One of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets is—wait for it!—a 20-hectare forest slap bang in the middle of Shirokanedai district.
I didn’t believe my traveling companion when she said we were going to see a forest. I believed her even less after a forty-minute trek on foot from Yutenji to Nakameguro to Minato, through one of the densest urban landscapes on Earth. No way, I thought, slogging past yet another Doutor, is there a forest or even a park anywhere near here. Pull the other one. Then we crossed the expressway and, on the left, trees.
The Institute for Nature Study is part of the National Museum of Nature and Science, and on top of being a welcome oasis of green in the middle of central Tokyo, it’s also a working research facility. But long before that, it was the garden of a feudal estate belonging to Matsudaira Sanukinokami Yorishige, a member of the Tokugawa clan, and it is the footprint of this garden that forms the Institute. Apart from a brief stint as a gunpowder storage site in the early 20th century, the Institute has always been left as natural as possible.
You can forget about Tokyo inside the Institute. It’s bounded on two sides by expressways and train lines, but you could be forgiven for forgetting all about the 21st-century metropolis once you’re inside. Two minutes away from the gates and you’re deep in the green, dwarfed by pines, zelkova and dogwood trees. The undergrowth is dense, sounds are muted (except for the crows, who are never quiet).
Traces of the old gardens are everywhere: ponds and sculptured lakes, calm vistas over water, secluded paths winding through walls of leaves, lengths of earthen wall. The gardens include two notable trees, the Fabled Pine and the Dragon Pine, enormous Japanese black pines several centuries old. (As I stood near the Fabled Pine, two small children appeared, thanked the tree, and moved away.) The Hyotan Pond and the Mizudori Marsh are at the center of the Institute, which also includes the ruins of the old Matsudaira villa, the Robo and Suisei Botanical Gardens, and a basic but interesting Visitor Education Centre. Picnic tables in the depths of the Institute are popular with warm-weather visitors.
This may not be the most obvious place to visit if you’re only in Tokyo for a short time, but add it to your itinerary if you feel like you’ll need a break from the mad rush of the city center. It’s not the Skytree. It’s not the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Shibuya Crossing or even Shinjuku Gyoen. But it is beautiful, a slice of what old Edo must have been like. So make your way to the Institute for Nature Study for a much-needed dose of chlorophyll, oxygen and quiet.