Month: July 2009

Peach truck

Peach truck in Jiyugaoka

A common Tokyo summer sight are mini pick-up trucks parked near train stations selling fruit, like this peach truck in Jiyugaoka. The sign on the back says “Directly from Yamanashi, cheap, cheap.”

The summer fruit vendor remains me of the “Arabbers” of Baltimore, who since the early 1800s have sold fruit and vegetables on highly decorated horse-drawn carts. According to the preservation society, the numbers have recently increased from one to six arabbers still working today.

Arabber in Baltimore

Meeting Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品)

Meeting Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品)

Yesterday I had the amazing fortune to meet Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品) in Jiyūgaoka, Setagaya-ku. Recognized as a leading Japanese green designer and bonsai innovator, Kobayashi-sensei has a vision for bring an appreciation of nature through caring for plants to a wide audience.

By making plants into attractive small objects, Kobayashi-sensei has succeeded in attracting many young people to his shop, studio and classroom housed in a beautiful modern building. Trays of plants line the front of the building, and a shelf has been built above the door to the entrance for additional storage. Inside is a gallery setting, where small plants are growing in elegant yet simple pots arranged with moss and stones.

Sinajina entrance

My friend Britton, who is fluent in Japanese and a moss expert, and I arrived at his shop with little notice and no expectation that Kobayashi-sensei would have time to speak with us. I was surprised by his incredible hospitality: offering us cool green tea on a hot day, and talking at length about his philosophy of plants, his background, and his craft. He was wearing a t-shirt of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Having recently visited the far more traditional Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku, I immediately noticed the difference in approach. Whereas Kobayashi Kunio takes pride in caring for plants that are hundreds of years old, Kobayashi Kenji of Sinajina is excited to work with less expensive plant materials and to create modern imaginary worlds including miniature parks, decorative animals, and contemporary landscapes.

Kobayashi told me that his background was in landscape architecture, and that he worked on some large-scale projects including Tokyo Big Sight. In 1998, he went to Portland to study with Kawamoto Toshio-sensei of Japan Bonsai. Unlike landscape architecture where the drawings on paper represent large areas in small form, he enjoyed how designing miniatures means that the plan and the execution are at the same scale. And unlike traditional bonsai which focuses on a single old tree, Kobayashi’s style is closer to saikei, miniature landscapes that can contain multiple trees and younger plants. By studying outside Japan with Kawamoto-san, he learned traditional techniques but with great freedom to imagine his own style.

Kobayashi-sensei spoke and showed us two arrangements. The one in the photo at the top is a miniature park, with the small stones representing a path, the moss bushes, and the seedlings mature trees. Another was a tiny maple tree growing at an angle from a tiny round ceramic with a clump of moss and tiny stones. In neither case had he used traditional bonsai wires, and the plants were between six months and perhaps two years old.

Sinajina contemporary bonsai

Kobayashi-sensei says that traditional bonsai craft and ownership is the domain of old and powerful men. And that many urban gardeners are older women. As we talked, he was proud that his shop attracts many young people. A green entrepreneur friend had warned me that Kobayashi’s plants are “expensive,” but the $40 to $200 cost of plant and pot is nothing compared to traditional bonsai trees that far outlast human life spans. Yet, like traditional bonsais, they are both miniature environments and objects of tremendous beauty.

Kobayashi-sensei views caring for plants as a way for urban people to connect to the environment. He says it is not enough for urban people to visit the countryside for a day and appreciate the beauty of nature. In an age of “consumerist culture” where cut flowers and plants are considered disposable, he wants to seduce young people and children to see his plants not as accessories but as part of the family, like a pet, that requires care and attention.

By sending his magical plants into homes, and at prices that (at least some) kids can afford, he wants to inspire young people to appreciate plants at a very practical level. Care for them, or they will die. Close attention will allow city dwellers to learn about plant life cycles, witness seasonal change, see growth, and actively beautify them. Kobayashi-sensei compares plants to humans in that both need some grooming to look their best– people need to cut their hair and nails, while his plants need to to be up-potted every three years, pruned, and have their roots cut back. I was startled to hear him say that a potted plant has more chance to thrive than a wild one, because in the forest plants “fight each other” for light and nutrients.

Sinajina viewed from street

Interview with Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) at Ginza Farm

Interview with Iimura Kazuki (î—ë∫àÍé˜) at Ginza Farm

Last week I sat down with Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) at Ginza Farm, with a translator, and learned much more about his ideas for Ginza Farm, his background and his next project.

Iimura-san told me that he is very interested in urban farming in Japan and worldwide. His background has given him unique skills for pulling off something that at first seems impossible: creating a ground level rice farm in one of Tokyo’s most expensive neighborhoods.

Iimura-san recently worked with rural towns on revitalizing their small commercial streets, most recently in Shizoka. He realized that this local problem required new connections with the rest of the world. When he turned his attention to Tokyo farming, he drew on Ginza connections he forged as a venture capitalist. And finally his obvious skill with growing comes from his childhood on his parents’ farm in Shimoutsuba in Ibaraki prefecture, a town known for its high quality rice. The Ginza Farm soil and rice come from his parents’ farm.

How did Iimura-san secure a site that is on a small side street west and north of the intersection of Chuo Dori and Yanagi Dori (not far from the twisty De Beers building)? Using connections with tax accountants and attorneys, he located the plot and spent six months negotiating with the landlord. Although I do not know the details, apparently lending land between demolition and construction confers some significant tax advantages, yet still it took a long process of negotiation.

A giant photo banner at the back of the field proclaims that “One hundred rice farmers make Japan healthy.” Below is information about the supporting farms. Iimura-san contacted some of Japan’s most award-winning farms, appealing to their pride and patriotism. He spent two months sending documents and gaining equal support from these farmers.

Some of the activities at Ginza Farm have included a farmer’s market, a Tanabata festival with Nagashi Somen (noodle rolling along a long bamboo tube). At the festival, he said that the kids who participated were initially afraid of getting dirty, but that within five minutes they were throwing mud and “becoming monsters.” He wonders if it might have been the first time for many of these city kids to play in the dirt.

The field, the sitting area of benches and tables, the awning are all very rustic and well crafted. Iimura-san told us that a famous bamboo artist and his workers built much of it.

Iimura-san said that many types of people have visited. With the introduction of the ducklings, more women have become interested. I noticed an interesting mix of Ginza workers, including construction workers and shop clerks. Iimura-san explained that the school kids who helped plant the farm each received a plant to take home. Iimura-san was very proud that one kid came back to tell him that the rice he cared for was bigger and stronger than the Ginza Farm’s.

A true farmer, Iimura-san told me of very specific growing problems in Ginza that makes it hard to grow rice well. The sun does not shine into the field until 9 am which is bad. At night, the field is full of artificial light, which he has attempted to control with a large black plastic curtain he closes at dusk. “It’s important for the rice to sleep.” And finally, the night time temperature in Ginza is too warm, without the cool breezes found in the countryside.

Iimura-san has many future plans: to create another Ginza Farm next year, to find new markets for Japanese rice, and to open a rental farm (貸し農園) with sixteen roof top plots on the top of the Paul Smith building in Omotesando. He says the rental farm has wonderful views of Roppongi and Tokyo.

Iimura-san’s resourcefulness and passion will be very helpful, and I am looking forward to visiting Ginza Farm again and his next projects.

The photo at the top of the post and below show how the rice and the ducklings have grown so much within 10 days. While my last visit he showed me a tiny frog, this time he pointed out a small snail on the trunk of the entrance-way maple tree.

Ginza Farm ducks

Woolly Pocket Garden at Flora Grubb Gardens

Wooly Pocket Garden at Flora Grub Gardens

My favorite San Francisco garden store, Flora Grubb Gardens, has an installation of a new vertical garden from Woolly Pocket Garden. It’s a modular system for green walls using a simple pocket design. The pockets are a breathable felt made from recycled plastic bottles, and the vertical gardens can be easily installed indoors or outdoors.

