When you have infants in a stroller, you want to take them out and show them the city. And you want them to get some fresh air and expose your children to greenery at the same time. If there is a play area you may want your kids to get out of the stroller and run around a bit, climb the jungle gym, and ride the slides.
Tokyo is dotted with minimal parks, small enough to fit in most peoples pockets. They are actually used as evacuation areas in case of earthquakes or fires.
But the parks are small for a reason. Land is incredibly expensive in Tokyo, especially in the center (which means near the Imperial Palace). The gardens are partially open to the public, but the central area, where the emperor actually lives, is off-limits except for two days every year: the Emperors birthday (December 23) and January 2, when the public is allowed to greet the emperor and receive his blessings.
During WW II, the imperial palace (and the grounds) was the only thing in the entire Tokyo area that was not bombed. The rest of the city was turned into a field of ashes and twisted rubble, but the American strategists realized that if they were to kill the emperor or damage the Imperial Palace, the entire country would raise up in a holy rage, and they found the Japanese fighters hard enough to deal with anyway.
Today Tokyo has turned into a city of highrises, skyscrapers popping up not just in the Shinjuku area but all around Tokyo, as builders develop ways of stabilizing the ground under them and make the buildings earthquake-proof. With land as expensive as it is, they proliferate especially in central Tokyo. The Imperial Palace is gradually becoming surrounded. But it continues to be a green spot in the center of Tokyo, and if you look at a map you will see that the subway lines make bends and curves to avoid the Imperial Palace grounds.
You are not allowed to enter, except for certain days and areas, but the roads around the palace are built with a wide pedestrian walkway on the palace side. This is a favorite area for runners, who use the walkway along the moats as a running track. The road around the palace is roughly 5 kilometers, with wide sidewalks and no obstacles, unless you try to go through the historic gates at Sakuradaimon.
1. Imperial Palace South Side
Start at Hanzomon subway station, named for a 16-th century samurai who helped Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of modern Japan. You go out via elevator 1, which is in the middle of the station and takes you to the left side of the street. Go east for a couple of hundred meters and cross the big street. This side of the castle is where the stone fortifications are the most impressive, and the Hanzomon gate is impressive in itself, giving you a feeling for how hard it must have been to enter the Edo castle (the original name of Tokyo, a name which means "eastern capital"). The bridge is narrow and actually built to be destroyed if an invader got this far.
Go to the right, following the moat as you walk down the long slope towards the Maronouchi skyscrapers. To your right, across the expressway, is the Tokyo National Theater; behind it is the Diet, the Japanese parliament, and the different ministries of the Japanese government. Mostly in anonymous office buildings where the bureaucrats of the government slave away their working days while you are out in the autumn sunshine, showing your children a foreign and unique culture.
As you continue down the slope, be sure to brake the stroller so it does not run away. You get some great views of the ramparts and the moat; the water is so clear and shallow that you can see the ducks diving and the carp.
Continue down the slope as it gradually turns right, and the road flattens out as you move towards the Sakuradaimon gate, one of the original palace gates and still standing. It is hard to go through the gate but you can go around it. Continue over the huge gravel yard to the park at the end, and then cross the main road to get to Wadakura Fountain Park. If your kids are getting antsy, you can cross the road earlier (do be careful with cars, they drive on the other side of the road from what you are used to), and let them run on the grass.
From Wadakura park, with some of the coolest fountains you will ever see (and a better public toilet than near the palace), plus a nice café, it is only a couple of blocks walk among the skyscrapers to Tokyo Station, where this tour ends.
2. Imperial Palace And Hibuya Park
Start this walk at the Kudanshita subway station. The station is located almost at the palace moat (no subway lines run under the palace itself), and the name means "nine steps below", as in steps in a staircase. Below the palace, of course.
Go out through exit 4, which is closest to the Imperial Palace. The elevator is at gate 7, in front of the Royal Host restaurant, so you have to cross Yasukuni-dori (the Yasukuni shrine is up the hill, but that is a different walk). After that, go to the left. Continue for a couple of blocks and you come to the palace moat. The palace on the other side is as close as you can come to the original, and even though the expressway passes through the palace park and you have to pass under it. Large parts of the palace grounds are actually used for non-imperial things, like the Science Museum and the world-famous Budokan, which you will pass on another walk.
As you follow the moat you will continue to see the palace buildings on the right side. The imperial palace grounds were actually one of the few areas in the greater Tokyo area which were not firebombed during World War II, as the Americans realized that this would have triggered a wave of nationalism that would have made it impossible to invade Japan, atom bombs or not.
