Month: April 2009

Magical temple garden in Takanawa

Magical temple garden in Takanawa

Walking through Takanawa, I stumbled upon this magical temple entrance with a long winding path. Buddhist and Shinto temples are often the only dedicated land uses that escape the endless cycle of destruction and over-building that is so common in Tokyo. Few small temple gardens are this beautiful.

After passing these wooden guards, I saw only a stray cat. Not a single visitor or monk.

Magical temple garden in Takanawa

This is the path that invites one to find the temple.

Magical temple garden in Takanawa

Although a small total space, many angles make you feel that you have entered a splendidly edited jungle. I love the cloth apron on this statue.

Magical temple garden in Takanawa

Re-farming with the Vegetable Liberation Project

Vegetable Liberation Project, Rania Ho

Beijing-based American artist Rania Ho hosted an open-house “live” event in Yokohama. During a two month artist-in-residency, sponsored by Far East Contemporaries, Rania created the Vegetable Liberation Project, a “re-farming” that asks questions about urban life, food culture, nature and artifice. 

Rania describes the Vegetable Liberation Project as “a work that addresses the oppression of highly conforming supermarket produce by releasing the vegetables back into the wild public spaces around Yokohama and allowing them to naturally revert to their untamed primal state.”

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Bonsai collection on residence wall

Bonsai collection on residence wall

While many residences and business have common and inexpensive plants in public space or along the line dividing public and private, it is also amazing to see valuable plant collections on display outside homes and businesses. As an American, I am simply amazed that these labors of love and time are not destroyed or stolen. 

Here’s two views of a residential home’s bonzai collection. I am taken by the gardener’s generosity and the public’s respect. 

Bonsai collection on residence wall

Flowers outside small businesses

Flowers outside small businesses

Main streets and smaller shopping streets in Tokyo residential neighborhoods are full of small businesses. It is interesting to see that many of these small businesses have potted flowers outside, on the sidewalk or the shop entrance that are updated seasonally. Is it personal passion, business beautification, or both?

Above is a plumbing supply store. Below a cleaners, and lastly a convenience store.

Flowers outside small businesses Flowers outside small businesses

Spring flowers

Spring flowers, Nakano mansion

These purple flowers are blooming outside our Tokyo apartment building. While the large trees and some bushes are regularly pruned by professionals, much of the front and side of the building are tended by women who live in the building. Other flowers include brugsmania, clivia, cymbidium orchids, poppies, clivia, azalea and geraniums. It’s an odd mix of cultivated and feral plants that are hardy enough to survive without irrigation.

Frugality, Anticipation, Memory

On the way to the JR station, I passed a neighbor who was descending from her second story apartment and greeted her. Seemingly about 80 years old, she was carrying the bowl from her rice cooker. She showed surprised that this “foreigner” could speak (some) Japanese, and then proceeded to empty the water that had rinsed the rice onto her potted rose.

She was very proud of this blue-purple rose, which she told me her mother had given her. She also pointed out the potted loquat tree which would soon fruit and also an old grape vine tied up against the building. I admired her frugality in re-using water, her energy in traveling up and down the stairs, and her friendliness to this foreign neighbor.

This story  highlights how gardening is enmeshed with frugality, anticipation and memory. Frugality includes the water-reuse and also on-going maintenance of the plants over many years. Anticipation for what is emergent and what will soon be. And memory sparked by plants about who gifted them and what life was like back when they were planted.

Maximizing floral impact

Maximizing floral impact, spring

This small house on a typical Nakano side street is over-flowing with plant life. The owner is clearly maximizing space with hundreds of potted plants on the top, the inside and the outside of the cinderblock wall. Using every centimeter of space, the effect is dazzling from all angles. And somehow, there is still room for a cat to take a nap on the wall.

Below is a view of the front entrance. It is a floral jungle that shelters the home and delights passers-by.

Maximizing floral impact, spring

Even the steps on the side of the building, leading to an upstairs apartment, have been intensively planted.

Maximizing floral impact, spring

Giant peonies

Giant peonies, Nakano

With the recent warm weather, these giant pink peonies went quickly from bud to giant pink balls. On one of the lanes I take from my apartment to the JR, I pass this humble apartment whose front garden spills in pots from the tiny patio onto the small street. 

I often see an older woman and sometimes her daughter working in the garden they have created from recycled styrofoam containers and assorted plastic pots. Cymbidium orchids, tulips, geraniums, peonies, and soon roses create a wonderful distraction for passers-by. The owner is at once extremely humble and pleased to get some attention.

To get a sense of the background of the flowers, here’s a photo from further away. You can see the patio flowers share space with the laundry machine and a simple structure for hanging the clothes to dry. The flowers provide a small buffer between street and front door, and soften the hard edges of concrete, asphalt and tile.

Giant peonies, Nakano

A narrow green alley

Narrow green alley, Honcho, Nakano

What makes Tokyo residential districts very charming and perhaps surprising for foreigners are the narrow pedestrian walkways and small streets where pedestrians and bicyclists outnumber cars.

There’s something pre-modern and non-rational about the web of small Tokyo lanes, with unpredictable turns and numerous dead ends. The densely packed two and three story buildings almost touch, with a mix of small apartments and single family houses. Neither walkways nor small streets are named, there is no grid, and small gardens and small shops are the only way to remember your path the next time.

