Meeting Tase Michio 田瀬理夫

Tase Michio, Umeki, and me in front of Tase's Tokyo studio

This week I had the amazing opportunity to meet one of my landscape design heroes, Tase Michio (田瀬理夫) of Plamtago. He has created urban architecture and a green business that bring native plants and habitats to urban areas. His most famous work is the 1995 Acros Fukuoka building, a 15 story lush hillside on top of a downtown office building. More recently, he provided the creative direction for 5bai Midori, a Tokyo company that brings “satoyama” (里山) or a slice of rural Japan into urban areas through a modular 5-sided system.

With a shock of grey hair, Tase sensei is patient with visitors, provocative and without pretense. Born 60 years ago in Ichigaya, Tokyo, not far from his current Plamtago home office, Tase says he has been monitoring the natural environment of Tokyo since his childhood. His view is that urban land use is worse today than in the 1970s. And despite the success of Acros Fukuoka, which looks fuller and more wild after 14 years of growth, Tase is disappointed that there have been no other high rises incorporating bio-diversity into their architecture.

Tase Michio's Acros Fukuoka

Tase describes his work as “Passive Architecture & Active Landscape with Nature.” For cities, he aims to increase the number of plant species, slow rainfall and filter it before it reaches rivers and bays, create healthy wildlife habitats, and improve the soil. I was struck that he sees as urban eco-system indicators tiny ticks, which reflect good soil and perhaps small animals, and also hawks. Ticks and at least one hawk reside in the forest of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

Tase’s other notable projects include an aquarium in Fukushima that incorporates river and ocean water; wetlands surrounding the headquarters of solar energy company OM-EGG; BIOS in Okinawa, a naturalist landscape forms part of an orchid theme park and cleans river water contaminated upstream by a golf course; Queen’s Meadow Country House and horse farm in Tono City; and the meadow-like rooftop of internationally famous animator Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghibli.

Tase Michio's front walkway in Tokyo

Listening to Tase is both inspiring and sobering. Because Japan has 10 plant regions, his projects all include regionally specific plants. He warns that there is no biodiversity within a 100 kilometer radius of Tokyo. Part of his work in Tokyo and Osaka includes encouraging rural farmers to reintroduce or revive native plants that have died out after years of farming, pesticides and mowing allowed invasive plants to take over. So greening cities also involves slowly creating an economy of native plant growers and forest managers, primarily in Fukushima and Tokuji.

With the environment and even biodiversity being such corporate and government buzzwords, it is sad to hear Tase talk about the resistance to his ideas. It seems that big real estate developers and construction companies prefer to use the same few species in all national projects. And governments often have existing contractors, and don’t see the value when upfront costs are higher. This is truly sad, given the international attention Acros Fukuoka brought to Kyushu, the amazing environmental benefits (20% less energy costs for the office building, lower summer  temperature on the south, planted side of the building than on any other side), and the acceptance by local residents who see appreciate how it extends a park into vertical space.

Looking at Tase’s home office, which has a long narrow path packed with 5bai Midori metal containers with over 100 species and one grass-covered bench, I assumed he had lived there for many years. No, he corrected me, he moved there two years ago. Because the plant system is modular, he was able to bring his plants with him from his old place.

I will create a separate blog post about 5bai Midori, but what impressed me most was that one 30×50 centimeter tray contains 20-30 species. Grasses, shrubs and small trees create a multi-leveled natural environment. I wonder how I can help spread Tase’s accomplishments in the English-speaking world.

Tase Michio's grass-covered bench in TokyoThe grass-covered bench we were sitting on in the first photo.

Tase Michio's front walkway in Tokyo

Update: After this post, a 5bai Midori landscape architect clarified the meaning of satoyama (里山). To quote her email, “Satoyama「里山」is the concept of the natural environment specific to Japan and some Asian countries. It is the outcome of well maintained nature and it is the intermediate state between the real nature and the trimmed, and designed garden. This intermediate state has been the base of the Japanese landscape. Our firm tries to keep this landscape accessible to urban settings so that people never forget the nature in Japan. It has somewhat psychological merits to support the city people mental stability, and this is one of our appealing points.”

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