Tokyo is often thought of as the archetypal modern city with a sprawling urban landscape of sky-scraping buildings, a complex web of trains and subways, and miles upon miles of bustling neighborhoods that one could never hope to fully explore in a lifetime. But while these preconceptions may ring true, travelers shouldn’t overlook Tokyo’s nature-driven highlights.
Whether it’s cherry blossom picnicking in spring, river boat cruises in summer, hiking under the tumbling foliage in fall, or heading to Tokyo’s little-known tropical islands in winter, there are plenty of ways to rediscover Tokyo through the seasons.
Every spring – typically around the end of March or start of April – sakura, or cherry blossom, trees bloom throughout Tokyo for approximately two weeks. Exactly how long the delicate pink petals remain is dictated by weather conditions, but eventually they will drift away in the spring winds. Their cinematic departure is a symbol of mono no aware (the beauty of impermanence) and the fleeting nature of life itself.
The tradition of hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, which has existed since the Heian Period (794-1185), is the best way to enjoy this spring phenomenon. In the pre-pandemic era, Tokyo’s park would be awash in daytime revelers, drinking and dining on tarps under the blooming sakura. In these socially distanced times, however, it’s recommended that crowds admire the flowers on foot instead.
Alternatively, go to a quieter, suburban neighborhood – like Tachikawa Showa Kinen Park or Sarue Onshi Park – where you can picnic free from the crowds of central Tokyo. Or you can wait until the yaezakura trees bloom later in the season. Yaezakura, meaning “multi-layered cherry blossoms,” look similar to the more abundant somei yoshino variety, but have layered petals symbolizing strength. Yaezakura bloom around late April at Shinjuku-gyoen, and at Asukayama Park near Oji Station, among other locations in Tokyo.
Active travelers should also consider cycling or e-bike tours in spring. Tokyo is a relatively flat city, and these tours are an ideal way to traverse the streets and explore the diversity of its neighborhoods. Several operators offer guided tours in English through different districts of the metropolis, along with insider recommendations on where to sample the local culinary fare.
Tokyo’s summers are piping hot and sticky as honey, sending travelers in search of breezier activities within the city. Wooden pleasure boats called yakatabune were once the exclusive domain of the feudal aristocracy who took to the rivers to throw lavish parties with barrels of rice wine and geisha performers. While pleasure boat cruises are no longer exclusive to the upper classes, they remain a great outlet for partying in view of the fluorescent Tokyo skyline while accompanied by a caressing river breeze.
Common yakatabune routes meander along the Sumida River from either Asakusa, home to the grandest of Tokyo’s temples, Senso-ji, or Odaiba, from where you’ll navigate the artificial islands of Tokyo Bay. Bookings for private, shared, or chartered tours are available through the Tokyo Yakatabune Association.
Rooftop beer gardens are also great venues for a tipple set against the backdrop of Tokyo’s epic skyline. The nine-story Seibu shopping mall in Ikebukuro is surmounted by a large drinking-and-dining deck, a portion of which was inspired by Monet’s ‘Water Lilies.’ Some of these places are closed when COVID-19 emergency declarations are in place, so make sure to check local resources for the latest information before you go out.
If you want to get out of the city altogether, go camping – or glamping – in Okutama on the western edge of Tokyo Prefecture. The most mountainous and least developed region of the capital, Okutama is a popular summer haunt thanks to the cool rivers carving through its valleys. For camping, check out the Hikawa Campground, set by a trickling stream in the middle of a tree-swept valley. Or for something more urbane, there are glamping options at Okutama River Terrace or chic tent-cum-cabins at Keikoku Glamping, which also has a spa on site and boutique food-to-order options.
Sat on the urban-rural boundary, Mt. Takao is the most accessible of Tokyo’s mountains at only 599-meters-tall and less than one hour by train from Shinjuku. There are nine well-maintained hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty – though even the hardest doesn’t pose too much of a challenge – each of which is ablaze in the fiery colors of autumn by late-November.
After the hike, grab a few cold ones at Beer Mount, Takao’s resident sky bar which looks toward the Tokyo cityscape to the east. It’s open until mid-October, but make sure to check its official web site for possible changes due to the pandemic. Follow that up with a dip in the onsen (hot spring) at the foot of the mountain. The Keio Takaosan Onsen, an open-air spring naturally heated by subterranean geothermal activity, is perfect for alleviating hike-weary muscles (massages are also available). Or if you’d prefer to get back to Tokyo first, head to a sento (indoor public bath) in Shinjuku, such as Mannenyu or Thermae-yu.
You don’t have to go west to appreciate the fall foliage; the parks of Tokyo are abundant in deciduous trees which put on a show every autumn. Shinjuku-gyoen and Rikugi-en are two of the best-kept public gardens in the city, and are arguably at their most resplendent at this time of year. Expect to see fan-shaped golden ginkgo leaves, deep red momiji and maple trees, and swathes of zelkova foliage resembling flaming spear tips. Shinjuku-gyoen is larger and more diverse, whereas Rikugi-en, formerly owned by a local daimyo (feudal lord), is filled with spiritual iconography and a bottle-green central pond, and hosts a nighttime illumination event every fall.
People don’t often associate winter with the tropics, but Tokyo defies that preconception. The UNESCO-recognized Ogasawara Islands are a tropical archipelago sitting 600-miles south of the Tokyo coastline. Chichi-jima and Haha-jima are the two main inhabited islands – a 25-hour ferry from Tokyo docks at the former every six days (bar a two-week inspection period in mid-January).
Both islands are secret sunny escapes from the Japanese winter, with daytime temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Whale-watching, scuba diving and tropical forest hikes are all popular activities in the Ogasawara winter.
On the mainland, winter is when the Japanese skies are at their clearest, meaning you’ll get picture-perfect views of Mt. Fuji for much of the season. You can see Fuji from the summit of Mt. Takao, or from vantage points atop Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower.
Winter is also one of the best times to eat, especially when the New Year chill descends upon the capital. A deep bowl of umami-rich ramen is the quintessential winter warmer meal, with shops like demon-inspired Kikanbo, whose pork belly ramen packs a spicy punch, and vegan-friendly Afuri among the most popular. Tokyo Ramen Street, an underground hallway lined by eight ramen shops, in Tokyo Station is a must-visit for noodle connoisseurs.
For more information, visit Tokyo’s New Normal