Month: March 2010

Shrines provide recreation and green space

On busy Shinjuku Dori, near Shinjuku Gyoen, there is a tiny shrine. I was startled last weekend to see a group of senior citizens playing ring toss in front of the open shrine. It was interesting to hear that there is nothing sacrilegious about using sacred space for recreation.

Apparently children often played in shrines, so with the aging society and few places for outdoor activities, I guess it is no surprise to see seniors enjoying this outdoor games and social time. Here you can see how the shrine is a small open space on a busy street full of tall buildings and a firehouse.

Here’s more photos of the game and the streetscape in Shinjuku Ichome. It’s great to see how shrines preserve open space, provide space for mature trees and for recreation. This shrine has many layers of trees, including a cherry tree.

Treehouse Hideaway cafe in Harajuku

Last week I explored the back alleys of Harajuku with Azby Brown, director of the KIT Future Design Institute and author of Just Enough: Lessons in Green Living from Traditional Japan. Beneath the veneer of teen fashion and continual demolition and rebuilding, we saw a small remnant of a four hundred year old cemetery, vestiges of hills and streams, and walls and buildings from the time of World War II.

But nothing was more striking than this Treehouse Hideaway Cafe on the north side of Harajuku, towards Yoyogi. A funky stairway leads up to a second story, green building that wraps around an enormous pine tree. Further up the tree is an open air platform. The treehouse was created by Kobayashi Takashi (小林崇). Kobayashi has created treehouses all over Japan.

So much of Tokyo and other urban built structures eradicates the natural environment it occupies. It is very cool to see the structure built around this old tree, and to see something you might associate with the countryside in the heart of Tokyo’s trendy fashion district.

Here’s a map to find the cafe. On the day we toured Harajuku, a flash mob assembled because of a rumored appearance by teen band Hey! Say! Jump, injuring several teen fans. We were fortunate not to get caught in that).

Visionary concept for reviving the Kyobashi river

Recently I heard Mishima Yoshiki present a paper about the revival of the Kyobashi river in central Tokyo. Like most of Tokyo’s legendary rivers and canals, it has long been buried underground, when the Edo tradition of water transportation gave way to twentieth century freeways for private autos and commercial trucks.

Mishima’s paper was presented at the Tokyo University’s Asia Mega-Cities symposium in a session devoted to urban rivers. His paper was co-authored with Hayashi Masaki, Shikanai Kyoko, and Ishikawa Mikiko. Mishima is a PhD candidate at Todai’s graduate school of engineering, and a landscape architect trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Many landscape architects and urban historians point to the centrality of water in Tokyo’s history, and there is a growing desire to see its renewal in our post-industrial era. Mishima’s talk highlighted the Edo functions of the Kyobashi river, the history of its “reclamation” or burial, and the opportunities to remake it today.

Mishima’s project team chose the Kyobashi river because it is in central Tokyo and it is relatively short, with a history of connecting the Edo castle to the ocean. The paper introduced the concept of the kashi, a riverside commons that served as a place for unloading goods and commercial markets and where no private structures were allowed to be created. Today it has exceptional potential because it represents a mere 600 meters of the 320 kilometer Tokyo Expressway system, and is used by only 4,000 of the 53,000 daily expressway vehicles. Plus, its central location offers enormous potential as public open space and high rent commercial space.

Mishima explained how the Kyobashi river, like most of Tokyo’s waterways, became devalued and ultimately buried in the twentieth century when natural and human disasters overwhelmed the city. The 1923 Kanto Earthquake destroyed the kashi, and many private buildings were constructed. River commerce had already declined, and increasing garbage raised sanitation problems. The firebombing of Tokyo during World War II left huge piles of ashes along the river banks, making open space again a place for waste.

The post-war period saw some bizarrely futuristic plans. The 1950 “Sky Building Plan” envisioned building twelve story buildings above the old river, with an expressway running through the second floor. I am curious why this plan was ultimately rejected. In its stead, the city built a series of elevated freeways, mostly public and some privately owned, with several including the Kyobashi river having commercial tenants on the ground floor.