Today it is impossible to imagine the area as burned-out and bombed, as you pass the Wadakura fountain park and the immaculately kept pines in the immaculately kept lawn. The highrises looking down on the Imperial Palace, full of banks and corporate headquarters, are all creations of the last 40 years. Some of them were constructed during the "bubble years" when Japanese property values went through the roof, fuelled by cheap loans made possible by a glut of retirement funds looking for a few more percentage point yields. But there is continuous ongoing construction here, as the Maronouchi area, where the samurai serving the shogun used to live, is one of the most prestigious addresses in Japan. New corporate headquarters keep popping up by the day. Continue straight ahead, but be careful of the traffic as you pass the old ramparts and cross the street to get into Hibuya Park.
This has been a park since 1903, although like so much of Tokyo it had to be reconstructed following the fire bombings during the second world war, but the reconstruction was faithful to the original, preserving the fin de siecle feeling of much of the park. Since it has a central location and a fairly large open space, it is a very popular place to arrange events. There are Oktoberfest and Christmas markets here every year, and many other events. If you are interested in Japanese wine, mark Hibuya Park for your November walk. On Culture Day, November 3 every year, the Yamanashi prefecture winemakers come and introduce this years Yamanashi Noveau, produced the same year in the same way as Beaujoulais Noveau. There are some remarkable wine makers in Yamanashi and it is incredible how much character their wines can develop in such a short time.
Finishing the walk, you can either go to the Hibuya stations on the Chiyoda line, the Uchisawaicho on the Mita line, or walk an extra block to the Yurakucho station. Depends on where you are going next.
3. Imperial Palace North Side With Budokan
Start at Tokyo Station or the Otemachi subway station, and go to the entry gate to the Imperial Palace east garden, which is where you will find the ruins of the Edo Castle. It is not open every day and closes fairly early, but it is free. Read more at the website of the Imperial Household agency.
The buildings at the Imperial Palace grounds are impressive but they are nothing against the original castle, which burned down several hundred years ago. When it was built, the central tower must have been the tallest building in Japan, since it towered over what was then known as Edo, challenging Mt Fuji (also since the roof tiles were white).
The only thing left from the original castle is the foundations - and the surrounding buildings, which is what you see in the east gardens, and the surrounding ramparts, today. Some of them are fascinating, like the guard barracks. The gardens are however more interesting if you are looking for Japanese gardens, since they are different than the formal temple gardens you may have come to associate with Japan. They represent a style of garden which used to surround the grand palaces in Tokyo. These were the palaces of the feudal lords which they maintained to entertain and live in style when they visited Edo, as they were required to do. And for their families to live while the lords were back in their domains, because the families were kept as hostages for the good behavior of the lord while he was back at home.
That these are strolling gardens rather than formal gardens means they are very accessible to parents with children in strollers, especially since the paths have been paved. It is a great way to give your children some fresh air and yourself a history lesson. The path through the east garden ends at a very busy street - actually, one of the freeways criss-crossing Tokyo. There is a pedestrian footbridge but you have to go up the stairs to cross the road, and down again on the other side. You are better off waiting for a gap in the traffic, they will come. Just look out to both left and right.
As you cross you enter another park, which also used to be part of the Imperial Palace gardens. As a matter of fact, large parts of what today is central Tokyo used to be part of the gardens of the Imperial Palace, in particular the green spots. Other parks belonged to the grand feudal residences. But first the Emperor started splitting off parts when he moved to Tokyo after the generals who had run the country for three hundred years were overturned; then the US started splitting off parts as they needed them for barracks; and then the Japanese government created parks of parts and started building museums and arenas.
In the north garden, that is exactly what you will find - apart from a very stroller-friendly park. The first thing you will come across is The Museum of Modern Art, which is actually three museums in one. Part of it, housed in a stunning modern building, is intended to collect and showcase Japanese modern art, which can be every way as convoluted and contrived as its Western counterparts. A little further along is the Science Museum, which is focused on interactive exhibits, and while it can be a bit dry it can also be exciting for toddlers. Since a lot of the explanations are in Japanese they are better off if they are not able to read them, most of the exhibits are self-explanatory.
Walk past that, and you come to a small lake with really lovely views - it will make you believe that you are somewhere rural, looking at views from the patio of a British country house. Amazingly, you can be almost alone.
