Month: October 2010

First fall maple leaves turning yellow and red

This weekend we’ve had two typhoons in Tokyo. My friend laughed about this, but it’s really handy to have rain pants if you plan to bike or even walk when the wind is high. A few days ago, we were in the mountains outside of Tokyo and saw our first fall maple leaves turning yellow and red.

I am looking forward to the television weather reports that will soon be tracking the progress of fall foliage from north eastern Japan down to south western Japan. I love the media fixation on fall foliage and spring cherry blossoms, marking the season and reminding the viewer of Japan’s geography. Altitude makes a big difference, too.

Intoxicating night scent of Angel’s Trumpet

Leaving an inspiring talk in Nishi Azabu-Juban yesterday evening, the intoxicating scent of Angel’s Trumpet made me pause. And take a photo.

Brugmansia is also very common in San Francisco (and many continents including New Zealand), although it comes originally from South America. It produces an incredible scent, but only at night. In Tokyo, the summer heat seems to overwhelm the plant. By fall, this hardy large shrub/small tree grows to three or four meters in height, and flowers continuously until winter frost makes them die back. By May they begin to shoot up from the ground.

Angel’s Trumpet, sometimes also called Devil’s Trumpet, is a strangely familiar plant: hardy and decorative, with a shamanistic function in its native Amazon habitat.

“Do You Really Like Living Here?” A Foreigner’s Perspective on Tokyo

Huffington Post published the English version of my article, “‘Do You Really Like Living Here?’ A Foreigner’s Perspective on Tokyo.

“Do you really like living in Tokyo?” is a question I am often asked here. Despite living in Tokyo for two years now, I cannot discern if this question expresses national modesty, a sense of inferiority, or ignorance of the experience of daily life in the United States.

. . .

Read the full article on Huffington Post. It was originally published in Japanese by Newsweek Japan under the title, それでも外国人が東京暮らしを愛する理由 (Despite that, why foreigners enjoy Tokyo living) on October 28, 2010.


私のNewsweek Japan の記事が出ました。「それでも外国人が東京暮らしを愛する理由」。(日本語)。




Potted plant in bicycle basket

It’s awesome that someone has parked their bike illegally in Nakano’s Sun Mall after the shops have closed. Did the bicycle owner leave the potted plant in the basket, or did a stranger deposit it there? The city has a million stories, and this one combines two of my favorite city companions.

Watch your head with this cherry tree

There’s a beautiful, recently constructed walkway by the Chidorigafuchi moat, near the Indian Embassy, that is famous for its cherry trees. The trees are gnarly and old, and they bend across and down towards the water. It’s lovely how the walkway places a priority for the trees over the pedestrians, who are warned to watch their heads by this bright and padded yellow-and-black warning.

Outside of cherry blossom viewing in April, the walkway, the moat, and the rental boats are rarely used. It’s a great place to absorb nature in the city.

Crow melon and Imperial Palace pruning


Walking around the Imperial Palace recently, I noticed what look like roma tomatoes growing on a wall. This vine is a famous weed called “crow melon” (カラス・ウリ). Apparently, it gets its name because it provides food for crows. The plants seems as resilient and citified as its avian namesake.

On the same walk, we noticed a boat in the Imperial Palace moat with guys using a small net to pick up leaves. Perhaps the trees above were pruned, and some fell into the moat. The meticulousness of the moat cleaning makes an interesting contrast for the untamed wildness of the crow melon vine and its avian companions.

Japanese anemone signal fall

I have always loved shade-tolerant, fall flowering Japanese anemone. As soon as it started to get cold, I bought a white one for my balcony garden, and placed it inside one of my hand-made, ceramic flower pots.

I was surprised when a local flower shop owner told me the name in Japanese: shumeikiku (シュウメイキク, or 秋明菊). She insisted that it is, in fact, not an anemone. For Japanese, “anemone” flowers in spring and early summer, and it seems to be in the buttercup family Ranunculaceae.

