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Four Amazing Azalea Spots in Tokyo to See in a Day

After the sakura come the azalea, bursting with vibrant colors that illuminate the city. These spots are accessible by public transportation or even by bike.

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Azaleas at the Imperial Garden in the center of Tokyo. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Spring in Japan is marked by a succession of flowering trees and shrubs. Flowering cherry trees (sakura) are easily the best known, but they are preceded by flowering plum trees as described in my article on Mogusaen. Sakura are followed by azalea (tsutsuji) and wisteria (fuji) still later, once the rainy season starts, there will be roses and hydrangea (ajisai).

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Wisteria at Rikugien blooming at the start of the azalea season. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

At the moment it is the turn of azalea to attract crowds. In contrast to the most common sakura variety (Somei Yoshino) and its white flowers with a subtle pinkish tinge, azaleas are a riot of colors, some so vivid that one might think they are artificial rather than natural.

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Azalea shrubs come in many colors and single shrubs may have flowers of different colors. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Azalea shrub with a red color so intense it looks artificial. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Here are my personal impressions of four noted sites in metro Tokyo that can be visited in a day by public transportation or by bicycle (my case).

Nezu Shrine

Said to have been founded more than 1900 years ago (in a nearby location), the Shrine (Nezu Jinja, 根津神社) has seven buildings listed as important cultural properties and 6,600 square meter (71042 square feet) azalea garden.

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Main entrance to Nezu Shrine with azalea garden in the background. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Gate leading to main shrine building, one of the important cultural properties. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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People in the queue to make and offering and pray at Nezu Shrine during the azalea festival. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

The Shrine claims roughly 100 varieties and 3000 shrubs. Because of the many varieties, the viewing season is long as some shrubs come in bloom while the flowers on others are wilting.

Fortunately, azaleas hold their color even as the blooms wilt. Unless you are close to a particular shrub you will not easily see that the blossoms are past their peak.

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Markedly different blossoms and colors but all are azalea. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Shrubs in full bloom on 23-04-13 while others are only just starting to bloom. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Shurb with many buds yet to open on 23-04-13 even as many others were in full bloom. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Nezu Shrine's 100 Varieties of Azalea

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Visitors crowding the sloping path that winds through the azalea garden from the booth (at left) where entrance donations are taken. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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In 2022 we visited the azalea garden on a day with light rain which made the colors even more dramatic (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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One of the more unusual varieties photographed in a light rain. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Even a steady drizzle did not deter those seeking to pray and make an offering. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

The azalea display is officially known as the Bunkyo (Ward) Azalea Festival (文京つつじまつり) and runs until April 30.

Drum performances are scheduled for April 23 and April 30 at 12:00 and 15:00.

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360 Stall at Nezu Shrine selling azalea and other flowering plants. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Flowers are on sale every day.

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Used haori (jacket worn with kimono) on sale at a festival stall with the torii corridor in the background. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Used haori (jacket worn with kimono) on sale at a festival stall with the torii corridor in the background. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Festival stalls selling used kimono and other non-food items. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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The torii corridor appearing in the background of the stall photos (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Torii corridor and shrine on a rainy day. (April 26, 2022) (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

An entrance fee of ¥300 JPY (adults only, about $2 USD) is charged for access to the azalea hill.

The Shrine is close to the Yanaka area, noted for Japanese street food and coffee shops.

Eating and drinking within the Shrine grounds is discouraged.

Imperial Palace East Gardens

These gardens occupy parts of what were circles of defense for the Edo Castle belonging to the Tokugawa shoguns, but only a few small buildings and massive foundations remain from that era.

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The azaleas are on the east side of the Ninomaru Garden. The best access to this portion of the Gardens is from the Otemon Gate taking the first major walkway to the right.

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“Mountain azalea” in the mixed forest area. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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“Mountain azalea” in the mixed forest area. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Azalea beds near the teahouse seen from the far side of the pond in the formal Japanese garden. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

The azaleas appear in two forms: discrete plants in a "mixed forest area" (雑木林) area and extensive beds adjacent to a tea house and a pond that is part of a Japanese formal garden.

The local makes for photographs with distinctively Japanese backgrounds as well as ones showing the business towers to the east of the Gardens.

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A very Japanese setting with only a hint of the nearby office towers. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Azalea and the business towers to the east of the Gardens. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Meiji Shrine Garden

The Inner Garden of the Meiji Shrine was commissioned by the Meiji Emperor for the Empress and was Imperial Property.

It is now open for public viewing with a charge of ¥500 JPY ($4 USD) for maintenance.

It is best known for irises that come into bloom in June and the yellow and red leaves of Japanese maples in late autumn. The iris display is featured in my JAPAN Forward article, "Iris in the Rainy Season."

