Flowers & Buildings

One gorgeous tree and 15 lanes of roadway


Do trees make the human environment more attractive, or do human environments make trees more attractive?

On an elevated pedestrian bridge just outside Iidabashi station, on the way to Koishikawa Korakuen, this gorgeous street tree and its fiery leaves caught my attention. It stands in front of two intersecting wide boulevards, two elevated freeways, and two shadowed canals. Not only does the tree soften the urban blight of devoting so much space to cars and their air pollution. I think the mundane and gruesome human environment also elevate the tree’s beauty beyond what it might attain in more pristine wildness.

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!


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.

Flowering vine against power lines

This exuberant, orange flowered vine seems to launch itself off the side of a small two story residence. I love the contrast of the vine with the equally excessive, overhead power lines. The vine is part of the amazing multi-family residential building that is entirely covered in plants, which I included as part of a vertical garden comparison.

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.

Hydrangea hide street utility box

I am always amazed at how fast and tall hydrangea grow in Tokyo. The ample rain and warm weather makes them shoot up out of nowhere. I like how this huge cluster on a Tokyo boulevard effectively hides the ugly utility box. This space between the sidewalk and wide street is usually planted with ginkos and azaleas by the local government. Like the hollyhocks down the street, these hydrangea were probably planted by a neighbor and then reappear each year on their own.

Vegetable flowers on balcony garden contrast with parking lot below

I recently started a blog category called “Flowers and Buildings,” which focuses on the pleasure of experiencing plants in urban settings. I think that both the plants and the buildings are more beautiful when juxtaposed together. This post focuses on my balcony vegetable’s flowers, set against the parking lot below and the cityscape beyond.

The vegetables are from top to bottom: cucumber, eggplant, and watermelon. I will soon start tying the climbers to the balcony railing so that they become part of my summer green curtain. The single bonsai watermelon I saw last year in Ginza makes me hope that maybe I can eat one home-grown one this summer.

Hollyhocks are sign that summer is close

I love these hollyhocks growing on the side of a busy boulevard in Nakano. They are obviously self-sowed and extremely hardy. I marveled at them last year. I am certain that no one takes care of them, and yet they have spread up and down this boulevard.

Very rapidly, they grow over two meters tall. Along with hydrangea and azaleas, they are a sign that summer is close. I like how in this photo the flowers echo the verticality of the narrow high-rises and the Jeans Mate banner, and offer a contrast with the fast-moving, fossil-fuel dependent traffic.

Ceramic flowerpots in balcony garden

In May I spent a lot of time on my balcony garden: planting seeds, putting in starter vegetables (corn, watermelon, eggplant, cucumbers, and kiwi), planting herbs (basil, thyme, in addition to last year’s parsley), and adding new flowers and new types of fabric pots and coconut husk soil.

One aspect of my tiny garden I am enjoying are the flowerpots I made at Shiho ceramic studio last year. My theme for the ceramics was geometric shapes in terms of the pots and the glazing. I chose neutral colors so that the flowerpots would not distract from the plants.

Because the apartment is so small, the garden becomes part of everyday life. I see it from the kitchen table, where I often write on my laptop, and from the living room. With sliding walls, the garden is visible from the bedroom, too. Going outside is always just a few steps away.

Although I am a very amateur ceramicist, it is fun to have something you made yourself playing a big role in a small garden. There is something about the clay that provides an earthy feeling when you are in a high-rise with limited soil. I also like the contrast between the flowerpots and the cityscape beyond.