Summer in Japan has officially begun. Believe me when I say: summers in Japan are HOT and HUMID! Many Japanese would rather stay indoors with the AC on full blast. But there are some, especially on a lazy Sunday weekend, who also like to stay under the shade of trees and let nature soothe their souls and sweating bodies. One place such people flock to in Tokyo, is Shibuya’s Yoyogi Park.
Yoyogi Park is a sprawling 54-hectare public park—the fifth largest in Tokyo. It contains picnic areas, sports facilities, paths, water features, and forests. It is just a 5-minute walk from the Harajuku station on the JR Yamanote Line.
Yoyogi Park has quite a history.
In 1910, Captain Yoshitoshi Tokugawa made the first successful airplane flight in Japan at what would later be Yoyogi Park. There is a monument in the Park that commemorates this event. During World War II, the area was used as a parade ground for the Japanese Imperial army. When Japan lost the war in 1945, the area was converted into the Washington Heights, which served as the barracks for US officers.
In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics. The Yoyogi National Gymnasium was built for this occasion. The swimming and diving competitions were held in this building while the basketball games were conducted in an annexed arena. In 1967, the area was officially recognized and converted into Yoyogi Park.
In 2014, Japan experienced the worst Dengue outbreak in 100 years. Scientists discovered that the outbreak originated from Yoyogi Park. Several of its visitors were some of the first Dengue victims. The Park was then closed starting September 4th of that year. When the outbreak was considered contained, the Park was reopened about two months later on November 1st.
Before 2016, Japan made a bid to host the Summer Olympics. During this time there were plans to develop a new volleyball stadium at Yoyogi Park. The plans did not push through since Japan lost the bid.
For the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics, handball games will be held at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
Yoyogi Park is adjacent to Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine), one of Japan’s most famous shrines. Unlike Meiji Jingu or other parks, however, Yoyogi Park is not known for its Japanese traditional aesthetics or natural wonders. It is known for its eclectic events and straightforward facilities that attract a diverse group of people from all walks of life.
The Park is divided into two parts. The bigger northern area is the “green” zone. It contains wide lawns, picnic areas, jogging and cycling paths, ponds, fountains, and a bird sanctuary. The southern area contains the event halls and sports facilities, including the Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
Trivia: The Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line runs beneath the Yoyogi Park so you can hear the trains through the ventilation!
Things To Do
So what do you do in a very bustling park? Here are some suggestions:
1. Picnics & Eating
Spread a large blanket on the grass, plop down on it, open a picnic basket, and chow down on sandwiches and punch. There is even a barbecue field if you feel like cooking something up for your friends.
If you don’t want to sit down on the grass, you can use the picnic tables and benches dotting the Park. If you’re not in the mood for a picnic and just want something light, vending machines are available in certain parts of the Park.
If you’re craving for something Japanese, there are food kiosks that sell festival staples like yakisoba (fried noodles with vegetables), takoyaki (fried balls of dough stuffed with octopus), or soft-serve ice cream.
During special events, specialties of other prefectures or other countries are sold in the Park. If you’re lucky you can have Japanese for snacks, Thai for lunch, and Vietnamese for dinner, all in one day!
People-watching is the number one activity here. Aside from the usual park goers who eat, sleep, or stroll through the park, there are athletes, comedians, cosplayers, cyclers, dancers, joggers, martial artists, and musicians. On Sundays, you can watch the Rockabilly Dancers strut their stuff.
These performers are very distinctive because of their fashion: the men have slicked-back hair with pompadours and wear black leather jackets, black shirts, blue denim, and black leather boots; the women wear colorful circle dresses. This was huge 30-40 years ago in Japan, but have since died out with only a few continuing the tradition.
The group doesn’t have a fixed schedule but you will know they are performing. Just follow the 50s jukebox hits blaring through the park.
A quick tip: even if you’re dying to take a picture of the performers, ask their permission first. If you want to post on social media, some performers might give you their account name so you can tag and help promote them in a post!
Some of the artists like the Rockabilly Dancers visit the park to perform their passion in front of an audience. Some of them do so to get extra coverage and money on the side (although the Rockabillies dance not for the money, but because the 50s is their thing). So, taking pictures or videos of these performers is not only okay but very much welcomed.
Some of the other performers, however, visit the park just to practice. They don’t go there so that they will suddenly show up on a stranger’s Instagram account. Don’t make them lose their concentration or temper by snapping a picture out of the blue.
3. Commune with nature and bond with animals
A recent study from the University of Exeter showed that people who spend two hours per week in nature generally have better health. Yoyogi Park has some natural attractions that could help you de-stress with nature.
Although it has only about 700 cherry blossom trees (sakura), which is a small number compared to other parks, Yoyogi Park still attracts quite a number of people during cherry blossom viewing (hanami) season. Groups of families, friends, or co-workers make it a point to have a party under the trees.
The Park’s best trees, however, are the maple, gingko, and zelkova varieties. During autumn, the leaves of these trees turn bright red. Many people view these trees as reverently as they do cherry blossom trees. There is a small pond with three fountains in the middle of the northern area. You can sit or lie on the benches around the pond and enjoy the water display.
The Park is also a bird sanctuary. If you’re tired of staring at people, you can look for spot-billed ducks by the pond, turtledoves, starlings in the trees, black-faced buntings or the water wagtail in the fenced-off area reserved for the birds.
If you are living in Tokyo long-term, and you ended up becoming a dog owner, you can bring them to one of the three dog runs in the Park. The dog runs are separated according to the size of your dog—from very small to large. Follow the correct path and let your dog mingle as you chat with fellow pet owners.
If you don’t want to just laze on the many benches or napping spots in the area, Yoyogi Park offers a wide variety of activities and facilities for the sports enthusiasts and health buffs.
Biking – you can bring your own bike or rent one from the park. You can even rent tandem bicycles. There are regular cycling circuits in the northern area and even a course for parents with infants!
Jogging – there are several running paths in the Park. But for the serious runner, there is a loop that goes around the southern area which has a trail of footpaths and muddy paths. There are spots where you cross the cycling circuits, though, so look out for those bikes.
Sports – amateur athletes and sports fans play all the time at the athletic, hockey, and soccer fields. There is also an outdoor basketball court donated by Nike.
5. Soak up some culture and music
Yoyogi Park has a special event almost every week. One of the weirdest events you can
probably find is the annual Zombie Walk. People dress up as zombies, complete with gory make-up, and lurch through the Park as if they’re looking for brains to eat.
Of course, there are also more “normal” events like the Thai Music Grammy Award Festival, Earth Day, Tokyo Rainbow Pride, Tokyo Flea Market, Soba and Sake Festival, World Gourmet and Music Festival, and the World Belly Dance Festival.
Concerts featuring music ranging from jazz to pop, from reggae to classical have been held on the outdoor stage for free.
Yoyogi Park is a pretty laid back spot. But try to remember these basic rules:
- Keep it clean. Pick up your garbage and dispose of it properly.
- The park is generally a smoke-free zone. There are designated areas for smokers so just follow the signs.
If you want to escape from the people flocking to Yoyogi Park, you can walk to Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine) through the forest connecting the two areas. At the shrine, you can cultivate some peace and tranquillity through prayer.
If you would rather have some retail therapy, head out to Omotesando-dori, Tokyo’s high-end shopping district. If your budget is a little low at the moment go towards Harajuku for some cosplay, purikura, and food.
If you’re curious about how some of your favorite Japanese shows are made, go to the NHK Broadcasting Center just south of the Park.
So there you have it, a full day of food, relaxation, and fun at Yoyogi Park. Now time to go back home and sit under the nice cold AC.