Shitamachi walk before new year

Before the new year, I took a walk with Alastair Townsend, an American architect in Tokyo, from Yanaka to the new Sky Tree in Mukojima. Above is a sushi restaurant in Kiyokawa, a mostly desolate stretch in the middle of the walk. I was impressed how the shop owners created such a dense jungle in the small space between the restaurant and the sidewalk. The variety and density are magnificent, and it is only with careful observation can you observe the plastic pots supporting this small forest, and the chain link fence buried many years ago in plants.

After the jump, some more images including a decorative rope and bamboo structure covering a sculpted pine tree, the contrast between old and new houses, a residential orange and bonsai persimmon, a pygmy date palm that survives the Tokyo winter, and the oddly named “Sky Tree.”

I was charmed by this bamboo and rope, undulating rope cover for this shrine pine tree. Is it purely decorative, or do the ropes keep out the birds? Is it placed around the tree only in the winter? I love how it rises up and almost invites you inside.

Just inside the strucutre, I noticed these elegant straw decorations, somewhat similar to the Shin Edogawa garden ones I saw in mid-November. I assume they have something to do with the rice harvest and end of the year. Can any of my readers tell me the name?

Yanaka is always full of small green spaces to look at. I particularly enjoyed seeing this one pre-World War II house between its modern neighbors. The color of the wood exterior was so dark that to capture it clearly, I had to bleach out the neighbors. It is interesting, too, that this house has no garage but instead a nice collection of plants outside.

In a tiny space I saw an orange tree growing with lovely large fruits. On a crowded windowsill, a persimmon bonsai.

In Mukojima, a small shop had a lovely mature pygmy date palm, phoenix robelenii. Apparently Tokyo’s winters have been mild enough for this to live at least ten years outside the.

Finally, after an incredibly spicy ramen lunch, we approached the bridge leading across the Sumida, and there was the Sky Tree, half-built and still rising higher. It will be the tallest structure in Tokyo, and will serve as the broadcast tower replacing the nostalgic Tokyo Tower. The design is not particularly exciting, which is too bad since it will be very visible.

I wonder how they gave it the name Sky Tree. I imagine it made someone feel better about erecting such a large and cold monument. It is too bad they could not have incorporated some living, tree-like element in the design.

Alastair made the interesting point that what makes the Eiffel Tower so much nicer than its Tokyo imitators is that 24 hours, 7 days a week anyone can walk below the tower and truly appreciate it. The Tokyo Tower is fenced off with the exception of the fee-based entrance. And the Sky Tower will rise above its rail station developer’s enormous new shopping mall. He also pointed me to the Guangzhou Tower, a larger version of the Kobe Tower. I like the shapes, but red seems a bit unnecessary for the tallest building.

My favorite image of Sky Tree was the promotional ad on the old station steps, showing its progress over time. Japan has a special skill for information graphics.


  1. I believe the ropes over the pine are to protect it from snow. They don’t want the heavy weight of too much snow to break a branch that’s taken 100 years or more to grow.

  2. Janet, thank you for the comment. Your explanations makes sense for why I have been seeing these structures in gardens and shrines this winter.

    With so little snow in Tokyo, this custom must come from Kyoto or other cities. I am amazed at how artful and beautiful this cover is.

    Any idea about the small straw sculptures? Do you think it’s related to the rice harvest, Shinto-ism, or some other seasonal event?

  3. It does though snow in Tokyo from time to time, and so they have to protect the trees.

    I remember one of my early trips there – an enchanting day in Ueno-koen in February. It was our last day there, and it was snowing heavily, with maybe 6-inches on the ground. While taking a walk in the park a woman who was taking photographs told us to make sure to go visit the Peony exhibit going on right then, and showed us the signs pointing to the entrance. She said that she had been waiting for several years for the chance to photograph the peonies in the snow.

    They grow the peonies under little straw shelters, which give them just enough warmth to bloom in February. The snow on the little huts, with the blooms underneath, and the Ume in bloom peaking over the garden wall, was so incredibly, quintessentially, Japanese-style beautiful. This is a wonderful little show, which i believe is held every year. It’s at the shinto shrine that has the old stone lanterns donated by various daimyo after Ieyasu’s death. I’ve forgotten the name of the shrine, but it’s the one that you can get to off the main entrance road/path lined with all the sakura.

    Anyway, no – I don’t have any idea about the straw sculptures. But I would not be at all surprised if your surmise is correct.

    BTW, I note that you seem to like bonsai. The biggest (and most important) bonsai show of the year is Kokufu-ten – held every February at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno-Koen. (This year it is 2/9-2/17, closed on Monday). You will see the best bonsai in the country, including some very old and famous trees.

    1. Janet, thank you for your comment and reminder that it does snow in Tokyo. Recently it has felt very cold here, but so far I have only seen sleet. Thank you for the references to the amazing peony garden in Ueno, and the up-coming bonsai show.

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