Nearby commercial establishments put tables and chairs into the street. Beer and mixed drinks in cans seem to fuel the spiritual rites.
Next week I am talking at Shibaura House’s Community Herb Garden talk event. Herbs can be used for flavor, food, medicine, and perfume. Even in small urban spaces, herbs are very tough and can be used in daily life. This balcony lavender attracts Tokyo butterflies.
On our balcony, I observed this honeybee harvesting daisy pollen. It was so enthralled with its work that it hardly seemed to notice me and my camera.
This dill has been providing a nice flavor to our food for the past months. It tastes so expensive, and it’s fun to walk a few steps from the kitchen and grab some leaves. This ceramic pot is from the first series I made when I first came to Tokyo four years ago and began studying at Shiho ceramic studio.
Compared to the last photos, this narrow street in Shimbashi, an older business district that’s no longer Tier A real estate, allows pedestrians to take full use of the street and offers an amazing variety of products, signs and even foods spilling out of the shops.
I love this elegant cherry tree in bloom at a highway rest stop. In the background, you can see a row of cherry trees lining the highway. I am rarely a car passenger in Japan, but I was my in-laws on a day trip last weekend.
In the United States, highway rest stops have a bad reputation: dirty, few food options, insufficient toilets, and an atmosphere of decrepitude and crime. In Japan, they are immaculate, constantly renovated, over-supplied with clean toilets, food options that rival a large mall, and endless rows of souvenir edible gifts for people you will visit or for friends and family back home.
I like how this very common and hardy camellia brings some life to a concrete patio in a Nakano back street. I wonder who placed it there and keeps it well pruned.
I can easily imagine a jungle growing between these older commercial buildings, a living food alley with scent and maybe a small creek bed. As it is now, this space between buildings functions as a giant chute for capturing rainwater, which then travels many kilometers and must be processed, alongside sewage, before being released into Tokyo Bay.
At least someone working or living there is decorating and enjoying the space.
Thanks to Mr Bas Valckx, who works in culture and design affairs at the Netherlands embassy, last month I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr Ito Masaru, who has created Shibaura House as the headquarters of his advertising agency, Kohkokuseihan, and a new community space between Rainbow Bridge and Tamachi station in Minato-ku.
The building, designed by prominent Japanese architect Sejima Kazuyo of SANAA and completed in the summer of 2011, is as stunning as one could imagine: floor to ceiling glass walls, each floor plate unique, a form that combines transparency, simplicity, and elegance. There’s a sizable roof and three outdoor areas, a rectangular balcony and two curvy, double height voids.
But I was even more impressed by Mr Ito’s vision for work, community, and art. He kindly gave Bas and me a tour, which included rental areas, his company’s office, meeting spaces, and a ground floor cafe open to the public. Mr Ito is extremely knowledgable about urban planning, art history, and even permaculture.
His reason for creating Shibaura House and his plans for its future are inspiring and unconventional. He told me that his motivation for creating Shibaura House was to create the very opposite of the advertising business that he runs. And while he is pleased with how the building turned out, he is eager now to make it more alive, with more soil, people, and activity.
Too often, even in Silicon Valley, I have seen companies seek to wall themselves off from neighbors and outsiders. Global icons like Facebook, Google and Apple locate their employees in office parks, making their facilities off limits to non-employees and promoting secrecy over collaboration. I think Mr Ito’s bold vision suggests new ways to use real estate, to operate a company, and to become a vital part of local neighborhoods.
The neighborhood context is very diverse and layered: close to canals and the Tokyo Bay, near a main water processing facility, and neighbors with a variety of architectural styles from post-war, 70s residential, to more recent projects. As Bas reminded me, the area is reclaimed land from Tokyo Bay from the Edo period.
I’d love to see more plants, wildlife, and agriculture at Shibaura House. Things like bee hives, chicken coops, urban satoyama plants. It would also be great to see Shibaura House engage its neighbors with with local food, plants, and wildlife habitat connecting buildings and waterways with green walls, roofs, and sidewalks. I am eager to see how Shibaura House grows and takes shape in the coming years.
I’ve written before how Tori no Ichi is one of my favorite festivals, with its focus on seeking spiritual intervention for a prosperous year. Perhaps Asakusa is a more traditional place, but I particularly love attending the festival at Hanozono shrine, mid-way between Kabukicho, Ni-chome, and the department stores. The crowd is Tokyo’s most beautiful people: the world of late night drinkers, huge hair for men and women, animal prints, and shiny fabrics.
