Month: April 2010

Cherry tree + futon airing = spring

Urban nature has a beauty that is amplified by its proximity to quotidian activities. This late blooming, pom-pom cherry is in the final stage of blooming. Behind it is a 1970s apartment building with futons and bedding hung outside the window to air out. It finally feels like spring this week. It is this unlikely combination of temporality and permanence, beauty and function, people and plants, the sublime and the ordinary that make Tokyo such a lovely place to live.

Shiho ceramic studio’s new blog

The Shiho Togei ceramic studio where I make flowerpots and vases just set up a new blog. There are some great photos of student works, like Sally’s animals above, wrapped for transport to a bizen or wood-fired kiln in Numazu during this week’s Golden Week holiday. The blog includes birthday parties, photos of the back garden, visitors, and student ceramics.

Poppies growing in a crack in the sidewalk

I saw these beautiful poppies growing in the crack of a sidewalk. It reminded me of the first image that I took for Tokyo Green Space two years ago, of pansies growing in a sidewalk crack. I am still struck by the ingenuity and generosity of Tokyo’s unheralded urban gardeners. They are beautifying an environment that is often ugly, overbuilt and poorly planned.

The poppies make me think of the pansies photo. I recently received an interesting request by email asking for permission to include that original photo in a book about urban design and climate change that Alexandros Washburn, Chief Urban Designer of the  City of New York, is writing.

I am continually amazed by the importance of observing small details and the power of the internet to connect people who are distant by location, profession, and circumstance. It is both humbling and inspiring.

Woman’s Day features Tokyo Green Space photos

Woman’s Day published a “Magnificent Urban Gardens” feature for Earth Day. The ten photos include two from Tokyo Green Space: Ginza Farm’s rice field and the sidewalk pansies photo that is the project icon. I am amazed that these photos are in the context of famous and not so famous world city gardens, including Patric Blanc’s London Athenaeum Hotel, NYC’s High Line, Chicago’s City Hall, and a cool basil wall next to a NYC pizza oven.

I love how the focus is on beauty as much as environmental benefit.

Small tulip

I prefer small tulips over the large ones. This simple tulip growing in a pot I made is so cheerful. At a recent talk, an audience member criticized my interest in ornamental plants and suggested that the environmental impact is minimal or none. I disagree. Taking care of even the smallest plant connects you to the magic of nature and the existence of other living forms.

Despite much anticipation for this tulip to bloom, after five days in bloom it is now fading. There is a beauty to its entire cycle.

Replacing Dead Urban Spaces with Living Habitat

The Huffington Post published my new article, Replacing Dead Urban Spaces with Living Habitat. Please read, comment, retweet, or share on Facebook. Thank you!

Figure 1: Two views of camellia (sazanka) in central Tokyo: close-up and context

Crows in Tokyo

Crows are everywhere in Tokyo. And they are larger than their US cousins. Many people complain about their aggressiveness and ability to recognize people. Several people have asked me how the urban habitat can repel them, and some urban beekeepers claim that bees chase away crows.

A colleague recently told me about Lyanda Haupt’s recent book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. I am curious how this wildlife naturalist succeeds in humanizing a bird that most wish were gone.

My colleague reminded me that crows are one of the few urban wildlife that walk on two legs like humans. It’s also funny that in Tokyo, salarymen and the constant black suits are often referred to as crows.

Ginkos are leafing out

From one week to the next, ginko trees go from bare to green. This incredible transformation is another sign of spring.

I kept expecting these trees to leaf out earlier, but they wait until mid-April. Ginkos and zelkova are common trees on Tokyo’s large boulevards. Their repetition adds a certain grandeur to the streetscape.

Signs of spring

Tokyo has had a strange April. Last Friday there was hail. I was surprised to hear a squishy sound beneath my shoes. Will winter never end? Fortunately, it is now a bit warmer, and I managed to pot up all the small plants I bought for my balcony garden: columbine, two types of jasmine, some yellow button flowers, a clover, and a small purple green vine.

The cherry blossoms ended suddenly with the rain and wind: briefly, the trees are redder as just the flower stems remain, and then suddenly the trees start leafing out. As soon as cherry blossoms pass, dogwood opens up.

Tokyo has a lot of dogwood trees, which come from the mid-Atlantic of the United States. The tree represents a cultural exchange between nations, with Japan providing Washington D.C. with monumental cherry trees, and the United States offering Japan dogwood. It’s strange that many Tokyo residents do not know the origin or significance of dogwood trees. They remind me of my childhood in Baltimore.

Live video of falcon nest on downtown San Francisco office tower

Wow! San Francisco’s gas company (Pacific Gas & Electric) has set up a live webcam so you can the peregrine falcon nest on top of their downtown office tower. Four chicks were hatched on April 8 and 10.

What a cool way to support wildlife in the city and the popular interest that sustains urban habitats. The project is a partnership with UC Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research, and there’s a Yahoo discussion group.

The town of Suwa

During onbashira, we explored some interesting places in Suwa and learned a little about its history. Next to one of the shrines is an Edo-era shop selling a salty type of shio yokan. In a country that often eliminates its past, it is amazing to see a small business that preserves traditions. We also visited an Edo era guest house, which still retains a beautiful small garden in a property that shrunk over the generations.

Suwa’s famed lake is stunning. We saw many types of birds, including tonbi (black kite) and ducks.

The town is also known for its hot springs. We saw this early 20th century building which served the silk factory workers and was known for its “stand-up onsen.” Apparently there were too many bathers for them to sit or lie down in the hot water pools.

Tour of Suwa continues after the jump

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More images from onbashira festival

Onbashira’s most famous event is the swift and dangerous ride down the steep hill on the giant logs. Yet there are also many other images from the festival that struck me. Above are “chindonya” (チンドン屋), a Showa custom that mixes Edo and clown costumes, music, and drag to create a human walking advertisement.

I was also struck at how much Japan’s postal and rail services celebrate the festival. In an era where electronic mail makes the postal service seem like a relic, Japan Post regularly sets up booths at events and festivals to sell commemorative stamps. I also like how JR rail station agents have their own “happi,” or festival coats that combine their modern logo with designs that evoke sacred rituals and community.

Finally, I was struck by this enormously thick “enclosing rope,” in front of one of the Suwa shrines. These braided, rice straw ropes signal purification and ward off evil spirits. I have never seen one this thick. We were told that it was made for this year’s festival, and will stay until the next festival in six years time.

At this shrine, we met a group of seniors in their 70s. They had walked from Nihonbashi in Tokyo all the way to Suwa. The 200 kilometer walk took them ten days. Japanese are incredibly strong!