Walk along the road, past the cafe, and you come to the Budokan. It was built for the Tokyo Olympic games, when judo became an Olympic sport. The arena (which is not open to the public, and anyway quite hard to access with a stroller) is built so the performers are surrounded by the public, with seats 360 degrees.
It happened to have great acoustics, which was not planned but led to the arena being used for some legendary concerts by the Beatles, followed by a number of American bands touring Japan, and the creation of some LPs that arguably changed the music business and the way people listen to music.
Today, the Budokan is used in two ways: As an arena for the Japanese budo sports, and as a performance arena. Bands often play here, both Japanese and foreign, because of the central location and the size. There are other events as well, like the AKB 48 annual "stone-paper-scissors" game.
But they have to give way to the martial arts, for which the arena was originally built. There are many more martial arts than judo and karate, most of which are not as familiar to a Western public. But there is no explanatory materials, museum or anything, even though that would be helpful.
Continue past the Budokan and turn right on the main road, and going downhill for a little while will take you to the Kudanshita subway station. There is a Starbucks cafe across the road, if you want to rest your feet before you continue.
4. Imperial Palace And Yasukuni Jinja
Go to Takebashi and walk along the main road. You will have the moat to your right. The first bridge across the moat is Takebashi, which means ”bamboo bridge”. There used to be a number of bridges around the palace which were designed to be easy to tear down in case an enemy got as far as the moat. And a bridge built from bamboo is of course easy to tear down.
As you leave the bridge behind you will enter a street with modern buildings, many of them public buildings of some note. The vincinty of the Imperial Palace not only draws major corporate headquarters, it also attracts both the politicians of Japan and the ministries where bureaucrats actually run the country. But the area around the palace also attracts the judical branch, including the national courts and the national prosecutor.
As you turn the corner onto Yasukuni Dori (one of the boulevards with a proper name in Tokyo), you have the Showa museum to your left. This prominently placed but unassuming building is dedicated not so much to showing life in the Showa era, but informing about it. If you find it confusing that everything talks about the period before and during the war, and until the 1960’s, that is because Japanese historical periods are named for the emperors. And the Showa emperor was none other than the emperor known as Hirohito in the rest of the world.
The museum is not dedicated to the emperor but his period, however. When Japanese people wax nostalgic they talk about the Showa era, and there are stores at all Japanese tourist destinations that sell Showa candy, snacks and toys in a (replicated) historic settings.
But not here. Unfortunately the museum is not very child-friendly. If the weather is nice you are better off continuing up the hill. But you should cross the road next to the Showa museum. The simple reason is that it gets much harder to cross the road later.
Continue straight up the hill. You see the iron torii, the characteristic gate to the temple. Continue towards it and pass through it, then you can let your kids run free until you come to the temple gate proper. Remember as you enter (you may require some assistance with the stroller) that this is a place of worship, whatever you think about the spirits being worshipped there.
Parts of the grounds can be hard to traverse with a stroller, the paths are gravelled not paved, so it may be easier to walk your children instead of pushing them in a stroller.
The museum is also fascinating - if you are an adult. If not, never mind. Kamikaze bombers, cannon and field gear rescued from fields in the Philippines do not hold much fascination for kids anyway, although the actual steam engine from the ”Bridge over the river Kwai” railway makes an excellent playground. But there are restrooms which are great for changing your kids.
5. North Side And Chidorigafuchi
Exiting the subway at Kudanshita, the elevator is located at the far end of the little square in front of the Royal Host restaurant. As you exit, turn around (with the restaurant to your right), cross the road so you are on the left side as you take a right on Yasukuni Dori (the big road in front of you). It has excellent sidewalks so wheeling your children is an easy stroll.
At the first traffic light, turn left. You now have the moat on your left side, with the cherry trees hanging over it. The moat becomes wider as you continue towards the south. After about 500 meters you come to the boathouse on your left. Even if there are no waves in the moat, I do not recommend taking infants in the boats; there are no lifevests for infants available. Have a coffee in the boathouse instead, before you continue along the moat.
As you continue walking, you enter the Chidorigafuchi park, a long and narrow park along the moat. This means there are toilets at regular intervals, should you need them. And while the park is beautiful in cherry blossom season, it is not paved all the way, so while this is a good place to let your children run and play, you may want to go on the sidewalk along the road with your stroller. After a while, the park narrows and disappears, and as you go down the hill the vista opens up and the cherry trees disappear. Continue down the hill, and at the bottom of the hill turn right and go to the Sakuradamon subway station.
More to come on my Japan page. Will update as soon as the page is ready.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.