In a special biodiversity issue, The Kyoto Journal published my short essay called “Inviting Totoro to Tokyo.” The article celebrates Miyazaki Hayao’s (宮崎 駿) wonderful illustrated book “The Place Where Totoro Lives.” In illustrations, words and photos, Miyazaki portrays Tokyo residential districts village-like atmosphere and potential for wildness and mystery. Miyazaki imagines a city that can welcome Totoro by showing rare wood houses, the stories of their occupants, contemporary streetscapes, and how they can be transformed by creating an urban forest.
At Shizen restaurant in Sendagaya, I was impressed by the very simple flowers in this lovely vase. I love how the ceramic is made to appear “torn.” Whether bonsai or ikebana, Japan excels at using small-scale nature to evoke much large landscapes and experiences.
In Yotsuya, the Marunouchi subway pops out of ground in central Tokyo. From the platform, there is this amazing view that includes a still functioning, although rarely used service road, an abandoned bus stop and plaza gradually returning to the wild, and a border of exuberant independent plants. There is something beautiful to glimpse this inefficient use of space and so much lush greenery in the midst of a dense city.
My perception of Tokyo has been completely altered by the wonderfully perceptive Fixes blog. It truly seems that all of Tokyo is held together by the amazing S-hook. Like my previous post, this hanging pot relies on an S-hook to attach itself to the existing built environment. In this case, there’s a double S-hook for added stability. The plant is decorating the narrow space between two old buildings on a mostly commercial stretch of a large boulevard. I love how someone has intervened in the landscape, and done so in a way that is completely removable and dependent on what already exists.
I like how someone has hung this simple plant, commonly called “wandering Jew” in the United States, on the fence in front of this empty lot. The lot has been empty for at least two years, a long time between demolition and reconstruction. The fence occasionally changes, but it was especially nice to see some plant decoration.
In the context shot below, you can also see that someone planted a simple hedge on the right side. My guess is that both of these plant interventions– one in the ground, the other secured by a simple S-hook– were created by neighbors who are getting tired of seeing the empty lot and its weeds. I admire this anonymous, small contribution to the neighborhood.
Does anyone know the name of this flowering weed? It started growing out of our balcony satoyama box, and suddenly it reached two meters tall, intertwining itself with the morning glory on the green curtain. At first I wasn’t sure if it was an intentional plant, and then it started blooming. The flowers almost look like jasmine.
During the time I was documenting it and before I could post about it, I recently visited the University of Tokyo Botanic Garden (also called Koishikawa Botanic Garden). It’s a lovely garden, which I will post about soon, that traces back to 1684. Although full of history and botanic treasures, this Botanic Garden is also a bit overgrown with vines choking out the azaleas.
I am curious if anyone knows the name. I am guess it is very invasive. Do you think it is a satoyama plant or a kudzu-like danger?
This is the second okra plant I have spotted along the small street leading from my apartment to the JR station. I was impressed with how beautiful its flower is. In the background is a climbing bitter melon vine, and a dog house. The “yard” is paved, so all the plants are in pots.
The lanterns announce that the omatsuri festival will be happening Using simple plumbers’ fixtures and scaffolding, flexible and removable frames for lighted paper lanterns are erected all over the city.
I find omatsuri incredibly charming: a public street festival evoking rice farming and harvests, organized in Tokyo around tiny local shrines, work organizations, and local associations. A friend told me that in his town, the whole town celebrates together. But in the large megalopolis of Tokyo, the intensely local nature of each celebration is very personal and social.
Members of my apartment building are some of the main leaders of our local shrine’s festivities, which includes children’s and adults’ parading through the streets with portable shrines, flute, drum and bell music, (Japanese) lion dancing, traditional clothes including hapi (cotton jackets), and lots of public drinking.
At the shrine, one of my neighbors offered me a free shaved ice. I hesitated to accept other offers of food or drink because I did not want to be carrying the portable shrine; I know from experience that this is best left to younger and drunker participants.
Just in the other direction, on the same weekend, a small park gets transformed into a space for dozens to do “bon” dancing around a raised platform. Mostly seniors, they dance to various traditional and regional songs, while wearing yukatas. Children and even dogs come wearing this summer kimono. Unlike the local shrine, this small park has an area for more commercial “omatsuri” games and foods, including delicious mini-cakes, the ever present chocolate banana on a stick, yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and more shaved ice.
I experimented this time with black-and-white photos that seem to make the event more timeless and nostalgic. It’s funny to see something very contemporary, like a child taking a cellphone photo of her chocolate banana, using this backward-seeming technology and juxtaposed with dances and music that may be centuries old. There’s something timeless about cast iron pans used over a gas grill to make the small cakes sold 12 or 40 to a bag.
