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.

Captivating Kansai: The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji)

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto, Japan

We get off the train in Kyoto and after a brief moment of consulting our map and turning in circles, we walk over to the stop for our bus. There's already crowd. One bus comes. It's packed but a few from our crowd manage to get on and we shuffle forward. The next bus is supposed to come in fifteen minutes. We wait getting jostled and elbowed as more and more people push into the waiting area trying to find a safe space from the wind. The bus is late and we're getting cranky in the crowd.

"It looks like it's about two and a half miles, do you want to just walk?"

"Yeah, let's just walk, this bus is late and we might not even be able to get on"

I walk a lot every day but we walk even more when we're traveling, you get to experience so much more of the city that way.

The wind gets stronger and I try to wrap even more of myself in my pashmina. It helps a little and we search for the sunny parts of the street which helps more. This part of Kyoto doesn't seem to be too exciting. A bit industrial, some run down buildings, a huge baseball equipment store and a couple of cafes. This does not seem to be a walk where we're destined to find some hidden gem of a shop or bakery. Eventually we find ourselves on smaller residential streets as we close in on the temple. The sun is coming out and I can see green hills.

We merge into the crowd and by our tickets. Immediately past the gate we're directed to a dead end area on the left where everyone is taking photos.

"Well, that's just outrageous," Dan exclaims.

Which is, I think, an accurate statement about any temple covered in gold leaf.

Dan admires some koi and watches ducks diving in the pond while I snap my pictures. The pavilion might be outrageous, but the landscaped lake and the leaves just beginning to turn are stunning.

We leave the photo area and continue on the path around the lake. We seem to have arrived between two bus loads of people so we take our time, not eager to catch up to the crowd in front of us. I join the other travelers trying to throw coins into the Buddha's bowl but the smallest Japanese coins are incredibly light and easily misdirected by the wind. I manage to get in one and Dan takes his turn.

The bus load behind us is beginning to catch up so we hurry up the hill to another small lake and pagoda. The grounds aren't very big but already the crowds are starting to thin. Maybe this is another instance where people just take their pictures and leave?

We round a corner and suddenly have a view of the temple and the phoenix on its roof. It's still outrageous.

Down around the hill and we find ourselves in the souvenir area, while a man tried to tempt us with bottles of sake filled with gold flakes, I find myself eyeing the bowls of hot matcha, it's still quite chilly in the shade. We pay what is probably too much money for bright green matcha in a red lacquered bowl and a small mochi like sweet with a mold of the pavilion and a small piece of gold leaf. I've now warmed up enough to head on and sample many different type of yatsuhashi and other confections but even though they're all delicious, they seem a bit pricier here than we've seen other places so we don't buy any. I've now warmed up enough from the tea and the walking that I'm ready to finish our visit by stopping by the pavilion I saw on our way in advertising soft serve. I opt for black sesame and it's both the blackest and creamiest black sesame ice cream I've ever tried. Completely worth getting a bit cold again.

Black Sesame Ice Cream. The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan.

Kinkaku-ji isn't near much, so while I finish my ice cream, we double check our route, leave the park and head towards downtown Kyoto for a more substantial lunch.

Kinkaku-ji is open daily 9-5. It doesn't have a dedicated website so for more information or suggestions how to get try here.


Photo Post: Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha Kyoto Japan

The secret to this gorgeous shrine is definitely to just keep hiking up until you find yourself in rows of tourist free Torii Gates where you don't have to jostle for selfie space. Next you'll find yourself walking through peaceful, rustling bamboo groves. Keep going and you'll find all sorts of smaller hidden shrines and side paths. When you decide to work you're way down, head over down the road with the food vendors and find yourself the guy with sake soft serve. It's weird but delicious.

