Month: June 2010

A mobile app for city residents to monitor and promote urban wildlife

Takahashi Yusuke, a database expert with a Keio PhD, and I created a poster for the URBIO conference last month introducing a mobile app for city residents to monitor and promote urban wildlife.

In brief, our mobile app entitled UBITS (Urban Biodiversity Identification and Tracking System) allows school children, bird watchers, gardeners, hobbyists, and amateur naturalists use their mobile phones to capture images, sounds and locations of birds, butterflies, bees, insects, trees, and other plant life; query multiple databases to identify wildlife and plant species; participate in collaborative mapping of urban species by location, frequency and time of year; and increase habitat for urban biodiversity.

The project is at concept stage, and it would be great to find a start-up, corporation or university that can fund a working prototype and launch this application for iPhone or Android. Participatory science that promotes increased habitat provides an excellent branding opportunity, educational tool, and new way to bring nature to the city.

Spirits, lights, food, prayers, & drinking at summer festival

I managed to visit the Hanazono festival in May twice, once during the day and once at night. In the nighttime, the lights, food, and atmosphere are magical. I particularly like the mix of the spiritual with eating and drinking. A large public space that normally serves as a quiet place with a few people stopping briefly for prayer becomes full of people and celebration.

Hanazono is particularly interesting because of its Shinjuku location in the heart of commerce, commuters, and night life. In all the festivals, the stalls sell the same types of food: yakisoba, okonomiyaki, hot dogs on a stick, fruit encased in clear candy, chocolate bananas, and newer imports like shwarma (called “kebob” in Japan). It seems that the stall operators travel from festival to festival, and I have heard that this business is controlled by the yakuza.

I like how everything that is separate in Western culture gets mixed together in Japan: prayer and eating, spirituality and fun, the sacred and the ordinary. Rows of lanterns hung high signal the special event and add an extra sense of festivity.

Summer omatsuri festivals invite spirits to commercial areas

Starting in May, summer omatsuri festivals are a public celebration of the local gods that exist in even the densest, most commercial parts of Tokyo. One of my favorite festivals is at Hanazono Shrine, in between Shinjuku san-chome, Kabukicho, and Shinjuku ni-chome, an area of department stores, fast fashion, a station with more than 2 million daily commuters, nightclubs, host clubs, and gay bars.

Above you can see a temporary shrine being constructed with metal poles, bamboo, and paper symbols outside Isetan’s flagship department store.

The festival brings together long-time residents, small business owners, and even the large commercial enterprises. The above photo shows a small neighborhood shrine, where I had previously noticed seniors playing a ring toss game. When I visited during preparations, the old timers invited me to participate in carrying their portable shrine (see below) around the neighborhood and to the main shrine. Knowing how heavy the shrine is, I politely declined.

Summer blackberries in Tokyo


This blackberry bush, supported by plastic poles and rope, remind me of my friend Chris Berthelsen’s amazing Fixes blog. It has all the classic elements: use of public space in unexpected way, display of citizens’ care and skills, recycling of simple materials to make something useful and wonderous.

This is one of my favorite neighborhood gardens. In the past, she has grown rice in a bucket, gorgeous peonies, cymbidium orchids, tulips, roses, hydrangea, and geraniums.

Azby Brown reads from Edo book in San Francisco

My friend Azby Brown will be reading from his new book at four events in San Francisco next week. I highly recommend attending his book talk if you can. Azby is a great speaker, and an accomplished architect, writer, and designer based in Japan.

The book is Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, and it portrays how Japan overcame environmental crises with sustainable farms and cities 200 years ago. The book is very informative about what we can learn today from the past, illustrated with hundreds of hand-drawn illustrations, and very engaging. I reviewed the book in the Huffington Post a few months ago.

