in 1901. Five years later, after the completion of the project, the park was officially named Shinjuku Gyoen. As the park was used mostly for imperial purposes, Emperor Meiji was present at the opening ceremony to celebrate. Facilities such as a clubhouse, teahouse and a 9-hole golf course were made on the grounds.
Shinjuku Gyoen in Recent Years
Shinjuku Gyoen was completely destroyed by the air strike in 1945 during the Second World War, and reconstruction did not happen immediately after the war ended. The garden was used as farmland to combat the severe famine hitting Japan at the time. It was in 1947 that Shinjuku Gyoen was designated as a National Park under the new Japanese constitution, and two years later that Shinjuku Gyoen was finally opened to the public.
5 Places to See at Shinjuku Gyoen
1. The Japanese Traditional Garden
After walking for a few minutes past the Shinjuku Gates, you will find a lake. This area is the Japanese garden. Circular paths called kaiyu-shiki, are made along the lake, so that visitors can walk around the garden and enjoy views from different angles. In fall, the leaves paint the garden a stunning autumn hue, making it hard to believe that you are still in Tokyo’s city center.
There is a Chinese-style building visible at the very eastern part of the Japanese garden. Although at first, the building may seem a bit out of place, it is a part of Shinjuku Gyoen’s history. This building, called Kyu-Goryotei, was a wedding gift to Emperor Showa by the Taiwanese community in Japan. From here, you can enjoy an expansive panorama of the entire Japanese garden.
Shinjuku Gyoen's Japanese garden in fall
2. The Mother and Child’s Forest
At the western side of the Japanese garden is the Mother and Child’s Forest. This area, even greener than the already leafy Shinjuku Gyoen, was made especially for children in Tokyo as a space to allow more contact and time with nature. There are frequent events for parents and children to explore the forest and befriend its inhabitants, like small critters and bugs.
3. The English Landscape Garden
English Landscape Garden
Walking through Japanese Garden to the eastern side, there is a spacious lawn area. This is English garden, the biggest among three themed gardens. It is the ideal place to lie on your back and soak up Tokyo’s city sun. At the center of the English garden, you can find trees as tall as 30 meters. These trees, called tulip trees are the symbol of Shinjuku Gyoen. During May, you can lay your eyes on the little yellow-green flowers blooming on these trees.
At the northern part of the English garden, you will find a western style building. Built in 1896, this building was used as a rest stop for the imperial family and later as a clubhouse. This building and the Chinese-style building in the Japanese Garden (Kyu-Goryotei) are the only two buildings that survived the air strikes during World War II.
The greenhouse of Shinjuku Gyoen
Right by the western-style building is the grand greenhouse. Here, a variety of overseas plants and endangered species are nurtured and preserved.
4. The French Formal Garden
Shinjuku Gyoen's French formal Garden
Last but not least, the French garden is located just at the western end of the park. This garden is remarkably symmetrical, making it stand out from the other gardens. More than one hundred types of flowers are planted precisely, giving each season its very own unique landscape. Sycamore trees are planted all around the garden as well, and give the garden a complete look.
5. Tamamo Pond
As mentioned before, Shinjuku Gyoen was once a compound for the Naito family. This is where their garden, Tamagawa-en, used to be, and the Edo-atmosphere still remains. Compared to the Japanese garden, it is smaller in size, but the lake, wooden bridge and pine tree bring together a serene space.
Spring Special Event (March - Apil.)
Shinjuku Gyoen is one of the best spots for cherry blossoms, and compared to other locations, the viewing season is much longer. With the approximately 1,100 cherry blossom trees of over 65 types planted in the park, the park sustains a long season of full-bloom from late January to late April. The kan-zakura (literally translating to Cold Cherry Blossom) blooms in the winter, and more traditional types of cherry blossoms, such as the famous somei-yoshino, flower during the spring season.
Shinjuku Gyoen's cherry blossoms are also varied in color. Alongside the typical pale-pink or dark magenta cherry blossoms, Shinjuku Gyoen houses ones in rarer colors such as yellow, red and green.
Shinjuku Gyoen is famous for hanami (Japanese tradition of cherry blossom viewing) and is open every day from 25th of March to 24th of April. Enjoy Japan’s favorite flower during Japan’s prettiest season!
Another famous event regarding cherry blossoms is the “Cherry Blossom Viewing Party”. Held at Shinjuku Gyoen annually by none other than the Prime Minister of Japan, this event is invitation only and extremely exclusive. Celebrities such as athletes, comedians and actors and actresses are invited to this star-studded event.
Shinjuku Gyoen in the spring
Chrysanthemum Exhibition (November)
Along with cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums are also Japan’s flower of choice. In 1868, the first year of the Meiji era, the chrysanthemum was designated as the official flower of the imperial family. Since then, Shinjuku Gyoen has put a great effort into the cultivation of chrysanthemums, as it was originally an imperial institute.
The best season for chrysanthemum viewing is November, which is when the chrysanthemum exhibition is held at the Japanese garden. This event was originally exclusively for the imperial family and held in Akasaka. The venue changed to Shinjuku Gyoen in the beginning of the Showa era (1926-1988), and when Shinjuku Gyoen opened as a national park, the event went public as well.
The chrysanthemum exhibit is held from the 1st to 15th of November, and the chrysanthemums are ornamented in different kinds of displays.
・Shinjuku Station (JR Yamanote Line JY17/Tokyo Metro Marunnouchi Line M08/Keio Line KO01/Odakyu Line OH01)
・Shinjuku-gyoemmae Station (Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line M10)
・Shinjuku-sanchome Station (Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line M09/Toei Shinjuku Line S-02)
Access from Tokyo Station
【Tokyo Sta.】Marunouchi Line / for Ogikubo
→【Shinjuku-gyoemmae Sta.】from Exit 2 → about a 5-minute walk
Access from Narita Airport
【Narita Airport Sta.】Keisei Narita Sky Access / for Misakiguchi
→【Higashi-hihombashi Sta.】about a 5-minute walk
→【Bakuro-yokoyama Sta.】→ Toei Shinjuku Line / for Hashimoto
→【Shinjuku-sanchome Sta.】from Exit E5 → about a 10-minute walk
Access from Haneda Airport
【Haneda Airport Internarional Terminal Sta.】Keikyu Line Airport Express / for Sengakuji
→【Shinagawa Sta.】JR Yamanote Line / for Shibuya and Shinjuku
→【Shinjuku Sta.】from the South Exit → about a 15-minute walk
Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo's Oasis of Nature
Shinjuku Gyoen in the Fall
Since the establishment of the current Japanese constitution, the three national gardens of Kyoto Gyoen, Koukyo Gaien, and Shinjuku Gyoen have together been sustained as symbols of Japan's post-war emphasis on peace and cultural richness.
Starting off as part of an Edo-period mansion, Shinjuku Gyoen developed into an agricultural testing round and botanical garden, and survived the chaos of war to become the current national park. As of 2006, Shinjuku Gyoen reached its 100th anniversary after receiving its current name.
The wide green fields and history-rich gardens give an ambience unlike anywhere in the bustling cities around it. Shinjuku Gyoen greets its visitors with a different palette of vibrant colors with every season, making it a beautifully condensed oasis of nature for you to forget about time, and feel the essence of Japanese beauty.