I enjoyed seeing the model of the renewal of the Kyobashi river. Using rainwater, treated sewage, and springs, there were would be plenty of water to support the new river. Water is constantly being pumped out from the subway tunnels (this happens in New York City as well, which I learned in the fantastic book The World without Us by Alan Weisman).

The Kyobashi river concept combines commercial development with the creation of a huge new green corridor. Some buildings would be placed on the new river, as a way to generate revenue for the construction and maintenance of the new public spaces. Green roofs would integrate the new buildings with the park. People would have access to the river on bridges, plazas, water decks, and recreational boats. It would be great to also see a river edge that combined some elements of natural riverbank vegetation and habitat.

Several factors make the idea of this project at least conceivable. One, the Kyobashi river area is small and borders high rent Ginza. Second, the elevated freeway, like most of Tokyo’s expressways, was built in the rush to “modernize” before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Therefore, they do not meet current earthquake standards, and the city currently faces a choice between expensive retrofitting or potential collapse. (The earthquake damage to San Francisco’s Embarcadero freeway in 1989 provided the impetus for freeway removal and opening the bay to the city in the early 2000s, which has been a huge success). Lastly, the low rent payed by the private company suggests that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and its residents receive minimal compensation in exchange for the environmental costs of the freeway.

Seoul becomes urban green leader

It is exciting to read about how Seoul, Korea’s Mayor Oh Se-hoon is remaking his city into a green leader. Accomplishments include reducing air pollution by 20% in just four years. I like how Seoul uses attractiveness and energy efficiency as success metrics.

I am impressed that Seoul is connected an attractive city with economic growth and international competitiveness. May Oh is quotes as saying, “If the city is attractive, people, information and capital flow in. This in turn creates economic re-vitality and it also creates a lot of jobs.”

This forward looking attitude seems lacking in Tokyo’s city government. Why does Japan’s largest city cede environmental leadership to smaller cities like Yokohama and Nagoya? How will Japan compete globally in the next economy with last century’s technology? What will it take for Tokyo to abandon the status quo and become a leader in new urbanism? Tokyo has so much grassroots energy and creativity for brining nature into the city and making streets livable, yet so little government and corporate support.

Hanami in Jiyuugaoka, outer Tokyo

These photos were taken yesterday evening in Jiyuugaoka, an upscale neighborhood between Shibuya and Yokohama. I was leaving Sinajina, and crossed this beautiful pedestrian area full of benches, mature cherry trees and small shops. Like many neighborhoods, an old stream was converted decades ago into a pedestrian plaza. This one is particularly beautiful because it’s well used and central to the neighborhood that radiates out from the train station. They have also added lanterns for hanami.

When people think of hanami, or cherry blossom season, they talk about famous and gorgeous parks like Ueno, Inokashira Koen, and Yoyogi. What amazes me are the many neighborhood boulevards lined with beautifully maintained cherry trees, as well as shrines and public schools which often have at least one great tree. In my neighborhood of Nakano, there is Nakano Street, Araiyakushi Temple, and the elementary school near our apartment.

The magic of cherry blossoms is how diffused and ubiquitous they are. No matter where you go, you see the pink petals above you. It will be a glorious 10 days throughout the city.

A seashore covered in concrete

Recently I took a day trip to Iwaki with my in-laws. We ended the afternoon on the top floor of a 1980s hotel in a cafe which had the clever idea of placing sand on the floor below the tables that face out on the coast. On closer examination, I realized that both the small hill and the seashore are covered in concrete.

The view reminded me of Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons about how the institutional forces that lead the government to degrade the countryside and the environment. On the one hand, pouring concrete on the hillside protects the houses below, and presumably what look like huge concrete children’s jacks on the shore prevent flooding. But did they need to build houses on such perilous land, or was the lure of construction profits and kickbacks too great to pass up?

Hakone gardens, Meiji house, and shrine

Now that I have posted about Hakone moss outside the organized visit, I will also share some images from the Nodai school trip. Above you can see how many students, faculty, and research fellows participated on the trip by counting the shoes.

We stayed at Hotel Yoshiike, a ryokan with an amazing Kyoto style stroll garden that is large and other worldly. The buildings are very 1960s style boxes, but the gardens make you lose track of both time and place. There is something truly masterful about the streams and pond, the wandering paths, the careful plantings and attentive maintenance.