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Azalea garden at the Meiji shrine is rather like a somewhat wilder version of the mixed forest at the Imperial Gardens. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Azalea garden at the Meiji shrine is rather like a somewhat wilder version of the mixed forest at the Imperial Gardens. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

It does, however, have an azalea garden with several exotic varieties and there is a knoll with azaleas and a teahouse at the top.

The Meiji Shrine itself is a must-see at least once for anyone visiting Tokyo.

Rikugien

This garden is my personal favourite. It is an easy walking distance from my SOHO and I have a "passport" that gives me a year of unlimited access to this and other formal gardens belonging to the Tokyo Metro Government.

Although lacking the massive display of azalea at Nezu Shrine, Rikugien was built around 1700 for the 5th Tokugawa shogun with scenes meant to recall 88 famous poems.

As such it offers an ambience lacking at the Nezu Shrine and one that changes with the seasons.

It is particularly well known for a very large shidare zakura (weeping cherry tree) and its autumn colours. Both attract large crowds.

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Rikugien provides a selfie spot with Rikugien carved into the stone pillar. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Compared to the other sites taken up here, the azaleas at Rikugien are somewhat late in blooming.

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The azalea knoll at Rikugien early (23-04-10) in the bloom. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Three days later there was much more color. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Still more color a week later. (April 17, 2023) (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Tea house from the far side of the pond. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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A few shrubs had started to shed their flowers mid-way through the blooming season. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

There are individual shrubs here and there as well as on an island in the large pond that is the centrepiece of the formal garden.

Rikugien's Late Bloomers Extend the Season

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Lone azalea are found throughout Rikugien.  Many have signs identifying the variety in Japanese and English. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Rather like the “mixed forest” of the Imperial Gardens and the Meiji Shrine Garden, many azalea at Rikugien are in somewhat “wild” settings. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Azalea on the island in the Garden pond.(© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)
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Turtles taking in the sun with azalea on the island in the Garden pond as a backdrop. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

A knoll with numerous azaleas is a popular backdrop for selfies and photographs taken on the other side of the pond.

So too is a large, vividly coloured shrub next to the teahouse on the north side of the pond.

Getting There

Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine is a short walk from three subway stations, Todaimae on the Namboku Line and the Nezu and Sendagi stations on the Chiyoda Line.

Viewing hours are 09:30-17:30.

The azalea area gets extremely crowded on weekends. Best to go on a weekday and as early as possible.

A live camera can be used to check the flowers and the crowd situation.

Imperial Palace East Gardens

The East Gardens are a short walk from the Otemachi Station that serves the Chiyoda, Tozai, Marunouchi, Hanzomon, and Mita subway lines. It is a slightly longer walk from Tokyo Station.

Hours vary by season, currently through August, 09:00 to 18:00 with admission ending 30 minutes before closing.

Because of the distance from the gate to the azalea area, entering at least an hour before closing is recommended.

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Note also that the East Gardens are unusual in being closed Mondays and Fridays unless either is a national holiday in which case they are closed on the next day.

An English-language description of the various gardens and a map is available.

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine is a 3-minute walk from Sangubashi Station on the Odakyu Line, 5 minutes from the Yoyogi Station for the JR Yamanote, Chuo, and Sobu Lines,5 minutes walk from Yoyogi Station for the Toei Oedo subway line, and also 5 minutes walk from the Kita-sando station of the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin line.

The closest station is the Harajuku (Meiji-jingumae) station on the JR Yamanote line and the Chiyoda Metro subway line.

Because the Garden is some distance from any of the Shrine entrances, 10-15 minutes of walking is involved to get to the easily overlooked Garden entrance.

A walking map in English can be found here.

Rikugien

Rikugien is a 5-10 minute walk from the Komagome station of the Yamanote JR line and the Nanboku Metro subway line.

The closest entrance to the station is, however, closed except for certain special occasions (cherry blossom and autumn colors).

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It is necessary to walk south along Hongo-dori street and turn right at the convenience store on the right side just before the large intersection.

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Azalea popular for selfies adjacent to the tea house. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

Admission is ¥300 JPY (adults). The park is open every day of the week 09:00-17:00 except where there are "light ups" (cherry blossom and autumn colors) when it is open until 21:00.

As of this writing, the azalea viewing season in Tokyo has about two weeks left. My personal recommendation is Rikugien, but any of the other three sites taken up here is worth a visit with or without taking in other sights in their immediate vicinity.

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The snack shop is in a quiet, shaded area. Rikugien does not allow picnics but you can bring your own food and beverages as long as you consume it where there are benches. (© JAPAN Forward by Earl H Kinmonth)

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Author: Earl H Kinmonth
Find other stories about Tokyo and nearby areas by Dr Kinmonth on JAPAN Forward.