Wooly Pocket Garden

And here’s an image of a “green ledge” above a storefront  in San Francisco’s Mission District (taken by Leanne Waldal).

Green ledge San Francisco Mission DistrictGreen ledge SF Mission

Eco house with green roof

CNN video about Kawasaki eco house with green roof

An interesting video from CNN about one Kawasaki family’s choices in constructing a house with minimal environmental impact: passive daytime lighting, low flow faucets, double paned windows, solar water heater, and a roof garden for cooling the home and providing vegetables. There is also discussion of Panasonic’s Eco Idea House with an energy management network and fuel cells.

Panasonic projects a 66% reduction in carbon emission levels from 1990 to 2010 in the house of the future. And it also envisions “universal design” principles to allow for optimal usage by the elderly and disabled.

Panasonic eco house, carbon reduction

The floor plan shows the existence of “grandmother’s room” and a home theater room, along with a “wellness corner” and “energy corner.”

Panasonic eco house, floor plan

Carbon reduction is electoral issue

Japan election results from 2005

Japan is entering a heated campaign for the Diet, and the Liberal Democrat Party ruling party faces a serious challenge that is unusual in the post-war period. The campaign by the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has largely revolved around  a broad call for “change,” while many observers have difficulty discerning differences in campaign promises or likely governing policies.

It is interesting to note that the opposition DPJ declared yesterday that they are committed to a 25% reduction of carbon emissions by 2020 (from 1990 levels),  in contrast to the LDP’s 8% target. Policies include a cap and trade policy, opposed by business, a “feed-in tariff” that obliges power companies to buy renewable energy at a fixed price, and the “consideration” of an environment tax.

Reaching agreement between advanced and emerging countries on 2020 targets is critical to the success of the upcoming UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. Some may be skeptical about whether electoral promises will be carried out. Regardless of the outcome, it will be interesting to see how much this issue resonates with the Japanese electorate and whether they will accept the price for environmental change.

(Note: The chart above shows the distribution of seats from the 2005 election).

Awa Odori in Kagurazaka

As I posted yesterday, I observed the Awa Odori (阿波踊り) dance festival in Kagurazaka (神楽坂), a quiet hillside neighborhood in Shinjuku with many old buildings and known 100 years ago as an entertainment district with geishas.

The Awa Odori is a popular mid-summer festival that began in the 16th century in Tokushima in Shikoku prefecture. Fifteen or more dance troops, including all ages and children, climb up the Kagurazaka hill on the main street to the music of shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flutes, and kane bells. The dancing is broadly comedic, with exaggerated swagger suggesting drunken freedom. Lanterns line the road, and are carried by dancers.

Troops are formed by government pension workers, the local post office, neighborhood associations, schools and businesses. Despite rainfall, the dancers and large crowds of onlookers were enthusiastic. The lyrics according to Wikipedia are:

踊る阿呆に (Odoru ahou ni) The dancers are fools
見る阿呆 (Miru ahou) The watchers are fools
同じ阿呆なら (Onaji ahou nara) Both are fools alike so
踊らな損、損 (Odorana son, son) Why not dance?

There is also a call and response that reminded me of other street festivals, particularly the omatsuri (お祭) when portable shrines (omikoshi, お神輿) are carried through the streets. The words are without meaning but coordinate the movement: “Yattosa, yattosa”, “Hayaccha yaccha” and “Erai yaccha, erai yaccha”, “Yoi, yoi, yoi, yoi”.

Street festivals, by occupying public streets and bringing the community together to celebrate, seem a central part of Tokyo Green Space. By bringing together workers, students, kids, elderly, business owners, neighbors and tourists, street festivals connect people to history and each other.

