Month: October 2009

Palm trees in Tokyo, Seto Inland Sea & Yakushima

Palm trees in Tokyo, Jason Dewees

San Francisco palm expert Jason Dewees, of Flora Grubb Gardens, recently visited Tokyo, the Seto Inland Sea and Yakushima, and documented his horticultural findings on the International Palm Society’s travel forum. Together we created Palm Sundae several years ago in Northern California. Above is one of his photos.

Packed with photos, Jason’s post is an expert traveler’s guide to urban trees and plants with a palm focus, as well as Seto Inland Sea palms and exotic plants found on Yakushima, Japan’s wettest place whose high mountains feature ancient Cryptomeria trees (commonly called cedar in English and sugi in Japanese). In Tokyo, Jason identified two main types of palm trees: Trachycarpus fortunei, self-seeding in roadside plant beds, in small parks, as well as in the wooded areas of Meiji Jingu, and Tracheycarpus wagnerianus in residential gardens. Trachycarpus fortunei is known in Japanese as shuro (シュロ, 棕櫚), and has been used for many traditional crafts including paper making and brooms. Jason also discovered and photographed in Tokyo potted and in the ground Rhapis palms, both common and unusual.

Japanese wine

Japanese wine

Inside the upscale Shin Marunouchi office tower, I saw a poster for Japanese wine outside an Italian restaurant. Japanese have recently become very interested in wine, and I had heard about a famous manga introducing wine to new drinkers that had been translated into French and become popular. It was interesting to see the promotion of national wine.

Japanese wine

 

Praying mantis on Tokyo Metro platform

Praying mantis on Tokyo Metro platform

On a Tokyo Metro platform, I saw some small children and their mothers gathering around and pointing. On the harsh pavement of the train platform was a praying mantis. The children began screaming and running. I don’t think I had ever seen a praying mantis so far removed from plant life.

Night views of cemetery and harappa

Night view of cemetery

In urban settings, shrines and the entrances to cemeteries are open all day and night. Especially at night, they provide equal doses of nature and mystery that is both within and separate from normal urban life. These long exposure photos capture some of the magical beauty of nighttime trees, plants, shadows and stones.

Night views of cemetery

This experience in a nighttime cemetery reminds me of a term I recently learned from a Tokyo University professor who works at Hakuhodo: harappa (原っぱ). Harappa is an in-between urban and wild place that traditionally allowed children a space to play and explore. It could be a meadow, a grove of trees, or an abandoned building. With ever increasing construction and denser urban lives, these liminal spaces are harder to find. Shrines function as one of the most solid barriers against total urbanization.

A small tip: I recently learned how to take crisp nighttime photos with an inexpensive digital camera. To avoid shaking and blurring from long exposures, use the timer and set the camera on a hard surface.

Preparing plants for New Year’s celebration

Sinajina class: Preparing plants for New Year's celebration

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.

Pruned red pine in residential garden, preparing for New Year

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 Kenji at Sinajina class

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.

Plants at Kawagoe festival

Plants at Kawagoe festival

At the Kawagoe festival, or omatsuri, last weekend, there was a small street full of plant sellers, including this one focused on succulents and cactuses. Other featured plants included chrysanthemums, many of them sold without plastic pots. Many neighborhood festivals include a group of plant sellers, in addition to portable shrines, street food and other activities.

Views of Mount Fuji

Views of Mount Fuji

In the fall, views of Mount Fuji reappear in Tokyo. Summer is too hazy to see long distances clearly. Even in fall, the times you see Mount Fuji are unexpected, surprising and sublime. The view above and below is from our apartment balcony at sunset.

Views of Mount Fuji

There was a recent newspaper article about a Nippori, Tokyo neighborhood association‘s effort to save their view of Mount Fuji from a hillside named Fujimizaka, “the slope for seeing Mount Fuji.” The Nippori Fujimizaka is the last of sixteen hills named Fujimizaka in central Tokyo where the view has not yet been fully blocked by high rise construction. The Arakawa ward, where Nippori is located, would like to protect the views, but the Bunkyo ward, where the construction is occurring, would like the tax revenue from new construction.

Fujimizaka view, partly blocked

Although unsuccessful in preventing a 14 story building from blocking one third of the view in 2000, the Society to Protect Nippori’s Fujimizaka is organizing to protect the remaining two thirds view. The Mount Fuji view from Nippori was included in Hiroshige Utagawa’s famous woodblock prints of urban Edo life. The preservation leader is an 83 year old man named Kaneko Makoto.

