This road beneath a canopy of street trees leads to the Nodai campus from Chitose Funabashi. When I commute there by bike, it makes a lovely end to my ride.
Sky Tree is getting all the attention this year. But Tokyo Tower remains a beautiful structure. I especially like seeing it from leafy Shiba Koen with its magnificent trees.
These three Platanus trees form one giant canopy. I like how each one is unbalanced, but together over the decades they have created a single round form. With older trees, you can see the effects of time and cooperation.
Directly across from the University of Tokyo, I was delighted to see this green awning of bitter melon (also known as goya) growing up the guard rail and then over the sidewalk. The restaurant owner or manager is using a very narrow space to grow the vegetable, and then extending it with simple nets into a canopy. Once across the sidewalk, the goya forms a very tidy green curtain for the second floor window, providing some shade in this hot and humid summer.
It’s wonderful to see how the University of Tokyo is carefully removing two mature ginko trees as it breaks ground for a new law school library. The Hongo campus is gorgeous, both for its brick buildings that are vaguely ivy league and art deco, but also for its stunning trees and Sanshiro pond.
The frantic pace of construction and reconstruction has left Tokyo with an inadequate tree canopy. It’s great that these two trees will survive the new building, and that the University of Tokyo demonstrates that it values its natural environment.
Many parts of Tokyo seem perversely devoid of tree canopy. That’s why I was thrilled to see this very public sign on a chestnut tree (shiinoki or シイノキ) in Shibuya ward. The tree sits at the back of the Naganuma School for Japanese study, in an area where large office buildings and residences are still being constructed. In almost every urban construction site, the prior landscape is scraped.
I am not sure how much protection this sign offers the tree, but it’s good to know that the city is aware of the value of mature trees, and that passers-by will see the sign and wonder where the other trees went.
Zelkova, called keyaki in Japanese (ケヤキ), are a gorgeous Tokyo street tree. The best boulevards of mature zelkova are in Asagaya and Omotesando. Here you can see the branches are just leafing out. In the back of the detail image is Itoh Toyo’s sculptural building for Tods that appears to be built of zelkova branches rather than steel.
I have been working most of March and early April in Nishi Azabu Juban, and I often bike to the office. Biking in Tokyo is fun for discovering back streets, but its also fun to speed along a straight boulevard, especially one with such a magnificent canopy. These photos were taken near my new favorite retro van turned into mobile espresso shop, Motoya Express.
With skilled pruning, Japanese gardens have stunning pine trees, often at their most beautiful in January. The needles are straight, and the branches are pruned over many years to wiggle. Tthe canopy is at both airy and precisely defined. You can find a beautiful pine tree at almost every traditional Japanese garden and also paired with modern architecture and as bonsai. This tree is by the pond at the Okidomon Gate at Shinjuku Gyoen (大木戸門）
Miniature pine forest outside Japan Supreme Court. In 1970s, traditional garden joined Brutalist architecture. Would love to see traditional garden with urban forest today.
Walking in Chiyoda-ku opposite the Imperial Palace, I saw this forest of beautiful stunted pine trees above a stone wall. At eye level, there appear to be hundreds of carefully twisted pines whose canopy is less than one meter from the ground. Behind this gorgeous sea of needles is the Supreme Court of Japan (最高裁判所), a 1974 Brutalist concrete building that won awards for its architect Shinichi Okada.
I love the stone wall and the pine forest. In my dream, the once avant-guarde building could regain its ぷprominence by using the concrete structure to support a dense urban forest on its walls and roof. The wildness of the forest hill would contrast nicely with the austere pine forest serving as a formal moat to this newly enlivened public building. The contrast would be magnificent.
While I love the chaos of DIY gardens and the lushness of urban forests, there is also room for traditional Japanese gardens and techniques in the urban landscape, particularly around important public buildings. The contrast between heavily manipulated and more natural landscapes is a new concept at which Tokyo can excel.
Do you think this twine can stabilize such a massive tree? Traces of an old country road in Tokyo.
Parallel to many elevated expressways and train lines are the vestiges of old country roads, some of which date back to Edo times. On last month’s @ArchitourTokyo bike tour of Suginami (and bordering areas), Linus Yng took me on some roads where you can sense the past and how the city has changed. This road is at once very wide and sparsely used. Another indication of the street’s age is the wonderful old tree whose canopy extends to the other side of the street.
