farm

Lotus 149 publishes my photos of urban rice farming in Tokyo

「Lotus』というイタリアの雑誌に私の東京の農園の写真が二つでました。パソナのロビーの田んぼ銀座農園の空き地の田んぼの写真が選ばれました。「Lotus』には素敵な建築のプロジェクットがたくさんのっています。四角いかたちです。もっと東京のグリーンスペースを雑誌に紹介したいです。

Lotus Editorial kindly sent me a copy of Lotus 149, titled Lotus in the Field, which explores the relations with the countryside. Lotus is a beautifully designed, Italian-English bilingual architecture quarterly from Milan.

Lotus 149 includes two of my urban agriculture photographs: one of Pasona’s corporate lobby rice field, the other an outdoor, temporary rice field in Ginza that took advantage of an empty lot between demolition and new construction.

I was happy to see that my Pasona photograph extends into a second page, and I like how the image shows a more ambivalent side of the project than the text and photos provided by the architects and corporation. Especially with the post-3.11 energy shortages after the nuke plants have been suspended, creating a show garden with grow lights looks less than utopian.

You can see the original 2009 and 2010 posts on Tokyo Green Space that inspired Lotus 149: about Pasona, and about Ginza Farm.

Mini farm on concrete pad with plastic sacks

都市の中で食べ物を育てて、庭を持つことは無理だと思う人が多いです。東大の近くで、素晴らしいミニ農園を見つけました。コンクリートの受け台 の上です。植木鉢はビニール袋 で作られています。ところで、日本で夏にイチゴを買うことができません。ルバーブと一緒に煮たいなら、自分で育てなければなりません。

So many people think they can’t grow food or have a garden in the city. Near the University of Tokyo, I spotted this amazing mini-farm on a concrete pad. I love how they are using recycled and simple materials, like plastic sacks as container pots. It seems mostly cherry tomatoes, bitter melon, and shiso, with some incredible hand-made supports.

Speaking of growing your own, my mother in law was talking about cooking with rhubarb, and I naturally suggested strawberries. Apparently it is very difficult to find commercial strawberries in summer in Japan because it’s become known as a new year fruit. It seems like there’s an opportunity there for some local summer strawberries without the hothouses.

Late afternoon outside Kichijoji shrine

この吉祥寺の神社の木陰と静けさはとても良い雰囲気です。武蔵野八幡宮という神社は大きくて、木がたくさんあります。神社の前は五日市街道という古い道路です。この道路は新宿と西の街をつなげます。百年前、武蔵野や中野は農園だけでした。

I love this large shrine and wooded grounds in Kichijoji. Towards the end of a summer afternoon, the shadows and quiet are very inviting. The shrine is called Musashino Hachimangu (武蔵野八幡宮), and it’s on an old street that connects Shinjuku with the (now) inner western suburbs called Itsukaichi Kaido (五日市街道). A hundred years ago, Musashino and Nakano were farms, and you can see the kanji for “field” in both of these town names.

Joan’s small farm in western Tokyo

友達のジョアンは西東京の駅の近くで畑を作っています。ジョアンに野菜をたくさんもらいました。夏のポテトサラダに使うために、ベルガモットもくれました。

Fifteen minutes on the express train and four blocks from the station, my friend Joan is farming a small plot of land. It’s actually several short rows that form part of a much larger city farm owned and operated by a Japanese retiree. As soon as I saw him, I was glad that I, too, had prepared for weeding and harvesting by wearing the all important white work towel.

Joan blogs and writes about urban farming, farmers’ markets, city landscapes, and Japan travel. It was very exciting to actually see Joan at her farm. I was impressed that she had also recruited a neighbor and her husband’s co-worker to help with tidying up the winter beds, getting ready for planting, and harvesting and taking home the last winter vegetables. There was a huge leafy bounty that Joan shared with us: Russian kale, red karashina, brocoli, spinach, komatsuna, and shungiku. Joan also sent me home with some bergamot that I am growing on my balcony. I am still waiting for Joan’s famous bergamot potato salad recipe. And I was able to share what Joan gave me with three other households.