Hiroshige's view of Mount Fuji from Edo

Drunk salary man passed out in flower bed

Drunk salary man passed out in flower bed

Friday night outside Shinjuku station, I noticed a salary man lying unconscious in a flower bed. The two young women sitting next to him wondered what this foreigner was photographing. I mentioned that in the United States, it’s not safe to be passed out in public, but they laughed and said, “It’s OK.”

I marvel at the safety of Tokyo, the world’s largest city, where it is not uncommon to see well-dressed people passed out from inebriation on sidewalks, train platforms, and occasionally on top of plants. There seems something poetic almost about the juxtaposition of office worker, flower and soil. Like seeing early elementary school children riding the trains alone, seeing adults passed out in public makes me reflect on how rarely we can feel free, unguarded and safe in United States and European cities.

In both cases, Japanese hardly notice that these things are happening. It’s just normal and “OK.”

Fall ikebana at Meiji Jingu

Fall ikebana at Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu last weekend had a fall ikebana display. This was my favorite combination of fall foliage and bright contrasting flower, with an understated ceramic vase.

It was fun to see the extremely stylized ikebana in the forest of Meiji Jingu, next to the shrine with its enormous trees and the endless procession of Sunday weddings shielded by giant red umbrellas and thronged with photo-snapping tourists. The ikebana display was a mostly ignored moment of quiet dignity amidst the clash of tradition and modernity, upper class families and international tourists, sacred, stylized and natural.

Fall has been wonderfully mild, with the zelkova (keyaki in Japanese) trees starting to turn yellow. Of the many ginkos (icho), I have seen just one already turned yellow.

Garden Square in Nerima

Garden Square

Garden Square is located on an enormous plot of land in a quiet residential neighborhood in Nerima, Tokyo. Most of the land looks wild, and is used by a landscaping firm as its nursery. The owner also constructed a rustic chic modern building, with a pastry shop and flower and plant shop on the first floor, and an Italian restaurant on the second floor.

Garden Square

The back yard has a trellised vine, which on closer inspection, turned out to be a kiwi.

Kiwi in Garden Square

Across the street is an open wood structure with more plants for sale, open to passers-by.

Garden Square

Unfortunately, you cannot enter the nursery area. It is strange that this huge urban space appears more like a place for growing plants than retailing them.

Garden Square

Zero waste

Zero waste vs landfill

Interesting New York Times article about how zero waste is moving from fringe to mainstream, including Yellowstone National Park (plant-based cups and utensils), an Atlanta restaurant (composting on premises), and Honda North America (no packaging means no dumpster at factories).

Food waste, 13% of United States trash, releases methane– a climate warming, greenhouse gas– when sealed in landfills without oxygen. Composting provides non-petroleum fertilizers. Other initiatives include bio-degradable packaging, recycling, and re-using.

Diane Durston talks about Old Kyoto and Portland

Diane Durston

Diane Durston will be speaking on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at the International House of Japan. Her talk is entitled “Bringing Old Kyoto Home: Author Re-invents Japan in a Pacific Northwest Garden.” She will talk about preservation of Kyoto historic buildings (Kyo-machiya and machinami), and how she has brought Japanese craft and culture to a wide variety of United States forums and audiences.

Diane is currently the Curator of Art, Culture and Educator at the Portland Japanese Garden, the finest Japanese garden in North America. She is the author Diane of many books and articles, including Old Kyoto, in print since 1986 and the current second edition with a forward by Donald Richie. Previously she worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Whitney Museum, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania.

You can reserve online a seat for the talk at: http://www.swet.jp/index.php/events/october_28_bringing_home_old_kyoto/


Bento and Japanese Beauty

Japanese and German knives

Today’s New York Times has a great “Room for Debate” feature where four cultural experts discuss the beauty of the Japanese bento box. Although seemingly off-topic from Tokyo Green Space, the discussion expresses relevant cultural aesthetics and the importance of beauty, simplicity, and care.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, talks about simplicity and making due in an island nation with limited natural resources. I like his view that Japanese value “making less into more,” and traces bento creation to Kyoto food, a fanciful illusion that masks limited food resources.

Bento box

Kenya Hara, art director of Muji and professor of Musashino Art University, talks about shokunin kishitsu, or craftsman’s spirit. By cleaning carefully, working diligently, or preparing lunch boxes with creativity, airport cleaners, construction workers and home-makers make the mundane into something beautiful.

I also like how he claims Japanese have a special ability, “an incapacity to see ugliness,” that allows them to ignore urban chaos, ugly architecture and bad signage. In the drabbest office or construction environment, there is still a space to enjoy a perfect bento lunch.

It is easy to see how some of these ideas are expressed in the beautification of public spaces: ordinary people working within the constraints of an often poorly designed urban landscape, creating small vignettes of beauty with a mix of artistry and care, and sharing these creations with minimal self-importance.