Beijing Break: Beijing's Big 3

Let's talk temples, palaces and temple-palaces (or actually, let's mostly look at pictures of those things). Of course, there are more than three major sights to explore in Beijing but with only four days and not liking to feel rushed while we're traveling, The Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and The Summer Palace are where we spent our time in between meals.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City Beijing China

Our first day in Beijing was by the far the worst in terms of weather and air quality so I'm not sure any of my pictures of The Forbidden City really do it justice. The Forbidden City is HUGE and sure, the sheer size is impressive but my focus was on the details. The animals on the roofs, the door knobs, the carvings, the CEILINGS... Even though it seemed like many of the exhibits were closed while we were there, we still had plenty to see just exploring the palace grounds.

I was especially enamored of the giant metal basins all over the palace that were used to hold water in case of a fire. Everyone else also must have been because even though almost all of them were fenced off, I kept seeing Chinese tourists climb over to touch them and peer inside! Maybe, like me, they were wondering how many fireman it could possibly take to lift a basin that large filled with water.

After a few hours exploring (and an ice cream break) we went out the North exit and crossed the street to Jingshan Park and climbed the hill built from the ground that was excavated to make the Forbidden City's moat. It was truly awesome to see the size of The Forbidden City from above, though I'm sure the view would have been even better on a clear day.

Temple of Heaven Park

Temple of Heaven Park Beijing China

Our third day in Beijing we lucked out with a clear sunny day and spent the morning exploring the Temple of Heaven Park. Dan was less than impressed with the two temple mounds, in part because all the signage seemed to worded in a way that focused more on the glory and ingenuity of China and how it should make you feel, rather than on an explanation of what anything was. We have no idea if the echo wall works since it was mostly being used by screaming children who didn't really need the wall to assist them with being heard. Also, there is no shade at all immediately around the mounds, and we forgot sunscreen or hats. Womp womp. That being said, I once again found the detailing impressive and the surrounding park and rose garden were lovely though it is a bit odd when the occasional street lamp turns out to be a speaker and starts blaring at you in Chinese. But maybe the lamps tell you all the interesting details the signs leave out. Or maybe we should start actually renting the audio guides.

Post Temple of Heaven, we took a pretty long stroll up to Qianmen Street for some lunch and with the intention of checking out Tiananmen Square but the square was completely closed off, I think in preparation for the October 1st National Day holiday. Instead we enjoyed the irony of drinking at a Starbuck's across from the gate, explored the touristy stall on shops on the side streets and then found a grocery store to stock up on snacks and spices. I also discovered that the soft serve at McDonald's in Beijing is Jasmine Green Tea and some of the best soft serve I've ever had. Who knew?!

The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace Beijing China

Our last day in Beijing we got off to a pretty slow start. After three days of heavy walking and me developing a migraine that was so bad it woke me up multiple times in the night, we were not at our best. We took the morning pretty slow and didn't end up at the Summer Palace until around 2:30. This wasn't a problem for our low key state of mind since were mostly planning on just walking around the lake and the park but if you really want to see everything, it seemed like a full day adventure.

Even without going through every building on the park grounds, there's plenty to see (don't forget to look up!) and gorgeous views. My favorite thing was the giant marble (and wood painted to look like marble) boat. In 1881 the Summer Palace went through a major restoration with funds that were supposed to be used for the Chinese Navy but instead were used for a giant ostentatious marble boat which I guess is kind of like the same thing.

Climbing up Prosperity Hill we stopped to take a few breaks in covered pavilions that once again had amazing details on the ceilings. At the top of the hill is the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom which is covered in tiny Buddhas and well worth the climb. And if neither the detailed ceilings or Buddhas impress you, than the view certainly will.

Had we arrived earlier, I probably would've tried to convince Dan to take a boat ride or rent a paddle boat but instead we contented ourselves with walking about a third of the way around the lake before realizing we had already been in the park for three hours and there was no way we were going to make it all the way around before it was dark and/or we were ready for dinner and started our walk back towards the nearest exit.

Our second day, which was our favorite day, was our Great Wall day. It gets a post all to itself.