At long last, warm weather has arrived, which means more playtime in Tokyo’s parks — from your scrappy, local patch of dirt to the manicured opulence of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. My family’s favorite is Yoyogi Park. While not the most pristine public space Japan has to offer, it’s certainly the liveliest, with performers, partiers and all other manner of extroverts under the sun. In a land where uniformity and deference wield strong influence, there is something overtly democratic about Yoyogi. It truly is a park for everyone — a place where bankers, punks and pensioners might picnic under the same tree.
The city’s diversity is most vibrantly displayed at Yoyogi’s event area during festival season (May through October). Last weekend was the Thai festival. The week before had Mexican food and music during the Cinco de Mayo weekend. There are many more events to come (see sidebar), so start marking your calendar now.
Expect traditional music and dance performances, as well as food and drink from whatever locale is in the spotlight. What I like most, however, is how each festival draws fans, friends and citizens of the place being celebrated. Want to meet Brazilian families? Go to the Brazil Festival. Plan to expose your kids to Okinawa before a family trip? The Okinawa Festival is the place to be.
A few hours here offers an opportunity for kids to learn something about the world — and possibly about themselves. For example, my son and daughter were born here and attend Japanese schools, but are two of the only kids in the neighborhood who don’t look Japanese. They are comfortable in their own skin (finally), but events like these help them remember that Tokyo has all types of people. They enjoy this, and it gives us plenty to talk about on the train home later.
If your brood gets bored, tired or overstimulated at the festivals, the park’s main grounds are just across the street. Take the stairs up to the pedestrian bridge, or use the crosswalk and watch the aspiring dancers who use the shade under the walkway as an ad-hoc rehearsal space. The walk from this spot to the fountain at the park’s center can be a lesson in Tokyo demographics. Stroll forward and you’ll see a comprehensive cross-section of the people and lifestyles that populate this city.
It can get crowded, so cross to the other side of the pond and you’ll find plenty of room for kids to run wild, even during the crush of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) season. Just beyond this field is a dog run, and in the park’s northwestern corner are bike paths and a bike rental spot (¥200/hr) with kids bikes, too (www.tokyo-park.or.jp/park/format/facilities039.html)
If visiting the park on a Sunday, make a pit stop near the Harajuku entrance for a crepe or some freshly-baked baby castella (just a beer for me, thanks) and pause for a few minutes to watch the rockabilly gang who jive here until the last hours of daylight.
From there, my gang usually heads toward Harajuku Station and enters the shady serenity of Meiji Jingu (www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/nature/2.htm) Most people simply follow the path to the shrine, take a few snapshots and walk back out, but there is much more. Along the path you’ll find access to the Imperial Garden (¥500), where more than 150 varieties of iris start blooming every June (take note: not very wheelchair/stroller friendly). My kids prefer more active organisms to interact with and, as I promised to deliver, we move on to the shrine and exit through its western side, following the quiet wooded path towards the Sangubashi Exit.
The shaded forest path opens up to a rolling hill that tumbles towards the Martial Arts Hall and Treasure Museum. Here is a good spot for a nap in the shade, some reading time or a few games of Uno. This is easily one of my favorite places to relax in Tokyo. It’s almost shocking how empty it can be, especially when compared with the crowds on the Harajuku side. The long walk may explain it, but trust me: it’s worth it. You should also keep in mind that this is part of the shrine, not the park, so shrine rules apply: no raucous behavior or vigorous physical activity, such as frisbee. That means no joggers or bikes, either. But this is the place if you just want to chill for an hour or two.
That’s about how long it takes until my daughter reminds me of a promise I’ve made, so naptime (mine, anyway) is over. She collects our things to hurry me along, and then we head to what will be her weekend’s highlight: Just outside the Sangubashi Exit is the Yoyogi Pony Park (www.city.shibuya.tokyo.jp/est/ponypark.html), where several horses are kept, and children under 12 and over 85 cm tall can ride them up to three times, all for free.
Keep this list handy so you don’t miss out on the best of this summer’s festivals at Yoyogi Park.
May 18-19: One Love Jamaica Festival
May 29-30: Okinawa Festival
July 13-24: Japan/Indonesia Friendship Festival
July 20-21: Brazil Festival
July 27-28: Second (smaller) Thai Festival
Aug. 10-11: Caribbean/Latin American Street Festival
Sept. 14-15: Vietnam Festival
Sept. 21-22: Sri Lanka Festival
Sept. 28-29: Namaste India Festival