Month: May 2011

Pleasures of Tokyo trains and subways

東京の電車と地下鉄は分け合う空間です。時々、居心地の悪いときもありますが、いつも東京的で面白いと思います。

It’s hard for people outside Tokyo to imagine what using Tokyo transit is like. The busiest station, Shinjuku station, handles over 2.5 million users per day, more than any other station in the world. And, yes, early morning rush hour and the last trains around midnight are not comfortable. This photo is from 10:23 am on a Saturday morning in the Marunouchi line, and you can see that the train is quite full.

What does it feel like to be surrounded by so many people on your way to work, school, errands, or fun?  Office workers, school children, families, construction workers, teens, dogs in bags, babies, elderly people. I find it exhilarating, intimate, and educational. Mostly people pretend they are in their own space and do not look directly at others. Courtesies include taking children’s shoes off before letting them stand on the cushioned seats, and drying umbrellas to keep the train clean.

Many people hide behind earphones, portable game players, comics and books. Others are sleeping. Yet there is no mistaking that you are in a shared space, one person among masses going about their lives. If you keep your eyes open, you can sense that others are also quietly observing. Taking the train is a good way to get out of your own head space, and sense other people’s moods, fashions, and presence.

Succulents in rusty recycled cans

かっこいい多肉植物はリサイクルしたビンの中で育っています。道路の前で、こんなにきれいなものは、世界でも、東京だけで見れます。

I love these succulents hanging on a Shibuya railing. The cans seem recycled, and I love how weathered they look. That these gorgeous plants are facing the street is yet another only-in-Tokyo street beauty.


Tree full of giant purple flowers

東大前の駅から出てきて、この木に咲くむらさきの花を見ると、しあわせになります。

Coming out of the Todaimae station on my way to teach at the University of Tokyo, this tree full of giant purple flowers makes me very happy.

Shuro palm tree flowering in parking lot

駐車場にあるこのシュロという椰子は葉ぱが少ししかのこっていないが、たくさん花が咲いている。東京のどこにでも広がりやすい。

This parking lot palm tree has so few leaves yet so many flowers. No wonder the shuro palm tree spreads so easily in Tokyo.

Shrine entrance invites tree lovers and prayers

自転車で日本語の学校に行く途中で、山手道路沿いにいつもこの階段を見ます。坂を登って、林と神社を訊ねたい。代々木八幡の神社に行ったことがありますか。

I bike to school on Yamate Dori, one of Tokyo’s modern ring roads. It’s currently under construction and rather ugly: a freeway underground, a 6 lane road on the surface, sidewalks torn up, new and mostly undistinguishable apartment buildings. On this ride from Nakano to Shibuya, one of the highlights is glimpsing the stairs leading up to this tree-filled shrine. I stopped and found out that it is Yoyogi-Hachiman shrine. I haven’t made it up the stairs yet, but it beckons as an inviting escape from the more functional, profane city racing by it.

Hong Kong Honey

昨日、『香港のはちみつ』について知りました。素敵な草の根の団体なんです。ホームページと短編映画をごらんください。

Yesterday, I learned about Hong Kong Honey, a grassroots community of beekeepers, artists, and designers. They have a gorgeous website. It’s great to see grassroots urban ecology in Asian mega-cities. I like how they are creating a cool and inclusive atmosphere and an economy based on locally produced and made honey and beeswax. It’s very inspiring for Tokyo!

Film by Kiku Ohe. Featuring Michael Leung, HK Honey founder.

Leaving the apartment on a rainy spring day

アパートの入り口から見えた、雨降りの朝の景色です。節電ですから、電気をほとんど消しています。中と外の対象がはっきりしていますね。

This is the view from my apartment building lobby on a rainy spring day. Because of energy conservation, many lights are turned off. This increases the contrast between indoors and outdoors.

I walk through this lobby every day, and rarely think about it or consider taking a photo. Recently, I participated in the Xerox and City photo workshop at Vacant, led by Hirano Taro and organzized by Too Much magazine as part of their Romantic Geographies series. We were asked to take photos of our breakfast and then our trip to the workshop in Harajuku. It made me think more about spaces that become automatic or ignored.

Tokyo residents are more aware of energy use and lighting now. Many parts of the city are less brighly lit: from billboards to train stations to residences. By lowering our lighting, we are more attuned to natural cycles, and more sensitive to the boundaries between private and public, indoor and outdoor, personal and shared resources.

Giving a talk at the Portland Japanese Garden

ポートランドの日本庭園で、「都市グリーン」というプログラムに参加します。5月26日、私は「東日本大地震後の東京グリーン・スペース」の発表をします。24日は、品品の小林先生が盆栽ワークショップを教えます。26日は、小林先生の盆栽の展覧会が催されます。

I am very excited to travel to the Portland Japanese Garden next week as part of their Urban Green program. My good friend Kobyashi Kenji, of Tokyo’s Sinajina, will be leading a bonsai-making workshop on May 24, and opening his bonsai exhibit on the 26th. As part of the opening, I will give a talk on Greening Tokyo after Tohoku.

It’s a great honor to participate in the excellent cultural programming at the Portland Japanese Garden, and to explore connections between two global cities whose residents are reinventing urban life for the 21st century. If you know anyone in Portland, please let them know about these events! Thank you.

Fairy white brings Australia to Tokyo

シドニーから来たフェアリー・ホワイトは東京の植木鉢で育てやすいです。

This is the second year that I am growing this beautiful daisy-like cream flower with very soft leaves, Actinotus helianthi, known in Japan as “fairy white” (フェアリー・ワイト). I think it’s odd that a plant that is iconic of Sydney, Australia, where it is called Flannel plant, does so well in Tokyo. My San Francisco gardener friend Hank was amazed to see it in Tokyo. The Wikipedia page suggests it likes well drained soil, so perhaps it was destined to be a potted plant!