The foliage is a mix of cultivated plants and “volunteers.” With rainfall plentiful year-round, it is easy to imagine the city reverting to jungle. If only there was less concrete.

Crown Prince and Princess attend greening event in Yokohama

Crown Prince and Princess attend greening event in Yokohama

During Earth Day, the Crown Prince and Crown Princess participated in a Yokohama greening event. In his remarks, the Crown Prince cited the benefits of greening for reducing global warming and improving urban life. The event was the 20th Midori no Aigo in the Yokohama Animal Forest Park.

The media quoted two statements from the Crown prince: “I hope everyone involved in various activities throughout the nation will deepen mutual exchanges and renew their feeling of protecting and nurturing greenery.”

And “In order to protect the precious greenery we have … it is crucial for people to understand its importance and participate extensively (in conservation).”

The Prince and Princess also planted memorial cherry trees.

Earth Day Tokyo

Earth Day Tokyo 2009

Today and tomorrow in Yoyogi Park, more than 100,000 people are expected to attend Earth Day Tokyo. Hundreds of booths offered everything from natural maternity to bamboo crafts, organic foods and clothes, bio-diesel vehicles, free Tibet, save the baby seals, music ranging from all girl rock band to Hawaiian song, more cute and strange mascots than you can imagine, and 20 to 30 year old hippies as far as the eye could see. It was great to see so many city  people concerned about the environment.

Earth Day Bamboo Craft Earth Day Eco mascot Earth Day Baby Seal Earth Day Tokyo 2009

The most mysterious promotion was this human QR billboard. I guess you need to have a cellphone that can read this internet code to find out what she is advocating.

Earth Day QR code, human billboard

Wisteria in apartment balcony

Wisteria in apartment balcony, Harajuku

Leaving the JR Harajuko station on the way to a meeting with a green new media activist, I looked up at a concrete residential tower and saw this splendid wisteria flower explosion ten floors off the grounds. Many of the balconies have no plants, or just an odd plant or two. What amazes me about this balcony is the overflowing exuberance and the realization that this well cultivated show will only last a few weeks.

Apartment wisteria, Harajuku balcony

Why green cities?

Green cities, where the urban forest replaces concrete slabs, are receiving new support from city governments and corporations. The Tokyo Municipal Government announced many exciting green city initiatives starting in 2006 in a ten year plan for transforming the city in its bid for the 2016 Olympics. Other motivations include climate change, heat island effect, energy efficiency, and tourism.

Japanese governments and corporations are begining to promote their leadership in green cities for a global audience. It is a pleasure to see Hitachi, a sponsor of Tokyo Green Space, promoting environmental diplomacy in China. Under Hitachi’s China Energy Conservation and Environment Commercialization Promotion, Hitachi activities include sharing water treatment technologies with Sichuan University and hosting an “eco-cities” conference with Chinese government organizations and corporations.

Hitachi CEO Kawamura Takashi is backing an unprecedented 2025 Environmental Vision in which Hitachi products will reduce global CO2 emissions by 100 million tons. This ambitious vision seeks a 50% reduction from 2000 levels. And to provide a concrete idea of the size of this committment, Hitachi explains that eliminating 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would require a new cedar forest of 130,000 square kilometers, or one third the size of all of Japan.

Hitachi's image of forest required to eliminate 100 million tons of CO2

Hitachi’s bold plans suggest that reversing climate change is not a charitable gesture but essential to its business success in a global marketplace. Rather than seeing trade-offs, Hitachi envisions “harmonious coexistence of environmental preservation and economic growth.” 

Efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and promote the environment must of necessity focus on cities. According to the United Nations Population Fund, in 2008 more than half the world’s population, 3.3 billion, were living in cities. If the 20th century saw urban global populations rise from 220 million to 2.8 billion, the rate is now only increasing. By 2030, almost 5 billion people will be living in urban areas, with the largest growth rates in Africa and Asia. The UNPF estimates that in 2030, more than 80% of urban residents will be in the developing world.

If designed well, the city of the future promises to be most sustainable environment for the world’s population. It is exciting to see how Japan, with its 30+ years in energy efficiency and bold new ideas, is becoming a global leader in smart growth, technology and the environment.

Support the Tokyo 2016 Olympic Games! Tokyo 2016 Bid Committee

Flower power

Salary man taking keitai sakura photo at Imperial Palace

Spring in Tokyo reminds you of the power that flowers have to capture human imagination. Cherry blossom viewing, which has its own name in Japanese, hanami (花見), draws people to socialize outdoors, drinking and eating on blue tarps with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.

The power of cherry blossoms (or sakura, 桜) even inspires acts of seeming recklessness. In the photo above, an older salary man is perched precariously above the Imperial Palace moat in his quest to take a close-up photo with his cellphone (or ketai).

As an anthropologist and foreigner in Japan, it is also striking to me how specific flower devotion in Japan is. On a hanami stroll, I noticed this beautiful yellow flowering bush called yamabuki, literally “mountain spray.” I have never seen it on either coast in the United States; an internet search gives its English name “kerria.” Despite the crowds in the Tokyo park, I felt that I alone was giving this flower some attention.

Yamabuki in Narita Higashi, Tokyo

At the end of this month, Good Day Books in Ebisu, will be hosting an author’s reading with Enbutsu Sumiko. Her Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo offers 40 walks in Tokyo focusing on seasonal flowers in various parks and gardens.

Enbutsu Sumiko, Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo