Tokyo certainly offers its share of beautiful gardens. Tourists know that. And Tokyo hosts a lot of tourists. The goal of serenity that underpins Japanese garden style can be achieved among a crush of visitors, possibly, if you close your eyes and play flute music through your earbuds.
Or you can take a short rail trip south of Tokyo to Yokohama. Not exactly a suburb, but almost. A half-hour train ride from Shinjuku station and you’ve escaped to the largest industrial port in Japan. Not serene. But you won’t be stopping at the port. You’ll be seeking out Sankeien Garden.
Yokohama also features the country’s greatest Chinatown, and you may want to have lunch there before catching the No. 8 or No. 148 bus to the garden $7/adult). Sankeien is so called because it was built by Hara Sankei, a rich silk merchant, and opened to the public in 1904. To add authentic touches Sankei-san pulled in vintage structures from elsewhere, such as the dominating pagoda, dating from the 1400s. Experience a tea ceremony, tour a gassho style (heavily thatched) house from Hida prefecture, or climb the hill to the pagoda. The garden brings together a little of traditional culture from around the Kanto region, a good introduction if you have no time to go very far beyond Tokyo.
Because, presumably, getting to Sankeien is slightly challenging, it seems to remain more tranquil than the more famous Tokyo gardens. We stopped by in January, perhaps not everyone’s top month for garden visits, but it was only a bit chilly, the pine is always green, something is always blooming, and the waterfowl still frolic.
Sankeien Garden is also a little melancholy. Its scars and ruins over a century call to mind the sad tragedy of Japan through war and natural catastrophe. Structures in the garden are gone or lie in ruins, victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 or, more poignantly, allied bombing during World War II. This faint reminder of Japan’s heritage, a small island nation prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, and military dictatorships, perhaps can be sensed within the soft breeze through the pines and winter-blooming camellia. We can take time to pause and reflect. No earbuds necessary.