If we’re lucky, it lasts one week. One warm afternoon can trigger a mass peak blooming. A blustery spring thunderstorm can knock it all down, raining down petals and rushing in vivid tender green leaves. And that would be the entire cherry blossom season for the year.
This year the family went to our favorite places for hanami (flower viewing), like the stately formal Shinjuku Gyoen. But it is insanely crowded during cherry blossom season.
And we strolled along the banks of the Meguro River, where heavy white clouds of flowers dip into the water.
But with a toddler, easily bored by thick crowds, we took long walks to less popular spots, frequently stopping off at playgrounds.
Life Lesson no 1: Take the road less traveled; it’s more relaxing.
Here are some of the places we visited. All kid-friendly, not crowded, located in the southwestern neighborhoods of Tokyo.
Tako (Octopus) Park, our neighborhood playground, is one of the few in central Tokyo with grass. Most either have bare dirt or blacktop. The central feature is a giant octopus that sucks up little children and spits them out. But the best thing about this park are the kiddy pools in the summer.
Life Lesson no. 2: Invertebrates and slides are always a good idea.
Around the corner is a chic ice cream shop where sleek young ladies order Japanese flavors like sweet potato, pickled plum or red bean ice cream. This is where our daughter had her first ice cream.
Life Lesson no. 3: Sweetness comes in many flavors.
Another favorite nearby playground is Hiroo Park. It’s located on the edge of the Hiroo neighborhood, where the French, German and Chinese embassies, among many others, are located. So as you can imagine, the housing prices here are astronomical. Yet here is this massive government subsidized housing project, where many seniors live, right next to the park.
Life Lesson no. 4: Both the 1% and the 99% need parks.
Life Lesson no. 5: When in doubt, stand there and look cute.
While Hiroo has many wealthy foreigners, or at least foreigners who work for countries and companies with generous housing allowances, Shirokanedai is a neighborhood for the Japanese rich. “Shirokane” literally means “white gold” and is often translated as “platinum.” So basically these people live in a neighborhood called Platinum.
So their playgrounds are very well maintained. This one is tucked away out of view from the main road. The mothers are all dressed as if they were on their way to church, even on a Thursday morning.
Life Lesson no. 6: You can feel underdressed even in a playground, so don’t sweat it.
Down the boulevard is Donguri (Acorn) Park. There are no kid structures, which is surprising since it’s spacious by Tokyo standards. But there’s a lot of grass and room to run around. It used to be just a wild overgrown tract of land, which was much more interesting. On this day there was a woman in pink boots with a pink umbrella taking pictures of pink flowers.
Life Lesson no. 7: Wild is more intriguing than tame.
Life Lesson no. 8: Pink goes with everything, apparently.
Our main destination for our picnic lunch was the Institute for Nature Study, a nature reserve between the Shirokanedai and Meguro neighborhoods. This is one of the best kept secrets of Tokyo, one of the few undisturbed natural environments in the city. In fact, only a couple hundred visitors are allowed in at a time, but I reckon there are never more than a few dozen at any one time. The first time I brought my infant daughter here, she gasped in delight at the sight of the lush trees.
Life Lesson no. 9: Trees, good.
Now that she’s a toddler, she can’t help but run around and pick up rocks, acorns and twigs and stuff them in her pockets.
Life Lesson no. 10: Always empty pockets before doing the laundry.
You can feel the weight of the city float up into the trees.
Life Lesson no. 11: Nature, good.
Another best kept secret is Nakameguro Koen, a series of vegetable, flower and herb gardens surrounding three lawns that are opened in rotation. It’s right next to the Meguro River between Meguro and Nakameguro. But you could easily walk right by it and not notice as I had done for years before deciding to take a shortcut home one day. (Note: There is no such thing as a shortcut in Tokyo.)
For kids, there’s a small playground, big restrooms, and even a community center for nature classes. Go past the gardens and there’s even yet another playground. But kids just need nature. My two-year-old spent almost an hour arranging twigs, stones and petals into an octopus robot.
Life Lesson no. 12: Stop buying toys.
On our way back home, we discovered a tiny playground that had a fleet of abandoned tricycles. Moka was thrilled, and she tried to ride each one. The playground was near where we used to live. Somehow we had never run across it.
Life Lesson no. 13: Life is never fully discovered.
Finally, the view from home. Ever since we moved into our apartment last summer I’d been looking forward to this large cherry tree blossoming in the neighboring elementary school. The petals were already drifting down and whirling up past our windows. And the most important Life Lesson that cherry blossom season teaches us is to enjoy this fleeting life. Every moment of it.