Here’s the schedule for the book talks:

Monday, June 28, 7 p.m.
The Green Arcade
1680 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-5949
(415) 431-6800
http://www.thegreenarcade.com

Tuesday, June 29, 5:30 reception/6 p.m. talk
The Commonwealth Club
The Commonwealth Club (The Gold Room)
595 Market Street
San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 597-6700
http://tickets.commonwealthclub.org

Wednesday, June 30, 6:30 p.m.
University of California, Berkeley
Rm 112, Wurster Hall (southeast corner of the Berkeley campus)
Title: “The Edo Approach to Sustainable Design”
Tel:(415) 317-0533

Thursday July 1, 12:00 noon
SF AIA
130 Sutter Street, Suite 600
San Francisco
(415) 362-7397
http://www.aiasf.org

Visiting Yumenoshima (Dream Island) full of palms and garbage

Before the rainy season and summer heat, I took a few day trips in Tokyo. One of the more remarkable places is Yumenoshima (夢の島), which means Dream Island.

It was begun in the 1960s as a place to store huge amounts of garbage by creating a large island in Tokyo Bay. Today it has an enormous incinerator, spectacular greenhouse for plants, a gym, a marina, and some overgrown park areas.

Of the palms I recognized the Canary Island palm, and what look like Mediterranean palms. Mostly deserted excepted for a few people going to the gym and cut off from the city by freeways, the park is large and somewhat mysterious. I love how the area around the incinerator and marina are full of surveillance video cameras and speakers everywhere playing muzak.

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Satoyama box pushing out graphic and colorful leaves

The new leaves on the shrubs in my satoyama box have wonderful graphic and colorful early summer leaves. The two 5bai midori satoyama boxes have been beautiful last fall, over the winter, spring, and now early summer. Despite their compact sizes (20 cm square and 15 by 30 cm rectangle), they are able to support a lot of plant growth, density, and variety.

Docomo Tower reflecting in office window behind Shinjuku Goen

Within minutes of taking this photo, a monsoon-like rainstorm chased everyone off the street unexpectedly. I was struck by this reflection of the Docomo Tower behind Shinjuku Goen in the semi-transparent windows of this office building.

The Docomo Tower is meant to look like a modern version of the Chrysler Building, but without windows or ornamentation it is stark. Something about the combination of the rows of fluorescent lights, office workers in starched white shirts, enclosed network communications, and the lush urban forest appeals to me.

Newsweek Japan に私の記事が出ました。「東京の無駄な空間に自然を」(日本語)


Newsweek Japan に私の記事が出ました。「東京の無駄な空間に自然を」(日本語)

Newsweek Japan published in Japanese a version of my Dead Space article. Please see my article in the Huffington Post for a (slightly longer) English version.

Harajuku flower pot wall are more grandma than hipster

Most people think of Harajuku as being either luxury fashion or teen hipsters. But plenty of Harajuku is comprised of small streets, old houses, and long-term residents. I like how this garden is created entirely from flower pots lifted just off the street and hanging from the cinder block wall. That’s a lot of flowers for one tiny space.

Small gardens and quiet lane in Higashi Nakano

A few weeks ago I took a long, rambling walk with Chris Berthelsen, author of the amazing blog Fixes which “investigates alterations of space/objects at the public/private boundary in suburban Tokyo.” I love his close observations, unlimited curiosity, and attention to materials and human effort and satisfaction.

The goal of our walk was to explore an area neither of us knew and attempt to get lost. In addition to some inventive fixes at a tiny park, we saw many beautiful gardens in Higashi Nakano. I love how the garden in the photo above focuses almost entirely on cymbidium orchids and clivia. Also noteworthy are the re-use of cinder blocks, the shelf that provides space for another level of plants, and the care in providing beauty at the edge between private and public space.

Another garden uses the two sides of a house to create a complex perennial garden using flower pots. Great variety of texture, color, and plant variety. I can only imagine how much more beautiful the garden would be if it were planted in the soil, and allowed to grow so much bigger.

I certainly would have missed this small garden below where both plants and bikes are tied with string to the window grate. It’s great to see that no space is wasted, and that multiple functions can be supported despite all constraints.

And lastly, I found this small, unpaved lane to be incredibly charming. The stick and bamboo fence, the line of trees and shrubs, the materiality of the soil all made me imagine that we were in a small country town, not two kilometers from the Shinjuku skyscrapers. There are still areas that seem wild within the center of Tokyo.