Looking for a quiet spot in central Tokyo is easier said than done. If ever you find yourself yearning from a break from the crowds yet unwilling to fork out your hard-earned yen to get into Shinjuku Gyoen or Tokyo Tower, the gardens of the Hotel New Otani in Akasaka are always a good bet. Not only are they beautiful and peaceful, but they are also open to the general public and free.

Photo by George Lloyd

The New Otani is a five-star hotel in Akasaka. When the late Yonetaro Otani, the former sumo wrestler who founded the Hotel New Otani, bought the property in 1964, he insisted that the garden be kept intact for the enjoyment of his guests. He also stipulated that the general public be allowed entry.

The gardens make a wonderful place to while away an hour or more. They cover over 10 acres and contain over 10,000 flowering plants. There is an impressive waterfall, two ponds, and a traditional Japanese stone garden.

Photo by George Lloyd

There are also 42 stone lanterns dotted around. Most of them date back to the Edo period, but a handful date back all the way to the Kamakura period (1192-1333).

Photo by George Lloyd

Four centuries ago, the gardens of the Hotel New Otani belonged to the mansion of Kiyomasa Kato (1562-1611), a famous feudal lord from the old province of Higo (current-day Kumamoto in Kyushu).

In those days, the mansion and surrounding gardens were within the grounds of Edo castle. Today, they sit in the southwest corner of the land enclosed by the Outer Moat of the Imperial Palace. You can see the moat at the foot of a steep slope that marks the edge of the hotel grounds. Dug in 1636 and stretching 14 km, the Outer Moat is still a mightily impressive sight.

Photo by George Lloyd

The gardens were later turned over to Lord Naosuke Ii, the daimyō of Hikone, in current-day Shiga prefecture. The Ii family were top fudaidaimyō (譜代大名 hereditary vassals) and Lord Naosuke Ii served as the shogun’s chief minister in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate.

During the early Meiji era (1868-1912), the gardens were acquired by Lord Fushiminomiya and it was around this time that word of their beauty began to spread.

Photo by George Lloyd

There are over 800 trees in the gardens. Although few of them date back to the days of the shogunate, there are a few survivors from those days. One survivor from the Edo period is a magnificent Japanese nutmeg yew, which dates from around 1789, when the garden was still part of the Ii clan’s Tokyo residence.

Japanese nutmeg yews can grow up to 26 metres in height. Their wood is easily worked, which is why it is often used to make shōgi (将棋 Japanese chess) and go (碁 an abstract strategy game) boards.

You will also find a restaurant and tearoom, Momiji-tei, in the garden, if you find yourself in need of refreshment after your visit to these wonderful gardens.

The landscape gardens of the Hotel New Otani are open to the public from 6 am to 10 pm daily. The address is Kioicho 4-1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-8578. The hotel is a 10-minute walk from Yotsuya station.

For more details, see here.

By - George Lloyd.