I feel a certain surge of excitement when the portable shrines enter the large boulevard or fill the small streets radiating out from it. The shrine is very heavy, and there’s a definite camaraderie formed by sharing this load.
I’ll end the post with a short video of the dancing. The drumming and bells are live, and the other music and voice from an old CD player and simple amplifier sound system.
I love how these sunflowers are growing at the intersection of two small streets, and how the round flowers echo the larger, convex street mirror. The flowers grow in a tiny scrap of soil just outside the wall around a residence. After preparing the image, I realized that I took a similar photo last year.
The Nezu Museum and its gorgeous Japanese garden are a just short walk from the Nishi Azabu Juban wildness, the Kakuremino bar, and lush sidewalk garden. Many people come to the newly rebuilt Nezu Museum for its exquisite collection of pre-modern art, or the new building designed by Kuma Kengo. I am a huge fan of its garden that combines tea houses and paths in a setting that seems ancient, slightly overgrown, bigger than its footprint, and entirely removed from city life.
When I visited recently, just before closing time towards the end of a long, hot summer, I was enchanted by how the light struck this worn boat, the plants growing in its bow, and the illusion of minimal human habitation in an endless jungle. I was also surprised to see Japanese maple leaves already turning red, despite the temperature being above 32 celcius (90 fahrenheit) for many weeks.
Taken together, these four posts about Nishi Azabu Juban speak to the wide range of nature in the city: professional and amateur gardens, single plants and total environments, built and wild, public and gated, destinations and everyday experiences. Plants grow wild even in the densest cities, but how we choose to nurture them provides endlessly varied results. I am inspired by the full range of possibilities.
When my friend Stokes told me about the wildness in Nishi Azabu Juban, I was somewhat incredulous. He was staying briefly at a childhood friend’s house there, and quickly discovered narrow lanes and uncultivated yards and odd spaces that he insisted on showing me. The neighborhood is in central Tokyo, and includes both very expensive homes alongside more modest, old timers’ residences.
In what must be a planner’s nightmare, late summer weeds are pushing out of cracked concrete steps, barely paved lanes lead to houses, and the urban forest seems ready to reclaim the land. There is something comforting to feel wildness in the center of the city, the impermanence of the built environment, and the power of the unplanned.
I love how this narrow Nishi Azabu Juban bar is defined by the street tree out front. The bar and tree are named カクレミノ (kakuremino, or Dendropanax trifidus). The building front is largely glass and wood beam, with the tree providing some privacy and mystery. The tree has been espaliered so that it grows in barely two dimensions.
According to Wikipedia, this evergreen tree is native to lower Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa.
This incredibly narrow garden in Nishi Azabu Juban is overflowing with plants. I love it. Most people would think there’s no room for a garden, but someone was determined to live with greenery. Technically this narrow street does not even have a sidewalk, just a narrow space between road and home. I love the many layers, textures, and colors.
Recently I was going into the Tokyo Metro station not far from my house, and I noticed a young woman spraying these blooming sunflowers. She explained she was killing bugs, and that she worked at the hair salon on the other side of this very random looking planting bed.
I was very charmed that this young woman had claimed ownership of this informal planting bed. Based on the strange mix of plants, it is clear that it is the repository of many people’s different efforts over the years. The hardiest plants seem to have survived.
I am sure the hair stylist enjoys getting out of the shop, and the effect of her care is a piece of natural street beauty at the intersection of a dense residential neighborhood and the transit system that animates the city.
I am reading Lyanda Lynn Haugpt’s Crow Planet, a book about closely observing city crows that offer many insights on urban wildness. Haugpt is part of an urban ecology movement that I identify with. If city dwelling is a given for us– as it is for more than half the world’s population–how can we explore and expand our knowledge of nature from inside the city? I suspect that city birdwatching, like city gardening, connects us both with nature and with each other.
I also enjoyed Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark, which explores bird life in New York’s incomparable Central Park. Haughpt’s work goes a step further, by suggesting that we start at our kitchen table, looking out the window with binoculars, and exploring nature on our roofs, outside our doors, and in our immediate vicinity.
I like that Haughpt, a serious birder and wildlife researcher, has chosen the most humble of city birds, and made their stories integral to how we are now changing our views of city life and the relationship between humans and nature. I like her focus on the close observations of the everyday, and admire her narrative power to evoke history, myth, and natural science while reconsidering what city life is and can be.
I am already feeling sad to be close to the end of this inspiring book. Although Tokyo Green Space focuses more on city plants than animals, habitat rather than wildlife, I feel a kinship in her reinterpretation of the familiar and ordinary.
This is one of the blessings of the urban nature project: without the overtly magnficient to stop us in our tracks, we must seek out the more subversively magnificent. Our sense of what constitutes wildness is expanded, and our sense of wonder along with it. (pp 157-8)
Has anyone else read this book? I highly recommend it.