This bulletin board on a JR platform is no longer in use. I wonder how old it is. The simple wood cut-outs of an old style train, mountains, and trees add a rustic feeling to a busy, urban train platform.
This weekend we’ve had two typhoons in Tokyo. My friend laughed about this, but it’s really handy to have rain pants if you plan to bike or even walk when the wind is high. A few days ago, we were in the mountains outside of Tokyo and saw our first fall maple leaves turning yellow and red.
I am looking forward to the television weather reports that will soon be tracking the progress of fall foliage from north eastern Japan down to south western Japan. I love the media fixation on fall foliage and spring cherry blossoms, marking the season and reminding the viewer of Japan’s geography. Altitude makes a big difference, too.
On the trip to Nasu in Tochigi two weekends ago, we visited a unique mountain cow dairy called Shinrin no bokujo (森林の牧場) that produces delicious milk and ice cream while addressing a crisis in Japanese forestry. The recycling company Amita created this dairy and another in Tango, northern Kyoto on the Japan Sea, as an ecological experiment.
With the collapse of Japan’s timber industry, many mountains are covered with single species trees that have not been maintained and are now dying. The mountain dairy idea is to allow the cows to maintain and improve the forests. The concept ties dairy farming with healthy food production, watershed conservation, and rice farming.
The milk is currently sold at Isetan department store Queen Isetan grocery stores, as well as onsite. Lots of families came with young children to see this unique dairy. The milk was extremely rich and delicious, with a hard cream top, packaged in a glass bottle with attractive graphics.
One of the TEDxSeeds members will be starting work there, and we met the farm manager, who is a graduate of Tokyo University of Agriculture. It was exciting to see this ecological experiment run as a business. The Japanese president of Qualcomm is also interested in new farming techniques that address food quality and ecological revitalization. Since rural abandonment has become a major national issue, these experiments are very timely and needed.
Visiting the cows was fun. They were extremely friendly. They allowed some heavy petting, and in return offered a very slobbery welcome. I had no idea their mouths are so full of saliva! Some of the young calves are lent out as natural lawn mowers, much as goats are now providing fossil fuel free mowing and complementary fertilizer in Silicon Valley. The grown cows are too heavy to transport easily.
The buildings on site, both for visitors and for milking, are simple and very attractive.
Recently I visited construction company Kajima’s headquarters in Akasaka to learn more about their extraordinary biodiversity program, and was charmed by the miniature Japanese garden in front of the modernist building. One could criticize the excess of hardscape, but it does make the small traditional garden pop in a dramatic way.
The perfectly pruned pines and arrangement around a “river” of pebbles and rock “mountains” makes a wonderful composition. Even the tallest trees are under 1 meter in this miniature dream landscape. While the environmental benefit is minimal, such stylized and well cared for nature creates a beauty that is unquantifiable and a momentary escape from urban life.
The contrast not only with the building but the surrounding neighborhood is extreme.
Recently I had the pleasure of taking Kobayashi Kenji’s modern bonsai class at Sinajina. In addition to making my own miniature landscape with a black pine, rock and moss, I learned that gardening in October is focused on making plants beautiful for New Year’s celebrations and guests.
The class used eight year old black pine trees. First we removed all the old, longer pine needles by hand and with tweezers. We removed nearly all the old soil to replace it with a fresh mix that includes volcanic rock and to expose some of the oldest roots at the base of the trunk. Then, we examined the tree to identify its “face” and position the tree in its new pot. Finally we added moss– in my case a taller hill that passes underneath one of the roots and a lower meadow– and small rocks.
Careful attention to form and style is clearly something that extends from miniature landscapes to residential garden landscapes. I am sure that many home-owners and gardeners are pruning their trees now to make sure that they are spectacular at New Year.
I also learned how to distinguish between black pine and red pine. Black pine needles are hard, unbending and sharp, while red pine needles are much softer to touch. Only when fully mature do red pine trees exhibit the bright red trunk that also distinguishes them. Black pine trees are mostly found near the sea, whereas red pine trees grow in the mountains.
Kobayashi sensei continues to be an inspiring guide to plants in urban life. In his anthropomorphism, plants become more human, and humans more embedded in nature. Plants are like people, he explains, in that they require most care during their first year, including more water. Once domesticated, plants cannot be returned to the wild since they have lost their survival skills and require continued human care.
Traditional Japanese garden Kyu Shiba Rikyu dates to 1678 when land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay became the residence of Okugawa Tadatamo, an official of Tokugawa Shogunate. Kyu Shiba Rikyu is one of Tokyo’s oldest gardens, along with Koishikawa Korakuen. Kyu Shiba Rikyu was destroyed by fire in the 1923 earthquake, rebuilt and gifted by the Emperor as a city park.
Today this stroll garden with a focal pond and two small islands sits steps from Hamamatsuchou station, and surrounded by office buildings, bullet trains, the JR Yamanote line, a monorail, elevated train, and two elevated highways. The pond reflects manicured black pines, office towers and billboards. There is also a very elegant archery range with grass lawn, tatami seating area, and targets inked by hand. (See photos after the jump below).
The pond and island were created over 400 years ago to recall China’s Seiko Lake (Xi Hu) and Reizan sacred mountain in Hangzhou (Zhejiang). Like at Koishikawa Korakuen, Kyu Shiba Rikyu was created at a time when garden design, philosophy, literature, and painting all borrowed heavily from China. Given our last century’s conflicts between Japan and China, is it too much to hope for artistic borrowings in this century?
A wonderful garden diplomacy would be a photographic exploration of these 400 year old Japanese gardens and the Chinese landscapes that inspired them. How have the natural and designed environments changed? What contemporary landscapes could inspire today’s art exchanges?