In addition to appreciating the garden, there were enormous meals, much drinking, and onsen bathing.

The other stunning garden we saw was designed for Yamada Denki’s corporate villa by one of Japan’s most celebrated contemporary landscape designer, Sakakibara Hachiro, who also created the modern Japanese garden at Tokyo MidTown. The contrast between the two gardens is stunning: while Yoshiike is flat and terraced, Sakakibara’s is vertical and borrows from the surrounding landscape of steep, forested hills. There is a lot of drama and movement in the garden in terms of waterfalls and paths.

The Tenseien shrine turns a (mostly?) natural waterfall into a shrine. I had never seen the Shinto rope and paper decorations attached to a waterfall.

We also visited this charming Meiji-era house, a small “out-building” attached to a larger villa. The image at the top with the shoes came from this entrance.

More photos after the jump.

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Hakone’s moss-covered roofs and walls

On a Nodai Garden Laboratory trip organized by Hattori sensei, I visited some amazing gardens and shrines, and stayed at a beautiful ryokan called Yoshiike. What I did not expect to see were these incredible moss roofs and walls in unexpected places.

While I love designed gardens, I am also amazed at how nature can impose itself on our built environment, creating beauty in unlikely places. I like the idea of the garden extending itself into the everyday.

Even mundane structures come alive when we let nature colonize our habitat.

Another magnolia at night

It’s funny that in English, we commonly call several varieties of magnolia by a single name. In Japanese, there are specific names for each one. I love how these pink and white tulip magnolia flowers are blowing in the night sky, with the ubiquitous power lines providing contrast in form and function. Urban beauty is nature mixed with functional services.

A beautiful magnolia grows in a tight space

Walking home last week, first we smelled and then saw this beautiful magnolia tree. In the dark, the petals looked pink, but when I returned the next afternoon I saw they are bright white. This tree is growing at the end of a gravel parking lot in Nakano, in the foot or so of property behind the house. This tight space shows how even the smallest horizontal space can support a substantial tree, with seasonal color and scent. Lovely.

Snow willow adds charm to busy street

Do you know this flowering shrub? It’s a super charming plant that you see all over Tokyo in spring called yuki yanagi, or snow willow (雪柳). In Latin it’s Spiraea thunbergii, native to Japan and China. I like how hardy it is, and its elegantly weeping shape. The photo above was from the same busy street in Yotsuya where I saw the dandelion last week. Here’s the context image.

A dandelion in Yotsuya

I have a soft spot for weeds, and this dandelion I saw found a home in a sidewalk crack in busy Yotsuya. I admire the ability of weeds to place themselves, to exist and spread despite our best attempts at organizing our environment. The dandelion is exceptional because it is at once a food, a medicine, and an important early source of nectar for honeybees. Cities need more dandelions!

Cherry madness starts early in Shinjuku Gyoen

Today was a gloriously sunny day with a warm breeze, and I found myself in Shinjuku Gyoen. Plenty of young families sprawled out on the lawn, with small kids playing ball. There’s a glorious magnolia pair near the entrance, but already the senior citizen, photo hobbyists brought out the big equipment to take photos of the early cherry trees.

Did you know that Shinjuku Gyoen has twelve species of cherry? And that they bloom from late February into mid April? There’s a very educational chart. I believe the one above is Prunus x kanzakura (カンザクラ、寒桜). If so, it’s about one to two weeks behind the schedule.

Not sure if I will be brave enough to return to Shinjuku Gyoen during peak cherry season when literally millions of people fill the park. Here’s my favorite photo from last year’s cherry season: a salaryman perched precariously on the Imperial Palace moat’s rail to snap a photo with his cellphone.

What’s your favorite place for cherry blossom viewing? Famous spots or neighborhood spots? What’s the most unlikely place you’ve seen cherry madness?

Flowering fruit tree

The days are alternating warm and cool, but already flowering trees are making Tokyo shine with color and beauty. I am not sure what type of flowering tree this is. I think it’s a plum called “eight petal” or 八重梅 (やえうめ). It’s in full bloom along a pedestrian path in Nakano.

From a distance the tree grabs your attention, but standing under it is sublime. Here are two more images: the context in a crowded neighborhood, and hundreds of buds popping open.