If it weren’t for the food stalls, it would be easy to miss the entrance on Yasukuni Dori, with the fiver rows of lanterns barely competing with the neon, fluorescent signage, and hundreds of taxis.
The focal point of the festival are the “kumade,” which are good luck rakes made of bamboo, rice, (often artificial) pine, and paper and plastic good luck charms hot glued. There are dozens of stalls, and the most expensive ones need to be carried out by two men. The one below cost 300,000 yen (almost US $4,000).
In addition to kumade sellers, there are many regular festival food stalls, and also make-shift drinking establishments with tables and chairs. I like how the one below wraps around a mature tree.
The convergence of spirituality, drinking and materialism is dizzying. The proprietress of this food and drink stall is wearing a headband full of cash.
Almost anything can represent good fortune. I love how this Kewpie doll, the mascot of Japan’s #1 mayonnaise, also has a headband of cash and a full body tattoo. There seems to be an even higher than usual correlation between this festival and the yakuza who are its sellers and celebrants.
Even the children’s cartoon Anpan man (his head is a round anko bread that can be eaten when necessary) can be incorporated into the rake.
One of my favorite times in Tokyo are the September festivals, with portable shrine carrying and yukata-clad dancing happening in small groups up and down the main roads that pre-date the west-bound Marunouchi subway and Chuo train line. These photos are from Ome Kaido and Itsukaiichi Kaido.
The fall festivals connect city life with agrarian traditions, and by bringing the shrines into the road they literally bring the local spirits into view. I like the music, the costumes, chanting and dancing. But also the festival food stalls, lanterns, and crowds of seniors and high schoolers.
Spurred by the energy crisis post-Fukushima, there’s been a notable increase in the number of mid-rise office and retail buildings with green walls. In an over-built city, vertical surfaces are the largest potential area for gardening, farming, and habitat creation.
Tokyo has far more vertical surfaces than roof areas, and we are only at the very beginning of creating an urban forest.
I have been following this topic for a while, and have watched this idea spread from notable public spaces like Suginami’s ward office (world’s largest green curtain) to apartment balconies, flower shops, and now commercial and retail spaces. This wide distribution across Tokyo and across building types is very exciting to see.
Some questions I have include:
The answers will come from experimentation and diffusion. The photos, from top to bottom, are four green walls I’ve recently seen:
1. Hasegawa Green Building in Shiba Koen
2. Office mid-rise in Shinjuku Gyoen-mae (2 photos). The company that created and maintains this green wall is called Ishikatsu Exterior (石勝イクステリア).
3. Oimachi retail building near station.
4. Daimon office building.
This tomato starter plant, also bought at Shimachu, is flowering and already has several mini-tomatos despite its tiny size. So much engineering to create commercial food, even the ones we grow ourselves.
My friend Matt sent me this intricate sakura weather map: it shows the updated forecast for the start of cherry blossoms across the Japanese archipelago. Even if you can’t read Japanese, it’s impressive to see how much weather forecasting amplifies cherry blossom season.
Today I also heard from Twitter’s @Matt_Alt that there are big signs at Inokashira park Big asking visitors to refrain from holding cherry blossom viewing parties there. This is one of Tokyo’s most famous parks, and one of the most popular places for young people to celebrate spring with all night and all day drinking parties.
It’s now just over two weeks after the horrific natural and man-made disaster that began with the East Japan great earthquake. With looming energy shortages, national mourning for the dead, and continued fears about nuclear fallout, Tokyo life will not be the same. Yet it is still impossible to fully know what will emerge in the coming months and years.
Will these events increase or reverse Japan’s hyper-urbanization? How will people respond to new concerns about food and water safety? Can the government and industry regain trust and provide leadership? How can civil society contribute to rebuilding the country and restoring Japan’s international reputation?
And can public spaces and local businesses flourish in a time of anxiety and uncertainty?
Pink Tentacle has assembled a collection of historic new year’s cards (年賀状, nengajou) from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Seeing all these different rabbits featured in vibrant designs with national and cultural messages is a delight and inspiration. The one above is from
1927 1915 (via Twitter’s @hizaga). I wonder whether we’ll be seeing more rabbits this year in Tokyo: as food, companions, or wildlife?