One of the things all my favorite cities around the world seem to have in common is the ease with which you can take a break from the city without actually leaving the city. You don't always have time or desire to take a day trip, sometimes you just want a couple hours recovering from pushing through the crowds in Harajuku. Luckily, between temples, gardens and parks, Tokyo has more than got you covered.
Imperial Palace East Garden
The Imperial Palace itself is still home to Japan's Emperor and royal family* so you can't actually go in but you can book a tour to see some of the palace grounds. Though I haven't taken a tour, I've walked a fair ways around the exterior moat and wandered through the East Gardens. The gardens are free but you have to stop by a booth at the entrance to take a token as the number of people allowed in at one time is restricted. There's a mix of wide open spaces, planned flower beds and paths through more heavily wooded "wilderness". I was there at the beginning of December when the leaves were turning which was stunning, though I imagine in the Spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the flower beds actually have flowers in them, it's quite lovely too.
*Embarrassingly, I did not realize Japan still had a royal family before our first trip there, even though it's the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Thanks, American public school education.
The gardens open at 9:00 am and close between 4:00 and 5:00 depending on the season. They are always closed Monday and Friday. The entrance to the gardens is located at 〒100-0001 Tokyo, Chiyoda, 千代田1-1
Ok, full disclosure, the first time I went to Senso-ji was during Golden Week last Spring and it was definitely not the place to escape the crowds. There was however a ton of street food and a ninja vs samurai mime show which was pretty fun and even crowded the temple grounds are lovely. When I went this past December, Nakamise-dori (the shopping street leading up to the temple) was still pretty crowded but once we got to Senso-ji itself, the crowds thinned out allowing us time and space to watch koi and discover the smaller sculpture gardens and shrines around the main temple building. From certain places you can catch glimpses of the top of Tokyo SkyTree while standing next to a pagoda, which weirdly makes me feel more removed from the city rather than reminding me that I'm still in it.
The heavily wooded park around Meiji Jingu is probably the absolute best to forget you're in the city (and to take a break or gear up for the potential crowds and madness of Harajuku). Walk through the first Torii gate onto the wide path towards the temple and you'll be completely surrounded by trees. Look up and the city skyline will have completely disappeared, replaced by rustling leaves. Just walking the path by the giant line of sake barrels and towards the temple is peaceful enough (even when we went during Golden Week) but if you're looking for an added level of escape, pay the 500 yen "maintenance fee" to visit the Meiji Jingu Gyeon. There's a meandering path that will take you through woods and gardens, some landscaped, some wild and past a lake where you can take a break and watch the koi. The Iris gardens were empty when I went in early December but the Japanese Maples were on FIRE.
Meiji Jingu opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. Meiji Jingu Gyeon opens between 8-9:00 am and closes between 4-5:00pm depending on the hours. It is located at 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151-8557, Japan and you can find more information on its website.
These former Imperial Gardens hold a special place in my heart because it's the first place I visited in Tokyo (after the first open ramen restaurant we could find because we arrived at 2pm STARVING) and also because it has a small soft serve truck (or at least it did last Spring). These gardens are on the bay so you get the salty sea breeze I love so much. Along with trees hundreds of years old, these gardens have many wide open grassy spots where blankets were spread out and couples and friends were picnicking and a large duck pond with a teahouse. There's a 300 yen fee but if your feet are aching from shopping in Ginza or maybe you need to take a nap in the sun after an early morning at Tsukiji, it's well worth it.