Sometimes I am aware that my home office has a sublime view.
Fall brings clear skies and dramatic clouds. How come the top looks like a natural wonder and the city below is littered with antennas, utility poles, and a giant incinerator?
I bike down this road so often, and suddenly I am surprised to see Mount Fuji at the very end. How come I am seeing it here for the first time? Maybe it’s the red of the sky against the traffic and brake lights.
Itsukaichi Kaido is one of the main Edo roads connecting Tokyo with western Japan. Near the city, it connects Koenji with Kichijoji while veering across and away from the Chuo train line. It also crosses the Zenpukuji river, which is a lovely greenway far from the train stations and mostly enjoyed by the neighbors.
One advantage of a very small apartment is that two of our three small rooms face the balcony with a wall of windows. You don’t need to make a special trip to observe what’s going on in the garden. It’s always there. As it gets cold, I spend more time inside.
This sidewalk and street have nearly no visible plants. Yet anonymously gifted bus stop chairs are very Tokyo and very much in the spirit of Tokyo green space. Reacting to a lack of infrastructure– no shelter and no seating– neighbors simply recycle and re-use stuff from their homes and share it with neighbors in a public space.
Few designers could have coordinated this unlikely mix of colors, fabrics, and shapes. Its aesthetic arises from its spontaneous appearances. Is this the most beautiful, practical, or ideal solution to the lack of infrastructure? Probably not, although it reflects generosity and concern for others in shared spaces.
I have been writing about Tokyo green space for a while, ever since moving here three years ago. Tokyo is surprisingly green and livable despite the complete absence of planning for public open space, from its rise as Japan’s Edo capitol in the 1600s through the 20th century’s natural and man-made calamities that twice obliterated the city.
Tokyo has such forward-looking urban features like walkable small streets dominated by pedestrians and bicyclists. But these vital paths exist not because of contemporary Tokyo’s good planning, but because the bureaucracy still in the thrall of automobile infrastructure and mega-developments hasn’t had the chance to alter them.
Documenting Tokyo green space has been a way for me to understand the life of this city. The grass-roots reclaiming of public space certainly increases the city’s appeal. But, post 3.11, I also now wonder if the residents haven’t demanded enough of the city leaders. We now know more clearly the dangers of leaving vital decisions to reckless and outdated politicians and bureaucrats.
As this difficult year ends, I wonder what all of us can do to create a more alive city.
I was captivated by this narrow green space between residences in Omotesando. The places between spaces have a tremendous appeal in dense Tokyo. This tiny space supports 15 meter tall bamboo, a tree shedding its leaves for winter, and the ubiquitous shuro palm tree that self-seeds throughout Tokyo.
Near the gallery where the Shiho ceramic show is held each year, there’s a small real estate office with an amazing collection of at least 50 cactuses. This year, I noticed that when it rains the realtor brings most of them inside, and covers a few outside with plastic.
The office definitely has more cactuses than customers. I am delighted by this plant lover’s dedication. When it’s cold, he brings many in for the night. Given how heavy and thorny the plants are, he’s obviously very dedicated to his passion.
These photos are from the Shiho ceramic show last month. I exhibited bonsai pots, regular pots, and wall vases. I like white glaze on black and red clay because it seems earthy and neutral. Next year I want to make more bonsai pots, and use them with air plants.
The same week I participated in the Umi no Mori tree planting, I had the opportunity to re-visit Yume no Shima, Tokyo’s most famous artificial island made of waste. This urban development started in the 1950s. Now it’s a vast area with a sports club, botanic garden, playing fields, semi-wild palm landscape, a marina, and a still functioning incinerator. It’s showing its age with deferred maintenance and sparse usage.
I love how it’s named “Dream Island.” This time I visited the botanic garden. On the outside is a row of papaya trees, which I thought too tropical to grow outdoors in Tokyo. There’s also a row of ceramic frog planters leading to the front door. A green house is a great place to go on a cold day, like a brief tropical holiday at very low cost.
Last month some friends and I participated in a volunteer tree-planting at Umi no Mori, a forest being created on a landfill island on the bay. I’ve written before how few Tokyo residents know about this ambitious project promoted during Tokyo’s failed second Olympic bid in 2007. Umi no Mori is meant to carry cool ocean breezes into Tokyo’s crowded urban core.
