One of the great things about living in Tokyo is the public gardens. The Shinjuku Gyoen is my home stomping ground, but this time of year, during the brief period when the sakura, cherry blossoms, bloom, the park is madness. Utter madness. So I avoid it completely.
Apparently, this year, in favor of a different public garden that was complete madness.
The Rikugien Garden is on the north side of town, in an area I rarely stray into in my normal life. But they spent a lot of money on their lights. The Rikugien has always, in my mind, been a place to see kōyō, the viewing of the fall leaves changing colors that you’ll remember from this post in next to Kawaguchiko. But I think once they had spent all that money on their lighting system, they realized the opportunity to embrace Japan’s other evening outdoor cultural event – yozakura, which is night sakura viewing.
The Rikugien Yozakura experience is distinct from the kōyō experience in that it really felt that you were travelling empty space between cherry trees. The garden definitely feels like it has been laid out for the fall colors, and the cherry trees were added as cultural obligation. That being said, they are gorgeous, and there’s something special about shooting lit sakura at night. And for the 300 yen ticket price to get in, you can’t go wrong.
Make sure you spend a fair amount of time at the first tree after you enter. That first tree, a giant weeping sakura tree, is the star of the show. It’s easy to blow past it because of the crowd, assuming that the park will have more of the same, but it doesn’t. It’s not my favorite thing to photograph in the garden, but it’s certainly impressive in person. Somehow, when lining up shots and thinking analytically about the photograph, it loses a bit of it’s charm, but in person, it’s a thing to behold. Which is really, what you should be doing anyway, looking at sakura.
The scenery viewable across the lake was lit up as well, even though it contained no sakura. I think the Rikugien knows how good that area looks lit up, even without the fall colors, so they indulge us and light it up.
There was only one thing that really bothered me about the lighting at the Rikugien. They have a second, younger weeping sakura in the park, and they succumbed to the temptation of technology and a certain particular aesthetic sense. In conversations with friends I have since dubbed it the “disco tree” which is a little bit of hyperbole, but they’ve transformed a beautiful sakura tree, an emblem of the beauty and simplicity of nature, into color-changing ridiculousness. I had to time my photos to get some sort of semblance of reasonably natural looking. Now, I realize that the entire concept of lighting sakura at night is inherently unnatural, and I’m being probably a certain amount of crochety-old-man on this, but I stand by my opinion. Disco Tree is a bridge too far.
But don’t let that influence your decision to go, especially because if you want to, you have to go right now. It’s a beautiful park, the extended hours until 9pm for evening sakura are until April 5th. So go now, or miss it until next year.
One word of warning – this may be a case of do as I say, not as I do. I remember from my experience with their kōyō years ago that they were very anti-tripod, but I had had advance word that tripods were ok. No one said anything about my tripod on the way in, and there was no obvious signage. I had absolutely no problems using my tripod on my first loop around the garden. At one point, I had chosen that sticking one leg slightly off the path in favor of keeping the path clear was wise, and a guard came over and told me to keep the tripod on the path. I took that as official approval of the tripod, and continued using it openly through the rest of that first loop around. At the beginning of the second loop, I got told tersely by an old groundskeeper that the tripod was not acceptable in any way. By that time, there was an announcement being made near that first weeping sakura that tripods were not acceptable. On my way out of the park, I did see one sign, at ground level, saying no tripods. So I don’t know if I got away with something there, or if I got in in that early just-at-sunset crowd where tripods were acceptable. Either way, heads up. I don’t know how much crap you’ll get for using a tripod. All things considered, they seemed pretty welcoming to me.