Tokyo might not seem like a particularly green city, but seasoned urban ramblers know that nature abounds if you look in the right places. Once you’ve strolled the Imperial Palace grounds and municipal parks, head to the city’s waterways and you’ll find ample greenery—not to mention numerous traces of the capital’s past.
One of the best daytrips can be enjoyed by taking a bicycle along the Kanda River, which runs for nearly 25km from its source in Kichijoji’s Inokashira Park, taking in Suginami, Nakano, Shinjuku and Bunkyo wards, before flowing into the larger Sumida River near Ryogoku Bridge in Taito-ku. During the Edo Era (1603-1868), the river was diverted into a canal—the now-vanished Kanda Josui—which supplied the capital with drinking water.
Starting at the mouth of the river, the first bridge that we reach is Yanagibashi. While the current steel structure was built in 1929, there has been a bridge here since 1698. Visitors are unlikely to realize that this neighborhood was a flourishing red light district 200 years go; these days it’s rather more sedate, serving as a base for the charter boats that are frequently seen cruising around Tokyo Bay.
Following the river upstream leads to Hijiribashi, next to Ochanomizu station. This arched stone bridge was built after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which makes it positively ancient in a city where most buildings are only a few decades old, if even that. It’s worth cycling a loop around the neighborhood to take in some of its sacred sights: the Confucian temple of Yushima Seido, the Shinto shrine of Kanda Myojin, and Nicholai-do, an Orthodox cathedral.
The Kanda River feeds the ponds of Koishikawa Korakuen, a beautiful landscaped garden from the early 17th century that’s tucked away behind the Tokyo Dome City complex. A little further along, Edogawa Park is a stretch of greenery that looks best in hanami season, when the hundreds of trees lining the riverbank are in full bloom. Nearby you’ll find the back entrance to Chinzan-so, a gem of a garden set atop a hill, which is home to a three-story pagoda—relocated from a temple complex in Hiroshima Prefecture—that’s said to be 1,000 years old.
The estate next door houses a mysterious-looking stone building, the Eisei Bunko Museum. Don’t let the unkempt garden fool you—the museum actually holds immense treasures, showcasing artifacts, documents and works of fine art collected over centuries by the Hozokawa clan of Kumamoto. Following the small path through a Chinese-style round gate, we reach Shin-Edogawa Park, yet another beautiful garden where you can kick back free of charge.
Crossing the tracks of the Toden Arakawa Line—Tokyo’s last remaining tram line—we head past Takadanobaba and on to Shimo-Ochiai, where a pedestrian path runs alongside the Kanda River. This is another popular sakura spot that’s worth checking out next spring.
While Nakano-ku is mostly urban sprawl, more greenery awaits in Suginami-ku, where little parks, sports grounds and the odd local temple and shrine invite cyclists to stop for a rest and further exploration. In the Mitakadai area, monotonous apartment blocks give way to houses with gardens, each with their own charm and character. The bridges that span the Kanda River here, meant only for local traffic, offer a fine perch from which to watch the many koi in the river.
Our final destination is Inokashira Park, a popular spot for families and couples, with a long, narrow pond at its center that’s fed by the same spring as the Kanda River. It’s presided over by the Goddess of Water, who has a shrine set on a small island in one corner of the park. Here, locals fill plastic containers from a tap which turns out to provide the best natural spring water in Tokyo, pumped up directly from its source. After the journey along the Kanda River, it tastes nothing less than divine.