Japanese gardens were designed for poetry, music and romance; think of all those lovers in "The Tale of Genji" trailing through dew-drenched gardens to trysts with ladies of their dreams.

They were also places to muse on nature and life. An ideal home, according to the 14th-century courtier turned Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko, included "a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm; a verandah and an open-work fence; and a few personal effects, left carelessly lying about."

But these traditions were thrown into confusion with the end of the country's long isolation and the rush to modernize and Westernize in the ensuing Meiji Era (1868-1912). Although many interesting buildings from that era have now disappeared, one of its best gardens is still in great shape. This is Shinjuku Gyoen, one of Tokyo's most popular public gardens.

Six days a week, Shinjuku Gyoen offers a delightful way to leave the concrete world behind. People go there to paint, take photographs, stroll through the greenery or picnic with friends.

If the ghost of Emperor Meiji ever visits he would be surprised, because it used to be an exclusive place. Originally, the land was in the feudal domain of Lord Naito, but after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate it was confiscated and remodeled as an imperial garden. However, though it was designed for pleasure, the new garden also had a serious purpose modeled on Western horticulture.

Looking at the original plans in the information center, it's apparent that it has changed little since opening in 1906. There, on paper, are the English- and French-style gardens, the Japanese gardens with ponds, and the glass Palm House that every serious Victorian-era garden required. There were also many nursery beds for experimenting with plants new to Japan.

After the war, as yet another new era dawned, the imperial park bowed to the spirit of democracy and became a park for everyone. Now, some of the experimental beds grow spectacular chrysanthemums that are displayed in autumn. The greenhouses, rebuilt in the 1950s, have a fine collection of tropical plants and orchids, and it is great to go in there on a cold winter day. Your glasses mist over, you breathe the warm, humid air . . . and at once you are transported to a jungle.

But perhaps the greatest gifts the Meiji gardeners left us are the trees. On a bright, crisp day at this time of year, the park's mature trees are a wonderful sight, whether evergreen or forming leafless, mazelike silhouettes against the sky.

At the main entrance, and throughout the park, are clusters of noble icho (ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba), the symbol of Tokyo. When I visited early this month, the ground was covered in their golden leaves, and some glossy black crows were looking unusually picturesque as they hunted through them for seeds. They must make a nice change from their usual diet of discarded yaki-soba!

Ginkgo trees are incredible survivors, dating back some 250 million years. These trees were venerated in Chinese temples, and they probably reached Japan on the wave of Zen Buddhism in the 12th century. The elegant leaves are very unusual, having veins that radiate out from a single point, like the ribs of a fan. Shinjuku Gyoen cared for many of the seedlings that still line Tokyo's streets today. Have you ever noticed how pollarded gingko trees bear very large leaves? Poor things, perhaps they are trying to compensate for the loss of their limbs.

Another oriental beauty here is a winter-flowering cherry called ju-gatsu-zakura. Just now it has tiny blossoms, as delicate as snowflakes. They are a foretaste of spring, when the park's superb collection of 1,500 cherry trees invokes the spirit of old Japan.

At any time of year it is a pleasure to walk in the English Landscape Garden. Although this is too flat to satisfy a genuine English milord, we will not quibble; the spacious lawn set with handsome trees is very precious in a crowded city such as Tokyo.

The needle-fine leaves of the graceful akebono-sugi (dawn redwood; Metasequoia glyptostroboides) have now turned a warm shade of bronze and are falling fast. Until the 20th century, these leaves were found only in fossils and the trees were thought to be extinct. However in 1941 some were discovered growing in the vastness of China, causing great excitement in the botanical world.

Nearby are some American natives, a group of fine, tall tulip trees (Liriodendrum tulipifera). Shinjuku Gyoen was the first place in Japan to cultivate these elegant trees. In summer they will be full of the pale-green, cup-shaped flowers that give the tree its English name (although in Japanese it is called yuri-no-ki, meaning "lily-tree").

But the most romantic spot on a winter's day is probably the French Formal Garden. Roses still bloom, but the main attraction are the avenues of suzukake-no-ki (plane; Platanus). These are "pleached" so that each tree seems to raise its arms and touch the shoulder of its neighbor. The bare, clinging branches paint a wistful scene, and young lovers linger on the benches, huddled in their mufflers, dreaming perhaps of spring. Although gardens in Japan have changed over the centuries, it is good to know that some things remain the same.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (last entry 4 p.m.), while the greenhouse is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. It is closed Monday (except when Monday is a national holiday, when it closes Tuesday), and Dec. 29-Jan. 3. Nearby stations include Shinjuku Gyoenmae, on the Marunouchi subway line and JR Shinjuku Station. Tel: (03) 33350 0151 or visit www.shinjukugyoen.go.jp

Sadly, this article is the end of the road for "Garden Paths." I hope to report, from time to time, on various green and pleasant places I visit on my travels. Meanwhile, thank you for your company along these paths, and happy gardening.