Tokyo Takeover: Best Places to Escape the City

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

East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Tokyo, Japan

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.

Senso-ji is located at 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan. As far as I know, it's open 24/7. You can find more information on its website.

Meiji Jingu (Inner Garden)

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.

Hamarikyu Gardens

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. 

Hamarikyu Gardens are located at 1-1 Hamarikyuteien, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0046, Japan and are open 9:00am-5:00pm year round. You can find more information on their website.

Tokyo Takeover: Get Caffeinated

A while ago I wrote Runaway Coffee Finds Around the World which included two of the shops mentioned in this post, my original plan was to go back and edit it with more Tokyo shops, shops in Seoul and places we found exploring Kansai but I realized that was just too long. So instead, here are my top five choice to indulge in my addiction in Tokyo.

Coutume Coffee and Pain au Chocolat, Tokyo

Coutume 〒107-0062, 5丁目-8-10 南青山, 港区 東京都 107-0062, Japan

Oh man, Coutume deserves (and will get) its own write up because the food options here are also fantastic. One of things the Tokyo outpost of this French coffee shop has going for it is that unlike almost every other coffee shop in Asia, it opens before noon. In fact, it opens at 7:30 a.m. which means any future Tokyo trips will definitely include choosing a place to rest our head walking distance from this spot. There's so much going on here. A variety of single origins, your choice for preparation, espresso drinks, dutch coffee/kyoto drip and AND the price range for beverages is $3-$5 (yes, even for a single origin pour over, I can't even). I went here every day my last trip to Tokyo and I bought a bag of beans to bring home to my husband. My only complaint is that I wish the tasting notes had a translation to either English or French because the one I got from google translates didn't make a whole lot of sense (but that's not a real complaint because maybe I should just learn Japanese if I really want to know).

Miyakoshiya Coffee Minato-ku, Tokyo Shimbashi 1-chome 7-10 Shiodome Superior building

Miyakoshiya seems to have a number of locations all over Tokyo but we only went to the Shimbashi location near our hotel. The Shimbashi location has a decidedly rustic look with lots of polished wood and mismatched tea cups. The first time we went on a week day morning it was empty and they were playing Willie Nelson (my kind of place). We got Guatemala and a Mocha Mattari pour overs. For those not keeping up on their yen to dollar conversions, the Guatemala was just over $7 while the Mocha Mattari was a bit over $10, which is pretty similar pricing to coffee in Seoul. What wasn't similar to most shops in Seoul, was the quality. The Mocha Mattari might be the best coffee I've ever had. I still regret not spending the yen on bringing back some beans. We went back on a weekend day and it was packed and full of smokers (less my scene) and ordered iced coffees. The iced coffees were VERY strong but required quite a bit of milk and sugar to overcome their bitterness. If you go, I'd stick to a week day visit and the single origins. I'm not sure of the actual hours here but I think we went as early as 9:00 a.m.

Cafe de L'Ambre 8-Chome-10-15 Ginza Chuo Tokyo

Opened in 1948, with the original owner still roasting the beans (yes, he is literally 100), Cafe de L'ambre is a must visit for its smokey, bar like atmosphere and amazing vintage decor alone. The menu has both single origin pour overs (done with cloth filters) and numerous iced coffee drinks. Even though there is an English language menu, I ended up with a regular iced coffee instead of the "rich iced coffee" I was trying to order. The regular iced coffee is served with coffee cubes which I really appreciated, however similar to Miyakoshiya, it was very strong and very bitter. I prefer drinking coffee black but I added all of my tiny pitcher of milk and a fair amount of simple syrup. Dan successfully ordered the "water drip" coffee which we think was just straight Kyoto drip/Dutch coffee concentrate in a shot glass. Unlike my iced coffee, it was smooth, rich and delicious with an almost fatty mouthfeel even though it didn't have any sort of milk or cream. Dan definitely won at ordering this round.

Update: I returned to Cafe de L'Ambre at the beginning of December and successfully ordered the rich iced coffee which comes in a cocktail glass and is smooth and delicious. Lara ordered the egg yolk coffee which is very sweet and has to be consumed very quickly or the yolk cooks. It wasn't bad, but it's probably a try it once for the experience sort of drink for most people.

 Blue Bottle 3-13-14 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku Tokyo, 107-0062

Yep, that Blue Bottle. Just like any Blue Bottle in America, you can expect a bit of a line, the need to be on your toes if you're going to snag a seat and fantastic quality and service. Watching the baristas on the line here is beautiful, fast and efficient, they clearly take pride in their work. I even saw a barista send a cup to the kitchen because he had accidentally moved the cup too fast, slopping a bit over the side! It hadn't even disturbed his latte art! I considered offering to take it, but I don't think that would've gone over well. Unfortunately, unlike American locations, the Aoyama Blue Bottle doesn't open until 10 am so it's better for days with a late start or when you need an afternoon pick me up.

 Clover Cafe 雷門2丁目18-15T・Sビル Taitō, 東京都 〒111-0034 Japan

You're probably surprised by the inclusion of a character coffee place in this list which is totally fair BUT don't think just because it has a cute cat this cappuccino isn't good. Even though I did originally choose to go into Clover Cafe because I wanted the novelty of a "only in Japan" adorable coffee, it turns out the drinks here are well balanced with a nice full mouth feel. I'm also in love with the Earl Grey cake. Clover Cafe is right by Senso-ji, so it's a good place to rest your aching feet after exploring the temple and various market streets or if you haven't had your morning cup you can stop by before heading to the temple, since Clover Cafe is another shop that opens bright and early at 7:30 a.m. (8:00 a.m. weekends).