The tree planting was fun. We were in a group of twenty or so volunteers planting 500 trees in a 25 square meter section. There were about 25 varieties of trees, and we planted them very close together. I learned from one of the volunteer leaders that this dense planting encourages the trees to compete and grow faster than normal. One of the volunteers explained to me that this is part of Miyawaki Akira’s method for restoring forests on post-industrial greenfields.
Creating new waterfront parks and planting 500,000 trees is certainly a great thing for Tokyo. Still, I wonder if this project were less top-down and more open to the citizens what greater impacts this project could have:
1. By encouraging more people to participate in the creation of the park, it would be a great chance to explain to Tokyo citizens about native trees and habitats. It would be awesome to link planting new trees in the Tokyo Bay with also adding greenery in every Tokyo neighborhood, with active participation by city residents.
2. By opening even a small section now, more people can begin to experience the park and perhaps learn more about urban garbage. What precisely is being put into this landfill? How do the layers of garbage reflect our contemporary lifestyles? What can be done to reduce the amount of garbage that must be buried?
I think this park will eventually be fantastic. However, it’s a missed opportunity not to make its creation more participatory, more transparent, more public, more connected to the rest of the city, more educational, and a catalyst for public and collective rethinking of the urban environment and waste production.
Ambassador Cedeno of Costa Rica and his wife Tauli, and Edoble’s Jess Mantell and her friend Miho participated with me.
One of the unexpected pleasures of visiting Odaiba was exploring the close-knit community of exotic pet owners on the lawn just across from the artificial beach. We met an enormous Ethiopian turtle and two families of prairie dogs.
I confess that my joy for growing plants does not confer any insight into pet ownership. I personally prefer plants over animals when it comes to extra-species cohabitation. Still, I was amazed at the owners’ love for their pets and also the public spectacle they create. The pets are both extra-human companions and also intermediaries for meeting strangers of all ages.
Exiting the subway station in Odaiba, the way to the famed “beach” with city view includes walking past vast parking lots and then over this eight lane freeway.
What’s amazing about this view is that in addition to the enormous freeway, there are abandoned ramps on both sides, that are gradually being reclaimed by plants. Is land so value-less that this waste is considered appropriate?
There are still more empty than developed parcels on Odaiba, an urban development project with mixed results. The focus on freeways, parking lots, and chain restaurants and stores often makes it feel like a generic exurban landscape.
I hear that it is a popular place for dates. But I’ve been there only three times in as many years. Most recently I was there to get a ride to Umi no Mori for a volunteer tree planting day (more on that later). But a few extra hours gave me my first taste of Odaiba itself.
Once across the freeway and past the mall, there are some beautiful public spaces including an artificial beach. There are views of the port, the Tokyo skyline with the Rainbow Bridge, and some odd built decor that includes a mini Statue of Liberty on land.
I like this before and after photo set. It shows an apartment building green space that sits between the ten story building and its two story neighbors, homes and a plumbing supply business. It borders a small street that is mostly pedestrian.
The garden has a mix of flowering vines, bushes, bulbs, and a row of pine trees that were probably planted 35 or 40 years ago. The utility pole support is borrowed infrastructure for training a vine upwards.
The photo above was taken October 24, 2011, and the one below November 23, 2011. Above you can see all the fullness of summer: lush foliage, pink and red flowers at every height level, a blurring of the boundary with the neighbor’s garden.
A month later, the 3 story tree has been heavily pruned, which lets light in during the cold months. All the plants have been cut back, and you can see the wall separating the properties.
The maintenance is a mix of semi-professional gardeners hired by the apartment building and a retired couple living in the garden apartment. Although far more restrained in winter, the garden continues to bloom in every month, no doubt because of their efforts.
There are many urban sights in Tokyo that are jarring to newcomers, perhaps none more so than the giant electricity poles. Well, there’s also garbage incinerators with tall chimneys in every neighborhood, elevated freeways, endless rows of fluorescent lights stacked high on exposed residential hallways, and the zeal for paving over almost all surfaces.
This photo was taken near Shin Koenji where the elevated main power line crosses Itsukaichi Kaido, a road that dates back to Edo and maybe earlier. You can just make out a silhouetted ripe persimmon fruit. Sometimes these unattractive elements create their own rhythm and patterns in urban life.