This naming confusion is quite common with flowers and plants.What we call Japanese maple, the Japanese call momiji (モミジ). Often the English name covers what for Japanese is several different flowers; a good example is azalea.

The funniest thing about the “Japanese anemone” name is that it is both relatively recent and a European hybrid of a Chinese cultivar. I love the national origin confusion, and the fact that this gorgeous plant is man-made.

Fall perennial border in pots on curbside

I love this fall perennial border despite the lack of ground soil and space. Fifteen to twenty pots contain flowering ornamentals on the narrow curb between an Asagaya residence and the small street. The garden is very complete and very public. I admire the gardener’s generosity to passing pedestrians and bicyclists.

Paris japonica has the world’s longest genome

Especially relevant now that the world is focusing on biodiversity with the COP 10 conference in Nagoya, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens has identified Paris japonica as having the world’s longest genome sequence, fifty times greater than the human genome.

Scientific American reports that plants with more DNA take longer to grow and to reproduce, making them especially endangered. This sub-alpine canopy plant has only seven known habitats in the world. More details in the September 2010 issue of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

I wonder if my United States readers know that our country is the only one of 193 countries that did not sign the 1993 Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biodiversity, and has only observer rather than voting status at this month’s Nagoya COP 10 conference.

(Thank you, Christophe, for sending me this news story. With the mutual French-Japanese attraction, this plant has a charmed name as well as a 100 meter genome strand).

Orange tree by the Kanda River

A documentary television producer from Canada contacted me about filming an episode for their History Channel show about the history of sanitation in the world’s great cities called “Trasholopolis.” I was flattered that they had read this blog and my articles, and want to include me in their Tokyo episode.

I have posted the Kanda paper that was presented at the International Federation of Landscape Architects conference (co-authored with Matthew Puntigam and Professor Suzuki Makoto of Tokyo University of Agriculture). But I realize that I didn’t have a good size image of the Kanda from Nakano Fujimichio, with an orange tree in the foreground and the skyscrapers of Nishi Shinjuku in the background.

Guest photo from Hiyoko Imai

This photo comes from Amsterdam-based illustrator and graphic designer Hiyoko Imai. I am super-lucky that she has offered to work on two small projects together- more about that soon!

I love this photo because it is so evocative of Tokyo. Some foreigners imagine Japan to be an expression of serenity, while others marvel at elegant modern architecture. Much of the daily fabric of urban life, instead, feels like this photo: a bunch of stuff bolted on to other stuff. Pipes, air-conditioners, even a flower pot on top of the sidewalk. The exuberance of the flowering creeper (lantana) adds one more natural layer on top of the built environment.

Thanks, Hiyoko!


United Nations Biodiversity conference opens Youtube channel

It’s great to see that the United Nations Biodiversity conference has opened a Youtube channel. The importance of biodiversity is not widely understood yet. While I feared that the conference would be government to government, it’s great to see this campaign to widen popular awareness.

Does anyone know the name of this gorgeous independent flower?

Growing in a crack between two walls, I spotted this gorgeous red flower. Tokyo’s ample rainfall allows plants to thrive in the most unlikely places. I love how the flowers provide a concentrated does of fall color. I looked in various plant books but couldn’t find the name. Does anyone know its name in English or Japanese.

Here are some context shots. I love how it fills this dead space, and how the vibrancy of the plant contrasts with the rusting and peeling rail.

Flowers are naturally transitory. This independent plant’s life was even shorter. I took the photos on October 6. Last night, I realized that the plant had been either uprooted or poisoned. It is gone without a trace.

Fall fruit growing in Tokyo’s back streets

Tokyo’s large boulevards often have grand ginko and zelkova trees. On the back streets, Tokyo gardeners grow all sorts of ornamental and fruit trees. Recently, I have noticed oranges, persimmons, and even pomegranate growing in my neighbors’ tiny gardens and balconies.

It would be great to see even more fruit growing in Tokyo and the world’s largest cities.