September 1, 2016

The Lovely Happo-en Gardens

Found in the heart of Tokyo, Happo-en's gardens are sure to be a great addition to any itinerary. Moreover, they are entirely free to explore!

Colorful koi fish swim at a pond at Tokyo's Happo-en gardens

Today, we will be taking a look at something that can easily be added as a one-off to an existing itinerary. The site is known as Happo-en or “Garden of the Eight Views” due to the fact that it is breathtaking no matter which angle you look from. This multi-purpose space is one of Tokyo’s oldest and features trees that have deeper histories than many nations.

Happo-en is a quiet reprieve from the crowds and the heat and especially so during the summer months. The garden was founded by an adviser to the shogun during the Edo period (1603–1868) and has remained a place of respite ever since. Despite Happo-en’s rich antiquity, it is most well-known today for its restaurant, banquet hall, and chapel.

Getting to Tokyo’s Charming Happo-en

Happo-en is located on top of a hill in central Tokyo. The gardens can be easily reached from Shirokanedai Station. As such, the access can be pretty poor unless you happen to be staying on or near the Nanboku or Mita Lines however both of those two lines have some connections to JR trains. Happo-en is just a few minutes walk from the station. Alternatively, you can make the trek from the JR Meguro Station which should take you about 15 minutes; but reader be warned, as I noted, it is on the top of a hill!

Here’s a map to help guide you just in case…

How to Enter Happo-en’s Gardens

The entrance to Tokyo’s Happo-en facility

Although Happo-en is entirely free to enter, the space is most often used for weddings, ceremonies, and special occasions. As such, if you’re traveling solo and aren’t wearing a tux or gown, it can feel pretty intimidating trying to navigate the main building to the gardens. Even after living in Japan for many years I was quite overwhelmed by an awareness of “I should not be here.” But if you know the way, you can get past the entrance and into the gardens quickly.

Usually the door to the gardens is left open but in case there’s an event going on, you’re going to need to go rogue. That said, do not despair! Despite the title for this section, remember that it is TOTALLY FREE to visit these gardens even if it doesn’t feel like it!

To find your way, enter the main building and take the left-hand staircase down to the landing and then continue down to the bottom floor. On your left, at the far side of the building, there should be a set of elevators. Alas, your ticket to freedom as the door to the gardens can be found in this area. Should you get lost, don’t hesitate to ask any of the staff.

Exploring Happo-en’s Gardens

Once you have entered the gardens you’ll be on one end of an oval shaped pond with an accompanying path that snakes alongside it. This small body of water is the central piece of Happo-en. Head left and follow the trail but remember to keep your eyes out for all sorts of decorations. Before long you’ll reach a small hut perched over the water (pictured above).

The pond is actually home to an extraordinary number of koi (or “brocaded carp” in English) and they usually gather in groups around the area where the hut juts out above the water. These ornamental fish can grow to surprising sizes and are typically worth thousands of dollars a piece! If you’re lucky you can catch them playing in the water.

Behind the small hut you will find two items of interest. The first of these is a small Shinto shrine that is dedicated to Emperor Jimmu (660 BCE–585 BCE) and Emperor Meiji (1852–1912). Known as Daigo Shrine, this little homage to two legendary emperors has been designated as a national monument. Despite its small stature, this little shrine is quite significant.

Next up is another interesting spot located just to the left of Daigo Shrine. Here you’ll find a historical teahouse where you can experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This building is known as “Muan” and was originally built by a rich silk merchant during the Edo period however its name dates all the way back to the Muromachi period (1372–1573).You can actually go inside “Muan” and partake in this

You can actually go inside “Muan” and partake in this well-known element of Japanese culture but as far as I can gather, it’s pretty pricey. According to Happo-en’s official site they have garden tour packages that include the teahouse and lunch so for those of you who aren’t balling on a budget, this might be something to consider.

A covered rest spot in Tokyo’s Happo-en gardens

After taking in the beautiful design of “Muan” continue on the path around the small central pond. From here on out it will wind upwards around the right-hand side of the lake. Be sure to check out some of the Bonsai trees as you make your way through the gardens. Many of the trees are over 400 years old and have seen multiple generations come and go through Happo-en’s beautiful grounds.

The smokers among you should also keep an eye out for little structures along the way. These are actually some of the most ornate smoking areas that I have ever seen so be sure to check them out. If having a quick smoke break while taking in breathtaking scenery sounds good to you then Happo-en is a place you need to check out!

The difficult-to-find gateway to Tokyo’s Happo-en gardens

For the rest of you, the path will continue on toward a historical exit that will take you back out to the parking lot. There are some cool structures to notice on the way out such as a massive stone pagoda as well as some sitting areas that are protected from the sun by traditional straw roofs. If it’s your lucky day, you may also catch a glimpse of a wedding ceremony but try not be the creepy tourist and crash the party.

All of Happo-en can be done in about an hour or so making it the perfect early morning or midday inclusion for a tightly packed itinerary. You may also want to consider taking a taxi to the nearest JR station to circumvent the poor access noted above and make your life much easier. There is always a fleet of taxis waiting around Happo-en so you should have no trouble hailing one.

Until next time travelers…