|

Dragons, mist and bouncy clouds await in west Tokyo

by Jason Jenkins

About 45 minutes from Tokyo’s skyscrapers, resting in the hinterlands of Tachikawa there is a land of mist and dragons. It’s a place where rolling hills tumble toward an Aztec pyramid, and children bounce on clouds. The place is called Showa Kinen Koen, and an afternoon there is time well spent.

Take the train to Nishi Tachikawa station and walk in the main entrance. The park is massive: over three times the size of Yoyogi Koen, which covers 54 hectares in downtown Tokyo. Rental bikes are a great way to get around the place, and you’ll find rental stations near all three main entrances. Keep in mind, however, that the bike paths are separate from the walking paths, so if your group wants to stay together, then two-wheel sightseeing is an all-or-none affair. There is also a kiddie train that putters through the park at set intervals, but save that for when exhaustion hits. There are kids’ bikes and bikes with baby seats as well, but if you want them, try to get there well before lunch time or they could all be rented out.

That happened to me recently when I visited the park with my family, so our substitute exercise became a boat ride in the pond nearby. There are plenty of paddle boats on offer, but my kids begged to try a rowboat. I foolishly acquiesced. I can now say from experience that rowboats are not the best choice for two elementary school students and a landlubbing schlub like myself. If you know your way around a pair of oars, then please, don’t let me stop you. If not, then it’s quite possible that you will end up wet, vexed and floating in circles. The paddleboat is a much more elegant solution: simple steering, concentrated propulsion, and all that paddle-splash sprays away from you.

Once back on dry land, I suggest a trek away from the Tachikawa gates and toward the northwestern corner of the park. This is a 20-minute walk at least, depending on your pace, but it’s worth it. On your way you’ll pass by Showa Kinen Koen’s waterpark on the left, an ideal place cool off in summer. Another 5-minute’s walk from the waterpark and you reach a massive open field lined with flowers. This is where frisbees, soccer balls and kites come in handy. If stomachs start to grumble, this is also an ideal spot for a picnic. You should have already passed a few food stalls on your way, but if you missed your chance then, there are several more within eyesight of the field. Nutrition is scarce on these menus, so we usually bring a few oranges and cucumbers from home to make us feel less guilty about the sausages and crepes we’ll consume throughout the day.

After a bite and a rest on the grass, get back on the path and continue northward, and the territory gets more interesting. The path and the benches nearby take on odd, asymmetrical shapes and are covered with colored pebbles and shards of pottery, like remnants pulled from Gaudi’s workshop. Take the path next to a stone snake and you’ll soon encounter a recessed area with a spiral sidewalk that resembles an amphitheater whose concrete steps are washing away, ever-so-slowly circling the drain. Once you pass this area, follow the squeals of laughter ahead and you’ll soon arrive at one of my favorite playgrounds in Japan. Here you’ll find a variety of structures designed to keep your kids active for hours. There is a network of colorful nets and canopies to navigate, and the aforementioned pyramid looms over the treeline, like something from the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Reinforcing the exotic vibe are mist machines at the foot of the pyramid, shrouding the nearby area with cooling vapor several times a day (exactly how well-shrouded depends on the weather).

Around the corner from here are massive dragon heads, each one a colossal collage of stones, cement and ceramics. You’ll definitely want a picture of your kids scrambling over the face of these creatures, but so does every other parent, so be patient. Once you’ve snapped a few, it’s time for the Bouncing Dome of rubber clouds. Here you’ll find inflated white blobs covering an area the size of a football field, their surfaces adorned with dozens of airborne children. Several areas are marked off by age level, so toddlers can hop, flop and roll without being plowed over by a 6th-grader (parents may still want to stay close). If your kids have sensitive skin, sunscreen is crucial here. The entire surface is white, and so even if kids wear a hat, all that UV is bouncing right back onto them.

Once the sun starts to set, the best way to avoid the long walk back to the Nishi Tachikawa gate is to take that kiddy-train I mentioned. Hop on at one of the many stations throughout the park and you can cut your return time in half.

I’ve been to Showa Kinen Koen half a dozen times and have still seen only half of the park. But I’m looking forward to more adventures there. You will too.

For more information visit www.showakinenpark.go.jp/english/