We all gathered at the farm just two weeks after the Tohoku quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. It was great to be outdoors, talking about city vegetables, chatting with friends and new acquaintances. I liked hearing about Joan’s permaculture ideas of doing less, leaving flowers to attract pollinators, and hand mowing rather than eliminating the weeds between rows. The Japanese man who owns the farm clearly has a different attitude since he keeps his farm empty of all plant life except for the vegetables he grows. I can sense that Joan and the farmer each want to show the other how to farm. There’s both conflict and mutual respect for each’s passion for city farming.

I hope to go back as often as I am invited.

Vegetable delivery from Free Farm: from farm to risotto

Free Farmの野菜をリゾットにしました。友達にもすすめます。http://freefarm.co.jp/ @TEDxSeeds で、Twitter の @FREEFARM_taro に会いました。

Free Farm vegetables made into risotto! Check out http://freefarm.co.jp/, which I learned about via @TEDxSeeds.

I learned about Free Farm, a farm-to-city vegetable service, at this year’s TEDxSeeds conference. Recently we received a box of incredibly fresh, organic vegetables that put our normal supermarket food to shame. The carrots tasted sweet, the shiitake were grown on trees and not artificial “medium,” the baby daikon were gorgeous and full of flavor. There was also a small Chinese cabbage and a mild leaf vegetable we had never heard of called okanori (おかのり), which means land seaweed. (Apparently, when dried, it smells or tastes like seaweed).

The vegetables came in a simple box and were wrapped in the Financial Times newspaper. Also included were the names of the vegetables, information about the farm in Tochigi, some ideas for how to eat the vegetables, and a hand-written note from the farmer. The box including the vegetables above cost 2,000 yen, or just over 3,000 yen with the costs of shipping and “furikomi.” I highly recommend this food service, and you will enjoy it even more if you can read Japanese. A similar French service in Tokyo is Le Panier de Piu.

Here’s the risotto we made from the okanori, shiitake, and baby daikon.

 

Wildness in unused land by rail tracks

I have been thinking about the urban corridors and the distributed real estate that connect city people literally and experientially. Everything from rail lines that take us where we are going to convenience stores that make us feel that we are in the same place no matter where we are. Rail companies and retail chains own or operate so much real estate to make them second only to governments in terms of land ownership and possibilities for remaking our environment.

I love the chaotic, multi-directional rail lines in Yoyogi- two sets of elevated lines and street-grade lines taking traffic from Shinjuku to other parts of Tokyo, towns and resorts to the west, and across Japan. As a pedestrian, the rail crossings slow down your walk and make you aware of the millions of people circulating in Tokyo.

I’ve blogged before about the cool wildflowers with some unplanned cultivation on the sides of the tracks. The rail companies must be concerned about safety, including keeping neighbors safe and also minimizing garbage on the tracks. Yet it’s great that this land exists in a semi-wild state, and cool that it’s so accessible in Yoyogi. I wonder what further uses the lands beside rail tracks and stations could have in cities, suburbs, and countryside. Wildlife habitat, small farms, recreation, bee hives, or other uses.

 

Rice in buckets outside Waseda campus gate

Seeing rice grown in buckets and styrofoam boxes always amazes me: focusing the national obsession with the main staple into a city scale. No one will get full from miniature rice farms, but I am sure that tending rice in the city makes residents appreciate eating rice even more. These buckets were lined up outside a gate at Waseda’s main campus.

Eating balcony-grown watermelon

In San Francisco, my garden is shaded and the cold summer makes growing vegetables very difficult. It’s been fun this summer to grow a variety of vegetables in our sunny high-rise balcony in Tokyo. This weekend I harvested and ate my first home-grown watermelon.

It looks big in the photo above, no? Actually, the two fruit that formed were not much bigger than oranges. I kept hoping that they would get a bit bigger, but finally I decided to harvest them.

Here’s what it looked like cut open. It was very sweet and just right for one person.

To get a sense of the scale, you can see the two watermelons paired with a single cucumber below. The cucumber seems to go from tiny baby to full-size in just one week. It’s been a great summer vegetable, probably the most successful plant in the balcony farm. (There’s also eggplant, some very stunted corn, and 4 lemons).