I was reminded of a similar mix of public celebration and history the following night when I attended the Sumida River fireworks (hanabi, or はなび). It was startling how many young people wore traditional yukata and geta (well, some of them accessorized the old with flip flops or high heels).

Kids dancing at Awa Odori Kagurazaka

The last weekend of August, there is an even bigger Awa Odori in Koenji. Please click the link below to see more videos and still photos of the Kagurazaka event.

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Chinese lantern flowers for summer festival

Lantern flowers in Kagurazaka during Awa Odori

These Chinese lantern flowers were hanging in baskets with ornaments outside a restaurant in Kagurazaka (神楽坂) during the summer Awa Odori (阿波踊り) dance festival. It’s great to see living plants celebrating a street party full of music, dancers of all ages, comedy and many observers. I’ll post more about the Awa Odori soon.

Bonsai Museum and Shibamata with Nodai

Kobayashi Kunio's Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku

Last weekend I had the great fortune to go with Professor Hattori of Nodia’s Garden Lab and about twelve students to visit Kobayashi Kunio sensei’s Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku. Kobayashi-sensei has won numerous Japanese and international awards for his mastery of Japanese bonsai. By chance I had met him, his foreign apprentice Valentin, and other students a few weeks ago at the Iriya Asa Gao (morning glory) festival.

The Bonsai Museum, open six days a week in Shitamachi, far exceeded my imagination. Our large group was met at the gate by one of the Japanese apprentices. Initially we were left to admire the astounding bonsais set on simple wood stands in the courtyard. I noticed Valentin and another apprentice lifting and carry several plants, and later realized that they placing the trees in the very traditionally designed rooms of the ten year old Museum.

matthew and link at bonsai museum

On first view, the dozens of trees are overwhelming: each a miniature world combining meticulously crafted tree, moss, in ceramics or on stone bases. Some of the trees are 600 and even 1,000 years old, and all display a refined beauty that is a mix of taking natural elements to extreme conditions. In a photo book describing his career, Kobayashi sensei says that early on he often tried too hard and in retrospect apologizes to those trees that he killed.

2 formal rooms in bonsai museum

The Museum structure is a series of five interconnected formal tatami rooms, including one set up for tea ceremony with a small door entrance and area for coals and a kettle. Each room has one bonsai tree arranged with a scroll, small figurine, and short table in the ceremonial, slightly elevated section. Kobayashi-sensei worked closely with architects and designers to create an ideal environment for the contemplation of his master works. It is hard to believe the building is only 10 years old; it was so well designed that on a hot summer day, you could feel cool breezes.

Hattori sensei at bonsai museum

More photos of Bonsai Museum, a master lesson from Kobayashi sensei, and lunch in Shibamata after the jump.

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3 projects created by 5bai Midori

Kami Meguro residence B entrance

Recently a director and landscape designer from 5bai Midori took me on a tour of three projects in Meguro, two residences across from each other and an apartment building. The two houses in Kami Meguro are across from eachother, with one residence garden inspiring its neighbor. Above you can see how the plants have thrived after seven years, with vines reaching the third floor roof garden, and an interesting mix of small plants, shrubs and trees framing the entrance. With the plants reaching maturity, you hardly see the boxes that are the foundation of the garden system. Because the plants are all local natives, maintenance is just twice per year.

The “Moegi” apartment building in Kakinokizaka below was designed by an architect who wanted to maximize greenery with 5bai Midori. Plants are placed along the sidewalk, in the main entrance, private courtyard, and side bicycle storage area. Above the street level, there is a ledge running the entire width of the building that is completely covered in 5bai Midori boxes.

Kakinokizaka Moegi apartment building context

The first of the Kami Meguro houses has a wild exterior that contrasts with the typical cinder block wall of the neighboring property.

Kami Meguro residence A context

Its side entrance consists of gently sloping pebble steps also based on 5bai Midori’s box system. The feeling is organic, private and charming.

