On a beautiful warm November day, I discovered Tokyo University’s Sanshiro-ike garden. I had a few moments before a meeting, and saw on the campus map that there was a central garden on the main campus. I had assumed it would be a formal garden.
I was very surprised to descend a small hillside and encounter this natural looking pond. Looking in all directions, one sees only trees, water and sky, despite the compact size of the garden. Even on a warm weekend day with early fall foliage, few visitors were there. I was enchanted by the incredibly natural and removed-from-the-city feeling in this garden inside central Tokyo and Japan’s most famous university.
It takes a lot of artifice to make a city garden look so natural. The waterfall is amazing.
Continue reading to see some more images from Tokyo University, aka Todai.
Today’s New York Times has a great “Room for Debate” feature where four cultural experts discuss the beauty of the Japanese bento box. Although seemingly off-topic from Tokyo Green Space, the discussion expresses relevant cultural aesthetics and the importance of beauty, simplicity, and care.
John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, talks about simplicity and making due in an island nation with limited natural resources. I like his view that Japanese value “making less into more,” and traces bento creation to Kyoto food, a fanciful illusion that masks limited food resources.
Kenya Hara, art director of Muji and professor of Musashino Art University, talks about shokunin kishitsu, or craftsman’s spirit. By cleaning carefully, working diligently, or preparing lunch boxes with creativity, airport cleaners, construction workers and home-makers make the mundane into something beautiful.
I also like how he claims Japanese have a special ability, “an incapacity to see ugliness,” that allows them to ignore urban chaos, ugly architecture and bad signage. In the drabbest office or construction environment, there is still a space to enjoy a perfect bento lunch.
It is easy to see how some of these ideas are expressed in the beautification of public spaces: ordinary people working within the constraints of an often poorly designed urban landscape, creating small vignettes of beauty with a mix of artistry and care, and sharing these creations with minimal self-importance.
The City of North Vancouver is considering an innovative plan proposed by the Green Skins Lab of the University of British Columbia to create edible boulevards. The idea is to combine commercial vegetable farms with social spaces within the city. Some features include biointensive farming, on-site energy generation and rainwater harvesting.
Like many cities, North Vancouver zoning currently prohibits commercial farming within city limits. However, the city government is reconsidering this industrial age policy as part of its 100 year sustainability plan. It is an interesting mix of food production, small business and job creation, community space, and aesthetic improvement.
Care for cultivated plants ranges from professional pruning to amateur attention. This pine tree is from the entrance to Koishikawa Korakuen, one of Japan’s five most treasured historical gardens.
From formal gardens to native plants, different urban plants and settings require different levels of care. The pruning of a formal garden sets the highest standard. However, I am also impressed how Tokyo municipal trees are pruned by groups of trained arborists. This is in contrast to the US, where it seems that municipal governments offer the briefest training and chain saws to low-salaried workers.
The standards set by highly refined garden pruning, plus professional public tree pruning, have an impact on ordinary gardens. Perhaps it is a combination of expert technique, aesthetic style, and also on-going care for plant life, form and beauty.