Azby Brown reads from Edo book in San Francisco

My friend Azby Brown will be reading from his new book at four events in San Francisco next week. I highly recommend attending his book talk if you can. Azby is a great speaker, and an accomplished architect, writer, and designer based in Japan.

The book is Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, and it portrays how Japan overcame environmental crises with sustainable farms and cities 200 years ago. The book is very informative about what we can learn today from the past, illustrated with hundreds of hand-drawn illustrations, and very engaging. I reviewed the book in the Huffington Post a few months ago.

Here’s the schedule for the book talks:

Monday, June 28, 7 p.m.
The Green Arcade
1680 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-5949
(415) 431-6800
http://www.thegreenarcade.com

Tuesday, June 29, 5:30 reception/6 p.m. talk
The Commonwealth Club
The Commonwealth Club (The Gold Room)
595 Market Street
San Francisco
Telephone: (415) 597-6700
http://tickets.commonwealthclub.org

Wednesday, June 30, 6:30 p.m.
University of California, Berkeley
Rm 112, Wurster Hall (southeast corner of the Berkeley campus)
Title: “The Edo Approach to Sustainable Design”
Tel:(415) 317-0533

Thursday July 1, 12:00 noon
SF AIA
130 Sutter Street, Suite 600
San Francisco
(415) 362-7397
http://www.aiasf.org

Mountain dairy farm (森林の牧場)

On the trip to Nasu in Tochigi two weekends ago, we visited a unique mountain cow dairy called Shinrin no bokujo (森林の牧場) that produces delicious milk and ice cream while addressing a crisis in Japanese forestry. The recycling company Amita created this dairy and another in Tango, northern Kyoto on the Japan Sea, as an ecological experiment.

With the collapse of Japan’s timber industry, many mountains are covered with single species trees that have not been maintained and are now dying. The mountain dairy idea is to allow the cows to maintain and improve the forests. The concept ties dairy farming with healthy food production, watershed conservation, and rice farming.

The milk is currently sold at Isetan department store Queen Isetan grocery stores, as well as onsite. Lots of families came with young children to see this unique dairy. The milk was extremely rich and delicious, with a hard cream top, packaged in a glass bottle with attractive graphics.

One of the TEDxSeeds members will be starting work there, and we met the farm manager, who is a graduate of Tokyo University of Agriculture. It was exciting to see this ecological experiment run as a business. The Japanese president of Qualcomm is also interested in new farming techniques that address food quality and ecological revitalization. Since rural abandonment has become a major national issue, these experiments are very timely and needed.

Visiting the cows was fun. They were extremely friendly. They allowed some heavy petting, and in return offered a very slobbery welcome. I had no idea their mouths are so full of saliva! Some of the young calves are lent out as natural lawn mowers, much as goats are now providing fossil fuel free mowing and complementary fertilizer in Silicon Valley. The grown cows are too heavy to transport easily.

The buildings on site, both for visitors and for milking, are simple and very attractive.

Pasona’s new farm and landscaped building

UPDATE: I posted a revised article, “Sensing Four Seasons at a Tokyo Office Building,” on Huffington Post on July 30, 2010.

Some friends and I visited Pasona’s new office last week. They are a large Japanese staffing farm that had a highly publicized basement farm in their old Otemachi headquarters. This year they moved nearby to Yaesu in their own newly built, nine story headquarters between Tokyo Station and Nihonbashi. Pasona has unveiled a much more elaborately landscaped interior and exterior.

The image above is my favorite because it highlights the interface between the futuristic farm, dependent on a variety of grow lights including LEDs, and the urban environment outside. I am certain that the indoor vegetables will give them the most attention again, but actually I believe the exterior landscaping is more inspiring and impactful.

Below is a brief tour of interior and exterior. After the photo tour, I will suggest some metrics for judging the success of this very visible corporate monument to urban nature.

Glowing all the way across the wide downtown street even in daylight, a spectacular rice paddy with dozens of strong lights occupies the main lobby entrance of the building. The entrance doors are flanked on the outside by beautiful apple trees in giant rusted steel planters.