I love the two recent additions to this tree: a bench provided by a neighbor, and the plastic twine around the trunk. Do you think this twine can stabilize such a massive tree?
So many city dwellers think they have no space to grow anything. Recently I posted photos of a persimmon tree near my apartment that is three stories tall and full of fruit. I went back to take a shot of its trunk. Actually, it turns out that there are two trees growing in a space no bigger than the depth of an air conditioning unit. This small space provides sufficient soil to produce hundreds of fruit each year. There’s even room for ten potted plants spilling onto the street, a broom, and some ladders. The ability to create massive greenery and even food in such limited space always amazes me.
Update: A reader asked me to provide more context images for these persimmons growing in such a small spot. You can see below that they are growing in a tiny lane the width of one car, and that they reach out from their narrow bases to provide a tall canopy between the buildings. And there’s a third tree of the same size extending through the neighbor’s front cinderblock wall.
Why are the plants trapped behind the walls?
On my way to an Asian Mega-Cities urban planning conference at Tokyo University, I was struck by the streetscape outside of the famous campus. To the left is the brick-clad campus, enclosed behind a wall and covered in a mature tree canopy. The sidewalk is wide and echoes the campus with a brick in-lay and small hedge on the street side. On either side of the road are heavily pruned ginkos, still without leaves in March. Across the street from the campus are the typical urban residential and commercial buildings completely bare of leaves or green plant life in winter.
It’s wonderful that the Tokyo University campus is so well planned with mature green spaces. But I wonder why some of that plant life cannot spread across the street and out into the neighborhood.
I recently read Azby Brown’s book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. Brown is an architect, professor, author, and expert on Japanese traditional and contemporary building design. This new book explores ecological principles of late Edo Japanese life (about 1800) and their relevance to sustainable living today.
The book mixes three levels of information: detailed descriptions of rural and urban life focused on farmers, carpenters and samurai; hundreds of amazing drawings of ecosystems, houses, tools and objects of everyday life; and finally reflections on how modern society might emulate a zero waste society that fed a population of 30 million including over a million living in Tokyo. By focusing on social structure, farming, transportation, forest management, urban planning, and domestic life, Brown explores how Japan was able to maintain the environment, including clean water, and avoid many of the diseases that plagued European cities of that time.
Brown provides a remarkable analysis of how natural resources were used by this growing population without harming the environment. Some notable examples include limiting forest extraction to fallen limbs and what can be carried on a person’s back, an irrigation system in which the resulting water was filtered and cleaned by rice fields, a transportation system that relied on human and water transport rather than animals, the role of courtyards as shared space for commoners, and samurais’ reliance on urban farms to make ends meet.
Viewed from today’s post-industrial times, it is remarkable to think that Edo Tokyo has a huge tree canopy and significant urban farming, and that zero waste included re-using night soil as fertilizer with a higher price for those of daimyo lords and for entertainers whose diets were richest. By carefully showing how Edo people lived, Brown is able to show how architectural elements like the endogawa porch can be used today as a way of connecting interior and exterior, residents and visitors. Modular and multi-purpose rooms are other features that would make living today both more efficient and comfortable.
My only criticism is Brown’s focus on the ethics of sustainability. I believe that pleasure and ecology must go together, so that making better choices is about improving life not about “doing good,” which is often a poor motivator. Brown does mention some of the coercive features of Edo life that would not be attractive today, such as infanticide as a population control method. For our times, I think the challenge is to both persuade people to embrace zero waste as a lifestyle improvement, and at the same time enact new policies that reflect the true costs of agro-industrial “cheap” food and fossil fuel reliance built.
Current policies promote bad choices, including subsidizing corn sugar despite the health consequences, and hiding the true cost of fuel by externalizing the endless wars that guarantee our supplies, the free roads that encourage sprawl, and the pollution and climate change caused by emissions.
Brown’s book Just Enough will be thought-provoking for those interested in Japanese history and culture, and those engaged in a new global dialogue about a sustainable post-industrial future. His research, analysis and images provide new inspiration for a revitalized relationship between farms and cities, people and nature.
Omotesando is known for its parade of imported brands: Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, etc. It also has an amazing canopy of zelkova trees (called keyaki or 欅 in Japanese). This photo taken on a rainy day earlier this week shows the trees covered in moss. Looking up from the busy sidewalk, you see many shades of green, bold patterns, and soaring structure that are oblivious to fashion and commerce.