Month: March 2010

Japanese farmer blogs

Martin J Frid’s Kurashi blog has a great round-up of Japanese farmers’ blogs. The post notes how some farmers are young and online, and discusses the potential for city people to use technology to become more connected with the people who are growing their food. Bloggers include a Hokkaido fruit farmer, an Okinawa papaya farmer, rice and soy farmers. Some are making videos and using Twitter. As more of us want to know about who and how are food is produced, technology seems like a great way to bridge the country and city divide.

(Image is of Frid’s 555 Food Safety Ranking book published by Kodansha last year).

More flowers in transit bathroom

These flowers were discovered in Odakyu’s Shinjuku station’s mens room. Like the two liter bottle with ivy in JR Metro, these flowers seem to be the spontaneous result of a caretaker eager to bring life into this drab interior space. My traveling companion wonders if the flowers aren’t recycled from bouquets that passengers have discarded at the station.

Streetscape outside Tokyo University

Why are the plants trapped behind the walls?

On my way to an Asian Mega-Cities urban planning conference at Tokyo University, I was struck by the streetscape outside of the famous campus. To the left is the brick-clad campus, enclosed behind a wall and covered in a mature tree canopy. The sidewalk is wide and echoes the campus with a brick in-lay and small hedge on the street side. On either side of the road are heavily pruned ginkos, still without leaves in March. Across the street from the campus are the typical urban residential and commercial buildings completely bare of leaves or green plant life in winter.

It’s wonderful that the Tokyo University campus is so well planned with mature green spaces. But I wonder why some of that plant life cannot spread across the street and out into the neighborhood.

Opposition to public benches demonstrates urban challenges

A sad story from San Francisco about a merchant group opposing the redesign of a historic public space leading to a central transit station because it will include benches. Equally disheartening is that some of the plans call for reducing the amount of plants and planter boxes. The fear of homelessness and vandalism is a great challenge to creating livable and enjoyable public spaces in the US and Europe, and affects both civic and grassroots urban improvements. Sad.

(Image of Martin Nicolausson seesaw bench, designed to require cooperation between strangers and to generate conversation, via The Fire Wire blog).

Bringing nature into the laundromat

The theme of Tokyo Green Space is how people bring nature into the city. Naturally, I focus mostly on plants and wildlife that bridge city and country. Recently, I have been struck by the amazing photos of nature used to enliven small commercial spaces. Like the Mount Fuji photo mural at the 1960s New Shimbashi Building, this alpine scene  has decorated the detergent dispenser at my local laundromat. Oddly, the laundromat looks much newer than this machine, which has been preserved with duct tape and much obvious care. The winter scene evokes Europe rather than Japan, I think.

One thousand year old zelkova tree

At the entrance to a public elementary school near our apartment is an enormous tree that I frequently pass by. On the other side of the entrance is a beautiful cherry tree. I didn’t pay any attention to the larger tree until the husband remarked that it sports a sign declaring it a “thousand year old zelkova” (in Japanese, it’s keyaki, けやき).

I went back, examined the tree more carefully, and took some photos. Does anyone know if this one thousand year designation is literal or figurative? It seems incredible, especially when compared with what I thought was an ancient ginko tree at Kishbojin Temple in Zoushigaya, reportedly 600 years old.

Looking carefully at this zelkova tree, I can see that there are huge fissures in the trunk and the tree has been pruned radically, including all the main branches and even the base close to the ground. I would like to think that this tree is a local treasure, and that someone is taking good care of it. Its age gives it character, and its canopy is still very impressive.

Miso making party

My relatives’ ceramic studio recently hosted a miso-making party. The process is both simple and also time-consuming. First the soy beans are soaked in water. We started with 11 kilos of beans, and about 12 people who mashed and combined the ingredients by hand.

The beans are then cooked in a pressure cooker. We had three pots going at once.

The beans are then mashed by hand. In the upper left hand of the photo above is a mortar and pestle; the wooden pestle is made from Sansho, the Japanese pepper tree (Zanthoxylum piperitum).

More photos about miso making after the jump

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Illuminated Fuji in old-style coffee shop

A friend invited me to lunch in Shimbashi, an old business district separated by the Yamanote and several other rail lines from a much newer office area called Shiodome. We ate at a fantastic grilled fish restaurant in the basement of a 1960s “modern” building. On leaving, we passe by this incredible time capsule of a coffee shop, with original light fixtures, furniture, and perhaps the same customers as forty years earlier.

The illuminated Mount Fuji mural is a wonderful example of how Tokyo residents adore this mountain. It reminded me of similar era mosaics found in old sentos. As we passed by, we noticed the medal ceremony for Japanese figure skater Mao Asada broadcast just to the left of Mount Fuji. There was something uncanny about this of-the-moment live broadcast inside an interior that has not changed in decades. This basement level, businessman’s refueling and gathering place is a secular shrine to the beauty of nature.

COP 10 Biodiversity Conference

On Saturday I went to a symposium at Tokyo University on Biodiversity and Sustainability: Rebuilding Society in Harmony with Nature, an educational forum that precedes this year’s COP 10 biodiversity conference in Nagoya. Many knowledgeable speakers spoke, including scientists, academics, government and corporate leaders. I especially liked Todai’s IR3S director Takeuchi Kazuhiko’s succinct formulation of the satoyama human-nature balance relying on traditional knowledge, modern science, and a “new commons” or vision of shared space that transcends government, private property, and national borders.

There were, of course, many discouraging facts. I was startled to learn that a single bottle of beer consumes 300 bottles of water in production. One speaker showed a graphic of how fishmeal from all over the world is transported to Thailand’s shrimp farms, making both the production and distribution of seafood a globalized product. I also learned that the 2002 United Nations goals on preserving biodiversity had not been met by a single country as of 2010. And lastly, I heard that the 20% level of knowledge and concern about biodiversity in Japan was one of the world’s highest levels of national awareness.

Given the challenges to preserving biodiversity, I was extremely disappointed by the top-down views and assumptions of the speakers. With no audience interaction, questions, or comments, the event seemed to invite trust in the capacity of elite academics, government leaders and United Nations bureaucrats working together. When Professor Takeuchi asked at the very end what can be done to avert a catastrophic tipping point, the Coalition on Biodiversity’s Executive Secretary talked about UNESCO’s role in cultural production. A top academic then spoke about the need to involve “the media” and celebrities to raise awareness.

I was surprised that such intelligent leaders believe in the viability of a top-down approach for reshaping the global economy and land use. In this formal auditorium at Japan’s most prestigious school, it was a missed opportunity not to provide action ideas for the hundreds of attendees. And to think of the “media” as the broadcast media is to overlook the tremendous power and potential of social media and popular participation.

One speaker briefly mentioned a lake biodiversity monitoring project that included local residents, government workers, and scientists. I would like to have heard more about how urban residents can connect with nature and become advocates for protecting and expanding habitat. Tokyo Green Space has documented the passion and energy of ordinary city residents, and I believe there is much more that can be done by engaging with bird-watchers, school children, seniors, and gardeners.