A city is only as good as its greenery. Japanese city planners must have taken this idea very seriously, as witnessed by the abundance of green spots that cheer up any ever so urban environment. These little breathing spaces are called 公園 (kōen), which literally translates as “public garden,” and their existence contributes a great deal to the quality of city life.

The term 公園 includes both parks and playgrounds. As to the former, there are well-known sites such as 上野公園 (Ueno kōen, Ueno Park) or 新宿御苑 (Shinjuku gyoen, Shinjuku Imperial Gardens), to name but two examples from central Tokyo that regularly draw large crowds. Sometimes too large, it turned out this spring, when heedless cherry blossom viewers transformed some parks into COVID-19 hotspots.

More down-to-earth but no less fascinating are the playgrounds. Some may be more inviting than others, bigger, cleaner, greener, or with more exciting equipment, but they all have a few things in common.

Let’s start with the basics, the 遊具 (yūgu, playground equipment). Even the smallest playground is likely to have some sort of 滑り台 (suberidai, slide). Another very common item is a pair of ブランコ (buranko, swings), a would-be loan word of unclear origins.

Also not entirely clear, at least not to this playground hopper, is the function of the knee-high metal structures at the front and back of each swing. Do they aim at preventing collisions with people on the ground? Or are they intended to keep swinging kids from jumping off? Some people even suggest that the main de facto function is to provide a seat for exhausted parents, from where they can easily monitor their swinging kids from close by while keeping an eye on their phone.

Other elements to look out for at your local playground are a ジャングルジム (janguru jimu, jungle gym) — yes, this word’s a loaner! — and various sorts of スプリング遊具 (supuringu yūgu, spring rockers), from the classic horse to more extravagant creatures. A cognate of the spring family is the シーソー (shīsō), a somewhat dire katakana rendition of the English “seesaw.” The coexisting Japanese name, ぎったんばっこん (gittan bakkon), does much better justice to the constant up-down movement the contraption puts you through.

Some playgrounds also sport a number of athletic elements. The most basic among them are 鉄棒 (tetsubō, horizontal bars), often in different heights, and うんてい (untei, monkey bars). Sometimes there may be a whole maze of apparatuses, to keep both young and older playground users in good shape. The ambitious Japanese term for this is アスレチック (asurechikku), derived from English “athletics.”

A Japanese playground wouldn’t be what it is without a few other, nonplay prerequisites. A bench or two is always appreciated, after all you cannot sit on these swing protection bars all the time. In addition, a well-maintained playground needs a 水飲み場 (mizunomiba, drinking fountain) so you won’t get thirsty, a トイレ (toire, toilet) for when you’ve drank too much from the above, and a 時計 (tokei, clock) so you know when it’s time to return to your nonplayground world.

One final element we mustn’t — if often, do — overlook is the sign that enlists the many 禁止事項 (kinshi jikō, things prohibited). No サッカーやキャッチボールなど (sakkā ya kyatchibōru nado, soccer, catch-ball, etc.), 花火 (hanabi, fireworks), 自転車の乗り入れ (jitensha no noriire, entering on bicycle), スケートボード (sukētobōdo, skateboarding), ポイ捨て (poisute, littering), or any other 迷惑になる行動 (meiwaku ni naru kōdō, activities that disturb others). The list is so long that a recent NHK article wondered, 公園のルール多すぎない? (kōen no rūru ōsuginai?) — aren’t there too many playground rules?

Even if perhaps somewhat overregulated, Japanese playgrounds fulfill a vital function in everyday urban life — and not only for kids. They also provide a lunchtime space for hurried bento eaters (but don’t litter!), toilets for taxi drivers and other moving professions (please keep them clean!), a turf for gateball tournaments (if not prohibited, that is), and an open-air ground for early morning ラジオ体操 (rajio taisō, “radio gymnastics”). Most importantly, they provide some green among the gray in your very own neighborhood.

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