ginko

Ginkos connect an old street with decades of layers

青梅街道は江戸時代からある道で、昔ここに農園がありました。今はイチョウの木がたくさんの種類の建物をつないでいます。廃墟化した戦後の建物や商業用の建物や住宅やさらには軽工業のビルがあります。

Ome Kaido is a large boulevard in my neighborhood that dates to Edo times when this area was largely fields. I like how the ginko trees provide a unifying element to a heterogenous streetscape of  abandoned post-war buildings mixed with newer commercial, residential and even light industrial buildings from every decade since.

Directly across the street from this corner is a ten story office building. I noticed the roof-top sports facility years before I recognized the logo at the entrance that marks it as the headquarters of one of Japan’s leading adult content companies.

Fall foliage extended all the way to winter

秋は暖かかったので、紅葉は年末まで延長しました。去年の葉をまだ落としています。これは東京体育館の入り口から観た景色です。

Because fall remained warm in Tokyo, the fall foliage extended all the way to the end of the year. The last few leaves are dropping now. Here’s the view from entrance to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium out towards Shinjuku Gyoen, the elevated freeway, and the Sendagaya station.

Bright golden ginko against black night sky

中野で、金色のイチョウが夜空に向かって光を放っています。大きい道路沿いの長い並木のいくつかは早く紅葉して、他はまだです。見上げてみましょう!

Golden ginko leaves radiate against a black night sky in Nakano. Ginko is the official tree of Tokyo, and stylized versions appear on many sidewalk railings. This week they are turning gold. I like how in a long row on major streets, some turn sooner, and others wait. Look up!

University of Tokyo moves old ginko tree for construction

東大法学大学院の新しい図書館ができるまで、成熟したイチョウの木を移動しています。 東大は木の価値に気がついていて、うれしいです。本郷のキャンパスの背の高い木や三四郎池はとてもすてきです。

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.

Red and yellow punctuate residential alley

つまらない住宅地でも、秋は美しくなる。

Fall trees add temporal beauty to residential Tokyo.

An otherwise drab residential street is lit up with red and yellow fall foliage. The red tree in the foreground grows in the very narrow space between a house and the low wall separating it from the street. The yellow leaves in the background are from a ginko tree, which is part a line of ginkos on both sides of a major boulevard. Like most Tokyo residential streets, traffic moves so rarely and slowly that it’s comfortable to walk or bike in the center of the roadway.

Unexpected fall scene in traditional Japanese garden

ほとんどの外国人は、ヤシの木とイチョウの落ち葉の組み合わせを日本の秋の風景とは想像しません。

Tokyo palm trees with ginko leaves are not most foreigners’ image of the typical Japanese fall landscape.

I love this juxtaposition of Tokyo’s most common, self-seeding palm tree named Shuro (シュロ, or Trachycarpus fortunei) and fallen yellow ginko leaves. Most people think of fall as defined by maple leaves turning red, or winter as pine trees. This unexpected combination of ginko and palm is an alternative juxtaposition of deciduous and evergreen.

This photo is from “Shuro hill” at Tokyo’s oldest Japanese garden, Koishikawa Korakuen (小石川小楽園), created in the early Edo period by the second Tokugawa ruler. This area is also called “Kiso yama,”with the mountain, path, and stream designed to evoke the Kyoto highway. This is but one of many garden scenes that miniaturize famous places in Japan and China. My appreciation of this garden is indebted to the passion and knowledge shared by my professor Suzuki Makoto who gives the most extraordinary tour.

This last image shows the juxtaposition between this nearly 400 year old garden and modern Tokyo. In the background are Tokyo Dome (right) and the Bunkyo ward office (left). Many of the garden structures were destroyed during the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, and the garden reduced in size by post-war development.

Despite its abbreviated size, the garden is large enough that only later did I realize I forgot to see the rice paddy on the north side. The loud bird cries indicate that this garden is a critical nature sanctuary in a crowded city.

Dense and mature sidewalk garden in Chiyoda

Walking at night in Chiyoda after a meeting at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Chris and I found an amazingly dense and mature sidewalk garden that seems to be tended by a sushi restaurant. The planting is amazingly thick, creating a green wall between the sidewalk and the large boulevard in front of the restaurant. I like how the owners felt they could own this space and sacrifice some pedestrian space to make the small area around them so much nicer.

There’s a variety of trees and bushes and small plants in recycled pots and layered on cinder blocks (called “breeze blocks” by the New Zealanders) and other found stuff including beer crates, wood, bricks, and blocks. There’s even two plastic pots hanging from a ginko street tree that are currently empty. Makes me want to contribute something!

Summer vegetables growing on the sidewalk

Walking down a large boulevard in Higashi Koenji, I was surprised to see these potted vegetables on the sidewalk. In addition to ginko trees, this street has many azaleas between the vehicle lanes and the pedestrian sidewalk. In this spot, there’s a semi-permanent row of pots. But these eggplants and tomatoes are an extra row that someone temporarily set up.

