Flood gate on Shibaura canal near Hinode


By day, Tokyo’s waterfront is often underwhelming visually: a mix of port shipping, older buildings that routinely turned their backs to what used to be polluted water, and new luxury high rises. By night, the water sparkles, and the city is far more seductive.

I love how this flood gate on the Shibaura canal has a giant cartoon fish. When the gate is lowered, the painted fish descends to join the real fish in the canal. I wonder why his heading is facing up. Maybe he doesn’t want to leave the city’s bright lights just yet.

Timber dock in Koto-ku, with view of Sky Tree and jumping fish


This wide stretch of water, between the Tokyo Bay and the Sunamachi canal, was originally used in Edo times as a timber dock. Now it includes a bridge for trains and features fish that spend the summer jumping out of the water. In the distance, you can see Sky Tree. View from Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

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.

Conference paper on Kanda River, biodiversity and new urbanism in Tokyo

This past weekend was the International Federation of Landscape Architects World Congress in Suzhou, China. My co-author Matthew Puntigam traveled there with professors and graduate students of the Tokyo University of Agriculture, and he presented our paper co-written with Professor Suzuki Makoto.

The Kanda River connects many residential, commercial, and downtown neighborhoods before emptying into the Sumida River. We looked at the past, present and possible future of what is the longest river that originates within Tokyo. The biodiversity potential is significant: in one small section of Tokyo’s Kanda river, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s 2001 survey documented 260 plant species, 42 riverbed species, 9 types of fish, 291 types of insects, 30 bird species, 2 reptiles species, and 3 mammal species.

You can download a PDF of our paper, Biodiversity and New Urbanism in Tokyo: The Role of the Kanda River (6 MB). Your comments and questions are most welcome.

Satoyama and biodiversity

Satoyama and biodiversity

Satoyama (里山), a term I first heard from 5bai Midori, describes a Japanese eco-system that supports biodiversity and is paradoxically the result of human transformation of forests over 2,000 years of rice farming. A fascinating Japan Times article explains what satoyama is, and how it is threatened on the one hand by large-scale agribusiness and pesticides that are sterilizing the land, and on the other hand by the encroachment of forests on villages that farmers are abandoning in rural Japan.

Satoyama are heavily managed forests and fields that replaced Japan’s densely shaded wilderness with a system of concentric rings of sato (village), satoyama (managed woodland), and okuyama (wild forest). In proximity to dwellings, cutting wood for fire provided openings in the forests that encouraged sun-tolerant trees and created habitat for wildflowers, butterflies, birds and other species that do not exist in wild forest. Cultivating rice paddies, and building the irrigation systems of reservoirs and canals that supply them, created aquatic and semi-aquatic habitat for amphibians, insects, water plants, crustaceans and fish. The system depends on the close proximity of all three rings, spread out over a large portion of Japan’s mountainous island habitat.

According to Japan’s Environment Ministry, more than half of Japan’s threatened plant and animal species live in satoyama areas. The Environment Ministry has created at least three editions of a national biodiversity strategy and launched a Satoyama Initiative that has included knowledge sharing with Asian regional conferences. And Japan will next year host the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) in Nagoya.

Resources in English include Takeuchi Kazuhiko et al’s book Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan (Springer, 2002). And there’s a Japanese Environment Ministry video on satoyama on YouTube (no embedding unforuntately).

“Daylighting” Cheonggyecheon River

Daylighting Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul

A great article in today’s New York Times about “daylighting” the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul. Daylighting refers to uncovering streams buried under pavement. Three miles of elevated freeway were removed, a plant-rich stream restored, and central urban land was converted from car-centric to people-centric.

Benefits include:

  • summer temperature reduction by 5 degrees Fahrenheit
  • improved storm drainage, which global warming has worsened
  • reduction in small-particle air pollution from 74 to 48 micrograms per cubic meter
  • less auto congestion despite the loss of vehicle lanes
  • bio-diversity gains include 25 versus 4 fish species, 36 versus 6 bird species, and 192 versus 15 insect species
  • 90,000 daily visitors, including walking and picknicing
  • higher real estate values for adjacent buildings
  • political gains for former mayor, now South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (also formerly head of construction at Hyundai Corporation)
  • restoration of the historic center of a 600 year city
Daylighting Cheonngyecheon River in Seoul

Government officials and urban planners from Los Angeles, Singapore, San Antonio, and Yonkers have expressed interest in restoring urban streams. Sadly, the article did not mention anything about Tokyo, where most of its historic canals and rivers are covered by streets and elevated freeways.

Morning glory festival in Iriya

Morning glory festival in Iriya

This week I attended the Morning Glory festival in Iriya. Fifty vendors spread outside and inside the Iriya Kishimojin temple set up hundreds of thousands of plants for sale on July 6, 7 and 8. It is a symbol of the start of summer.

Many vendors wear traditional clothes, including hapi and momoshiki, plus towels worn as headbands to beat the summer heat. All the Japanese delivery services had representatives, who can deliver your morning glory throughout Japan for 800 yen (about $8.50).

Inside the temple I saw monks blessing plastic morning glory flowers with chanting and metal sparks. There was plumes of incense, small kids in colorful outfits, and television cameras.

Iriya Kishimojin monks blessing morning glories

I spoke with some European and Latin Americans working in the stall of their bonsai master Kobayashi Kunio. They confirmed that all the vendors were selling very similar plants. Most were four plants of different colored morning glory (pink, blue, purple, red, white, and striated flowers, and many with striated leaves) twined around a circular support. They also told me that the stalls were open from 6 am until 2 am, which makes for incredibly long days and little sleep. I picked up “ocean blue” for 2,500 yen and a four color mix for 2,000 yen.

Covered flower stalls occupied one side of the wide road, including one lane of traffic, and typical festival food the opposite side.

Police at Iriya morning glory festival ayu fish at morning glory festival in Iriya