May is a great time for roses around Tokyo

どのバラにも香りがあるべきだと思います。けれども、香りがなくても、バラを見たら、いつも元気にならずにはいられない。

I have seen some lovely roses walking in Tokyo recently. The red one above is from the border between Sakuragaoka 桜丘町 and Uguisudani 鶯谷町, a leafy upscale neighborhood ten minutes from the world famous Shibuya pedestrian crossing (called scramble, スクランブル in Japanese). I like how this red rose has escaped a private garden and is now attaching itself to the street mirror meant to prevent collisions.

The yellow rose is from a house in Nakano, near a pedestrian walkway built on an old creek. I wish all roses had fragrance, but whenever you see roses, it is hard not to feel cheerful.

Tomato starter plant already has mini-tomatos

 買ったとき、このトマトにはもう花が咲いていて、小さなトマトがなっていました。

This tomato starter plant, also bought at Shimachu, is flowering and already has several mini-tomatos despite its tiny size. So much engineering to create commercial food, even the ones we grow ourselves.

Dahlia reminds me of San Francisco

植物や花も記憶を呼び起こします。ダリアはサンフランシスコ市の花です。

Plants and especially flowers trigger memories. Recently lilacs were blooming in Tokyo, and it reminded me of childhood and my grandmother who was a garden hobbyist in Maryland. I tweeted about it, and heard from a friend about the memories she has of a lilac bush by a childhood bedroom. Seeing hostas in my in-laws’ garden reminds me of the suburban neighborhood of my childhood. Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons, and anemone evoke a Tea Trade era of Anglophilic commerce and class in the United States’ Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

Dahlias remind me of San Francisco, where it is the city flower. I love the huge variety and outrageous colors. And its interesting history of being first discovered in Mexico and then bred in the Netherlands. This red and white specimen was exquisite when I bought it and for another week. The number of blooms and buds was astounding. Not surprisingly, two weeks after buying this dahlia, the remaining buds refuse to open and I wonder if the plant will live even one more month.

I bought this plant at Shimachu, a large home center. Their plants always seems pumped up for sale. Unfortunately because of the proximity to my apartment (very bike-able) and low prices, I often buy from there. It’s a guilty pleasure similar to eating fast food.

If you blink, you’d miss these purple bulbs

まばたきをしないで見れば、紫色の球根が見えますよ。

If you blink, you would miss the brief bloom of these lovely purple bulbs. There’s a large patch of them along the entrance to my apartment building. The flowers are very delicate, and the leaves plentiful and verdant. I don’t know their name, but they seem to be very resilient. The entrance garden is divided between professionally trimmed hedges on the left and this large area on the right cultivated by residents and nature.

Update: Horticulturalist Jason wrote to tell me that it’s Bletilla, the easiest ground orchid to grow. It’s native to East Asia. The large patch in front of my apartment seems to require very little care. In Japanese, it’s simply called “purple orchid,” シラン。

Pink and red together again

原宿で、ビンク色のスクーターがツツジの隣に駐車されていました。ぜいたくな商品と満開の自然が一緒になって圧倒的。こんな色の組み合わせもすごい。

Spotted in Harajuku, this pink scooter parked next to red azaleas. I am overwhelmed by the extravagance of this product juxtaposed with nature in full bloom, and, of course, the color combination. For all those foreigners who think that Japanese culture is full of restraint and minimalism, this image shows the other side. This mix of nature and industrial product reminds me of the psychedelic backdrops to the ubiquitous television variety shows full of shiny objects, moving parts, and more colors than the rainbow.

Urban photography workshop at Vacant art center

都市とゼロックスという写真のワークショップに参加しました。たくさん勉強になって、楽しかったです。@TaroHirano77 や @VACANTbyNOIDEA や @toomuchmagazine や @sk8linus にありがとうございます。

I was fortunate to attend a photography workshop last week with the theme of Cities and Xerox. The event gathered about twenty Japanese creatives– including a sound engineer, high school art teacher, students, guidebook writer, book editor, lawyer, and salaryman– and together we created giant photographs layered together.

The workshop process was simple yet very fun. We were asked to take photographs on our way to the workshop. Then we each chose our best photographs for three topics: breakfast, landscapes, and people. The photographs were sent to FedEx Kinko to be blown up into various sizes. And then we worked together to layer them and staple them to a wood board, which would allow art center visitors to browse the images. While we waited for the photographs to be printed and biked back to the workshop, we also silkscreened t-shirts with the word “XEROXed.”

It’s great to see other people’s photographs and see how they view Tokyo. I was particularly struck by the breakfast images: everything from a traditional Japanese breakfast (many courses, including fish, rice, miso soup, pickles, etc) to a Denny’s, coffee, and those odd, squeezable jelly drinks in foil that are popular in Japan yet seem more suited to outer space. I was the only foreigner, but felt very welcomed by the organizers and participants.

The workshop was led by accomplished photographer Hirano Taro, who became famous for taking photographs of empty pools in California used by skateboarders. The workshop took place at Vacant art space in Harajuku as part of a series of Romantic Geography events created by Too Much Magazine’s Tsujimura Yoshi.

You can see our photographs through May 22 at Vacant. There are also coffee and beeswax events coming up. I had a fantastic time, and was very impressed with how accessible, fun and collaborative this event was.