Kami Meguro residence A side entrance

You can see my previous posts about 5bai Midori and its founder Tase Michio. Below the jump are some additional photos of these three projects.

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Creating a common vision for green cities

governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2009 California budget deal

Reading about the drastic budget cuts in my home state of California makes me wonder about the potential future of green cities in that state and in the United States. After months of political deadlock, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a divided state Congress agreed on $US 30 billion in cuts over two years to schools, colleges, health, welfare, prisons, recreation and other services.

A New York Times analysis quotes University of California, Berkeley professor of political science Bruce E. Cain saying, “In the end, we do not know for sure whether the California public really wants the California dream anymore. The population is too diverse to have a common vision of what it wants to provide to everyone. Some people want the old dream, some want the gated privatized version, and some would like to secede and get away from it all.”

The conventional wisdom that California or the United States has no “common vision” reflects a political and cultural deficit, and will create more long-term damage than the economic downtown. For many government and educational authorities, diversity makes a convenient excuse for an unwillingness to invest in social programs that broadly benefit the public good. Nostalgia for previous boom times obscures the massive investment and cultural change needed to create green and sustainable cities.

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Aoki Yoko’s favorite places on Google Maps

Aoki Yoko's favorite places on Google Maps

Google Maps has introduced a new Favorite Places series highlighting global cities with places chosen by local visionaries, designers, museum directors, architects, environmentalists, artists and entrepreneurs. Above is Aoki Yoko’s favorite places in Tokyo and Japan; she’s the founder of cafeglobe.com. Some of her favorite places include urban community farms, old-growth Tokyo forest, a farmers’ market, and a natural springs park that is a firefly habitat. Other Tokyo experts include geek blogger Danny Choo, a flower artist, cameraman, and Shitamachi priest. A very cool introduction to global cities and places you might not know about.

School gardens

Yokohama junior high school garden, from Goinglocoinyokohama blog

A US teacher’s blog reminded me of the importance of gardens in Japanese public schools. Loco teaches in a Yokohama junior high school, and remarked at how different Japanese and New York school facilities are.

At his school, there are two ponds, turtles, fish, and carefully pruned trees. The gardens are largely maintained by the students and staff. In contrast US students generally have no responsibilities for cleaning their classrooms or maintaining the grounds.

Another feature of Japanese school gardens is the frequent presence of at least one large cherry tree. These trees’ blossoms mark the ending and beginning of the school year in March and April.

In the United States, there is now an Edible Schoolyard movement to bring vegetable gardens to schools as a way to educate kids about food and the environment. The Berkeley California middle school garden was founded in 1995 by noted cook and food activist Alice Waters, who is now advising the Obamas about the organic White House vegetable garden. It would be interesting to bring this school vegetable garden concept to Japan.

Edible schoolyard in Berkeley, California

“Daylighting” Cheonggyecheon River

Daylighting Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul

A great article in today’s New York Times about “daylighting” the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul. Daylighting refers to uncovering streams buried under pavement. Three miles of elevated freeway were removed, a plant-rich stream restored, and central urban land was converted from car-centric to people-centric.

Benefits include:

  • summer temperature reduction by 5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • improved storm drainage, which global warming has worsened
  • reduction in small-particle air pollution from 74 to 48 micrograms per cubic meter
  • less auto congestion despite the loss of vehicle lanes
  • bio-diversity gains include 25 versus 4 fish species, 36 versus 6 bird species, and 192 versus 15 insect species
  • 90,000 daily visitors, including walking and picknicing
  • higher real estate values for adjacent buildings
  • political gains for former mayor, now South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (also formerly head of construction at Hyundai Corporation)
  • restoration of the historic center of a 600 year city
Daylighting Cheonngyecheon River in Seoul

Government officials and urban planners from Los Angeles, Singapore, San Antonio, and Yonkers have expressed interest in restoring urban streams. Sadly, the article did not mention anything about Tokyo, where most of its historic canals and rivers are covered by streets and elevated freeways.