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Springtime at Omotesando Koffee. The small garden and old house make you feel like you’re on a country lane.

Omotesando Koffee の入口はとても素敵です。美味しいコーヒーが飲めるだけじゃなくて、小さい庭が四季を感じさせてくれます。春に、桜とモクレンが咲いていて、金属製の花瓶には毎週、違う花がいけてあります。おしゃれなお客さんは三年以上の常連で、バリスタオーナが東京に来る前に、大阪のカフェにも行きました。

This is the lovely entrance to Omotesando Koffee. It would be enough just being one of Tokyo’s best espresso coffee bars. O K also sells a single pastry that is eggy and square and incomparable. And O K has a micro-garden that is incredibly charming, with many traditional Japanese plants including maple and a lovely drooping cherry tree with long stemmed flowers.

The fashionable gentleman in the photo explained to me that he used to drink coffee at the Osaka coffee bar run by the same owner, before he moved to Tokyo three years ago. In the foreground is a lovely, metal sculpture and flower vase with understated petals.

Visiting Omotesando Koffee you feel like you’re on a country lane, not in the middle of a mega-city.

Barren space between sidewalk and Roppongi Hills

どうして六本木ヒルズの入り口は死んでいるのだろう?

Why is the entrance to Roppongi Hills so ugly and uninviting?

Every time I walk from the subway into Roppongi Hills I am shocked at the extremely ugly first view of this mega-complex. In addition to the elevated freeway, pedestrians are greeted by this horrendous, wide, astroturf-covered dead space in front of Roppongi Hills North Tower.

How could this make people want to enter Banana Republic? And what does this say about Mori Building’s vision for integrating their properties into their neighborhoods and communities? I feel that this forgotten and dirty space implies that the real landscape only begins at the podium level and that the North Tower is not of equal status to the rest of the complex, despite being in the front. It’s as if they imagine that their important customers enter the complex only by car.

This lack of respect for pedestrians, neighbors, and context is completely unnecessary. The smallest gesture would improve this space and make it more inviting and alive. If Mori Building reads this post, I hope they will consider improving this entryway to their otherwise well landscaped property. If anything, improving the entrance might also provide an opportunity to consider how to extend their landscape ideas further out into the neighborhood, creating connections with other shops and residents, and building a larger and healthier eco-system that would benefit Mori and their neighborhood.

Last night I attended the last Pecha Kucha Tokyo of the zeros decade, one block west of Roppongi Hills, and remembered that I had taken this photo weeks ago. Each time I am shocked as if for the first time. Outside of the expensive office towers and glittering malls, I wonder how such an ugly neighborhood can be attractive to multinational companies and foreign ex-pats.

Birds perch on row boats on Soto-bori moat

On a drizzly day last week, I met an English landscape architect and her architect husband at Canal Cafe on the Soto-bori moat (外濠) at Iidabashi station. I often pass this moat riding the Chuo and Sobu JR trains, but it was lovely to have a meeting alongside the water. The birds seemed happy in the light rain. (UPDATE: The birds are cormorants, or in Japanese u (鵜). They are fish-eaters).

We had a long conversation about conservation agriculture and energy efficient, low-income housing. After enjoying the moat, we took a walk through Kagurazaka and explored its many alleys. I love this neighborhood, and it’s fun to see this historic entertainment district during the day. I love how inward focused the bars and restaurants are, with straw blinds and plants preserving privacy for their customers.

Agris Seijo rental farm in Seijogakuenmae

I visited Odakyu’s Agris Seijo rental farm in Seijogakuenmae in Setagaya and was prepared to be charmed by a community vegetable farm built by a rail company above their tracks. Three years ago, the Odakyu corporation rebuilt the station, undergrounded the railway, and used some of the new land to promote urban farming. But I left feeling somewhat strange that reclaimed land could be gated and restricted. Although it is the rail company’s property, I think they missed a huge opportunity to create a great space for the neighborhood.

The farm is entered through a two story building that has a plant store on the first floor, spilling into the sidewalk, and a club room on the second floor. On entering the building, I learned that the garden was gated, and that no photographs were allowed. With my Tokyo University of Agriculture business card, I was handed a visitor’s pass. Two explanations were given about the no photography policy: customers would be concerned about their privacy, and photographers might misrepresent the photos they take. Please note that all the photos in this post were all taken from public roadways outside the gates.

Once inside, I discovered that this Agris Seijo has 303 rental plots, ranging in price between 5,500 and 14,500 yen per month ($60 to $175) depending on size and sunlight. 70% of the plots are being used, and the farm is organized in two seasons, with a fallow period during winter. Many of the customers are first time vegetable growers, and there are classes and staff to help them.

Some of what I observed: an elderly man harvesting giant sweet potatoes. Attractive netting with metallic strips to deter birds and insects. Some very attractive plots with broccoli, rainbow chard, carrots, celery, lettuce, salty leaf, peppers, basil, cauliflower, onion, eggplant, daikon radish.

Clearly burying the tracks below grade reduces railway noise for the neighbors and adds soil and plants which benefits the environment. There are benefits for customers and neighbors. Yet, I was struck by how empty the farm was during my weekday visit, and wondered why only 70% of the plots are rented after three years of operation. I also wonder if the customers or the railway company owner feels more special or important because of the gated aspect of the garden. In a city that is remarkably safe, I cannot imagine why there is a real need for keeping people out.

This wealthy project reminds me of the community garden I observed in Tsukushima. There, neighbors invested great time and effort in making beautiful spaces on an existing concrete river embankment. It appears that each gardener is expressing their own passions and perhaps competing with their neighbors. At no cost to the local government, neighbors have beautified dead space which can now be enjoyed by anyone. The Tsukushima community garden is completely accessible 24/7 and shows how ordinary people can create a great public space.

Some more thoughts and image about Odakyu after the jump.

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