Catch the four seasons of Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen becomes a haven for flower viewing during spring. — Pictures by CK Lim
Shinjuku Gyoen becomes a haven for flower viewing during spring. — Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, Oct 14 — You’re here for the cherry blossoms, of course.

Every spring Shinjuku Gyoen, a beloved public park in Tokyo, is transformed into a pink-and-white wonderland of fragile petals that last barely a couple of weeks. It’s as though an entire season is condensed in a fortnight. The throngs of cherry blossom seekers are tremendous; inversely proportional in size to the brevity of these blooms.

Pale white petals of cherry blossoms.
Pale white petals of cherry blossoms.

There’s no reason to stay on past this fleeting flowering... or is there? What if you could stay on in the park, not only after closing hours, but day after day, week upon week? As the months pass one another, the seasons turn and you discover the magic of Shinjuku Gyoen doesn’t end with springtime; it merely begins.

Originally a feudal lord’s Tokyo residence during the Edo Period (1603-1867), Shinjuku Gyoen has had many guises over the centuries. The only constant seems to be the changing of the seasons and that they will repeat, year after year.

While the park has three gates, most visitors enter via the Shinjuku Gate — a 10-minute walk east from the JR Shinjuku Station — rather than the Okido and Sendagaya Gates. Come often enough and you will be rewarded with alternating between entrances and exits, to experience the splendour of the park from different angles. No walk is ever the same.

It’s late March and the weather is still chilly, though without the bite of the coldest months. There are still patches of green in the garden — there are always some evergreens — but mostly the vast lawns are cropped and the colour of Kansas hay. What strikes your eyes are how the clouds have descended upon the park...

...except these clouds are puffs of cherry blossoms. Some petals as pale and translucent as the finest rice paper; some a shocking crimson, like drops of blood from a Japanese re-enactment of Macbeth, all swords and samurai.

Most fall upon a wide spectrum of pinkish hues. Indescribably beautiful though enough poets have tried to capture its evanescence in verse. Certainly there are plenty of photographers with their cameras and smartphones attempting the same: a thousand pictures are worth a thousand thousand words, no?

Not everyone is carried away in a frenzy to capture the best shot for their social media feeds. Most locals are content to stroll along the paths, taking it all in. Many don’t even bother to move around, not after finding their favourite spot with a view. Springtime in Shinjuku Gyoen is also time to have a picnic lunch and to sip on hot tea.

Retirees painting with watercolours (left). Young mothers practising yoga (right).
Retirees painting with watercolours (left). Young mothers practising yoga (right).

As you wander from cherry tree to cherry tree, you observe other ways of celebrating this transient spell. Young mothers catch up while practising yoga, their babies along for the ride. Older children run around, gathering up fallen petals. Retirees show off their painting skills, with watercolours that seem as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms.

It’s easy to imagine that Shinjuku Gyoen is all about the cherry blossoms, and indeed, it’s one of the best spots for these in the capital. But as the weather grows warmer in June and the tourists have long disappeared, along with the blooms of spring, the park enters another phase: summer and the worshipping of the sun.

Sunbathing.
Sunbathing.
Seeking the shade of trees (left). The Avenue of Sycamore Trees turns green during summer (right).
Seeking the shade of trees (left). The Avenue of Sycamore Trees turns green during summer (right).

Now that the temperatures are friendlier, you see folks sunbathing on the wide open lawns. Those concerned about heat stroke seek the shelter of shady trees. You begin to view the park with new eyes. Rather than a meandering maze of cherry blossom trees, you discover different, discrete sections; each its own garden and world.

There is a traditional Japanese landscape garden. Here ponds of varying sizes are connected by bridges. The waters are interrupted with small islands and the motions of animal life — fish, birds, tortoises (or are they terrapins?), insects flitting this way and that. You spot tiny spiders spinning their webs; life in the park needs feeding, naturally, but the all the creatures find their own ways.

Egret looking for fish, framed by fallen maple leaves (left). Spider spinning its web (right).
Egret looking for fish, framed by fallen maple leaves (left). Spider spinning its web (right).
Springtime is a time for picnics.
Springtime is a time for picnics.

There are stately pavilions, including one built to commemorate the wedding of the Emperor Showa. This is called the Taiwan Pavilion, and inside its serene dimensions you have the best view of the ponds and the garden, framed by carefully manicured trees along the water’s edge.

Roses in bold colours at the French Garden (left). Crunchy dead leaves on the ground (right).
Roses in bold colours at the French Garden (left). Crunchy dead leaves on the ground (right).

You’ve already witnessed the wide, open lawns of the English Garden where the sunbathers congregate, of course. But perhaps the most beautiful garden during summer lies on the farthest end. Flanked by two long rows of sycamore trees, the formal French Garden is the heart of Shinjuku Gyoen with its riot of summer roses arranged in European symmetry.

If Tokyo had its own fragrance, surely it must be bottled here, among the roses?

Sycamore trees crowned in gold during autumn (left). The Avenue of Sycamore Trees during winter, naked and skeletal (right).
Sycamore trees crowned in gold during autumn (left). The Avenue of Sycamore Trees during winter, naked and skeletal (right).
A riot of yellows and golds.
A riot of yellows and golds.

Arresting the season’s scent with a perfume stopper may not be a bad idea for soon enough the season passes. (All seasons must pass.) The temperatures drop again. It’s November and autumn has arrived. The roses are gone but now is when the sycamore trees that guard the French Garden come into their own.

Known by park regulars as the Avenue of Sycamore Trees, here is where you are transported yet again to another world. The golden yellows of leaves yet to fall and the earthy browns of the dried leaves that crunch beneath you as you walk: these are the sights and sounds of autumn.

A young couple leaning against each other.
A young couple leaning against each other.
Looking for directions beneath late winter plum blossoms.
Looking for directions beneath late winter plum blossoms.

At the park’s eastern side and around the Japanese Garden, the stunning reds and oranges of maple leaves leave you in awe. An egret looking for fish at one of the pools is framed by fallen maple leaves. How wondrous.

Just as quickly, these leaves all fall and are swept away. It is January, the start of a new year and a new season. Winter in Shinjuku Gyoen means a lot of bare trees but even these have its own beauty. The Avenue of Sycamore Trees is now a battalion of soldiers who have shed their uniforms, the stark glory of naked branches reaching out towards the sky. The benches wait for you beneath their skeletal canopy, whispering “You may take a rest here.”

Schoolchildren explore the park in orderly lines.
Schoolchildren explore the park in orderly lines.

School children trek across the shorn face of the park in orderly lines and neon-coloured caps. You spot more couples now than in any other season — young lovers leaning against each other; grandparents quibbling over directions under the blessing of rotund plum blossoms that flower in late winter. It’s colder so perhaps everyone just needs to be closer together.

Before you know it, it’s spring again. The seasons always repeat, that’s the promise the park makes. You can spend a year in Shinjuku Gyoen and experience all the seasons of life. And what a life it’d be!

The long shadows of winter.
The long shadows of winter.

Shinjuku Gyoen
11 Naitomachi, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily (except Mon closed) 9am-4:30pm. Closed December 31 to January 2. No closing dates during the cherry blossom season (late March to late April) and the chrysanthemum exhibition (early November).
Admission fee: 200 yen (RM7.30)

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