Almost the entire first floor of the building is devoted to the spectacle of vegetables planting, growing, and ripening under powerful grow lights: rice, tomatoes, melons, corn, eggplants, herbs, and lettuce. A large cafe features wood posts hung at angles and supporting canvas bags with soil and corn. One wall has a series of metal cases with purple lights and tiny fans that have a very “next century” feel.

There is also a room with racks and racks of lettuce, and a field of giant sunflowers. And everywhere vegetables and seedlings are arranged in attractive vignettes. Elsewhere, tomatos hang from the cut-outs in the ceiling. (Click to enlarge the photos below).

What I think works are the following:

  • Pasona demonstrates its commitment to bringing nature into the city by devoting so much valuable space and employing great landscapers and designers.
  • Pasona packages its vision in a combination of high design and new technology that is visually stunning, unique and in many ways hopeful.
  • It is interesting how the cafe and second story meeting spaces are divided and enhanced by greenery. The constant changing as plants plants grow and get replaced, and juxtaposing informal meeting spaces with living plants is a welcome change from most office interiors.

But I also have to point out where the vision falls short.

  • It largely fails as a public gathering place. The giant lobby rice paddy is at once open free to the public and oddly devoid of people, except for a few curious first time visitors. The strange color, strong heat, and loud sound of the lights seems to repel people. In fact, the employees use a side entrance, and bypass the lobby. There is no sense that employees or neighbors will use most of this space, except for suited young people using the cafe and second floor meeting rooms.
  • The intensity of the lighting and sheer quantity beg the question of energy expenditure. Pasona must address how sustainable this idea of indoor agriculture is, and whether they see energy production or usage changing in the future of urban farming.
  • There is no sense of season or natural habitat. It is understandable that birds and wildlife are not permitted inside, but their absence makes the interior seem sterile. Why is the corn ripening in May?

While the indoor farm will generate the most attention for Pasona, I think that the exterior landscaping is more impressive and ultimately more interesting for urban habitat creation and the integration of nature with work space. Two thirds of the building front and at least one side have been carefully planted on handsome screened balconies to produce four seasons of color. Included are citrus trees, wisteria vines, Japanese maple, blueberries, and flowering vines like clematis.  Although the plants are small now, it is easy to imagine the exterior becoming a unique vertical forest and colorful garden over the next years.

The exterior vertical landscaping has 200 species of plants, and many trees that lose their leaves in the winter. The idea is that the plant mass will reduce carbon emissions, summer shade will keep the building cooler, and winter bare branches will allow more direct light during the cold season. While the public is not invited to the upper floors, it appears that the exterior plants are all on balconies that are either accessible or viewable from inside the offices. Click below to see posters that explain the exterior landscape and the designers who worked on this project, and how the exterior garden appears from the sidewalk below.

I am looking forward to watching the exterior of the building grow into its potential. And I am eager to hear how the office workers feel about the outdoor plants that are so close to their interior work spaces.

I’ll end this post with a dandelion weed I spotted on the edge of the rice field. It is this type of unplanned feature that makes natural landscapes so enchanting.

Azby Brown’s book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan

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.

Pygmy goats are popular in cities

The New York Times recently reported that Chicago residents are increasingly keeping pygmy goats in their back yards, joining chicken coops and beehives as elements of new urban farm life. Pygmy goats grow to two feet in height and 50 to 100 lbs.

They provide milk and cheese (for some reason, it is illegal to sell these in Chicago) and they can also mow the lawn and provide fertilizer. There was also an article over two years ago about pygmy goats being legal in Seattle. Clearly, they are also adorably cute!

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.

Continue reading

FarmVille, an addiction to virtual farming

Farmville, an addiction to virtual farming

Can anyone comment on this recent story about FarmVille? Apparently, Farmville is Facebook’s most popular application with 62 million users since it started this June. Like the Sims or Tamagotchi pets, players must carefully tend to their virtual worlds, in this case crops, farm animals and neighbors. Created in San Francisco, this game is popular with city people and farmers from around the world.