I love how seasonal and impromptu this vegetable gardening is. And, after almost two years in Japan, I am still startled that people can place plants they love on the street, and no one eats the vegetables, vandalizes, or steals the plants. A city that’s safe for vegetables and plants is one that also welcomes people.

Ginkos in Sendagaya

I go to Sendagaya often to swim in the Olympic pool. The boulevard in front of the Tokyo Gymnasium has beautiful, mature ginko trees. It’s amazing how fast they go from bare poles to lush leafy mass. Once leafed out, the ginkos also hide the elevated freeway and elevated train lines between the gym and Shinjuku Park.

Ginkos are leafing out

From one week to the next, ginko trees go from bare to green. This incredible transformation is another sign of spring.

I kept expecting these trees to leaf out earlier, but they wait until mid-April. Ginkos and zelkova are common trees on Tokyo’s large boulevards. Their repetition adds a certain grandeur to the streetscape.

Streetscape outside Tokyo University

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.

One thousand year old zelkova tree

At the entrance to a public elementary school near our apartment is an enormous tree that I frequently pass by. On the other side of the entrance is a beautiful cherry tree. I didn’t pay any attention to the larger tree until the husband remarked that it sports a sign declaring it a “thousand year old zelkova” (in Japanese, it’s keyaki, けやき).

I went back, examined the tree more carefully, and took some photos. Does anyone know if this one thousand year designation is literal or figurative? It seems incredible, especially when compared with what I thought was an ancient ginko tree at Kishbojin Temple in Zoushigaya, reportedly 600 years old.

Looking carefully at this zelkova tree, I can see that there are huge fissures in the trunk and the tree has been pruned radically, including all the main branches and even the base close to the ground. I would like to think that this tree is a local treasure, and that someone is taking good care of it. Its age gives it character, and its canopy is still very impressive.

Kishibojin Temple in Zoushigaya (part 6)

The end of Eri’s walking tour was the magnificent Kishibojin temple. The buildings are old, pre-dating the war and probably the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, but most remarkable is a 30 meter high ginko tree with an 8 meter circumference said to be 600 years old. You can see it above surrounded on three sides by red gates.

Eri knows a lot about folklore, and explained that Kishibojin is a female diety who was originally a cannibalistic demon who repented and became a protector of children and women. She is known as Hariti in Sanskrit. In Japanese, the kanji for Kishibojin is a modified version of the character for “demon” (oni) missing a dot that symbolizes the horns that she lost during her conversion.

A famous street lined with Zelkova trees leads up to the temple.

Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo: New Huffington Post article

The Huffington Post published the English version of my recent Newsweek Japan article. Entitled “Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo,” it argues that the smallest gardens connect city people with nature, culture and history. Written in a personal voice to show a foreigner’s view to a largely Japanese audience, the article emphasizes how “Tokyo’s distinctive streetscape encourages proximity with many small gardens and their gardeners,” creating human as well as environmental benefit.

Gardening for Strangers in Tokyo

(This article originally appeared in Newsweek Japan on January 12, 2009 in Japanese)

Spending several weeks in Tokyo on a business trip in 2008, I was startled and enchanted to discover its human scale and its streets alive with people and plants. Like many foreigners, I assumed Tokyo would be all cold high-rises, crowded Shibuya scrambles, and flashing neon advertising. In short, I imagined the world’s largest metropolis entirely removed from the natural world.

I brought to Tokyo a lifelong interest in gardening. What surprises me still are Tokyo residents’ ingenuity and passion for cultivating plants and community in a crowded, over-built city. On leaving a beginner’s ceramics class in a humble Tokyo neighborhood one day, I came across four perfect pansies growing in the crack of a narrow sidewalk.

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This image of Tokyo as a gardeners’ city motivated me to relocate from San Francisco to research and write about Tokyo Green Space. Placing my research in the context of design anthropology and urban ecology, I was extremely fortunate to receive generous support in 2009 from Hitachi, which is committed to a Japanese approach to environmental protection and to cultural diplomacy.

The sidewalk pansies show that Tokyo is organized differently than United States and European cities, and that many of these differences are nearly invisible to Japanese people. I formulated several guiding questions. Why do Tokyo residents care so deeply about their surroundings? What role can nature play in dense urban environments? What can other cities learn from Tokyo’s urban gardening culture?

I began collecting images of gardens visible from streets and sidewalks. Surprises included a valuable bonsai collection growing on a private residence’s cinder block wall; rice maturing in styrofoam containers; a single, exquisite mini-watermelon supported by a wooden stand in a Ginza backstreet. Sadly, in San Francisco and most developed world cities, these potted plants would be quickly stolen or vandalized. Meanwhile few Tokyo residents connect the respect shown to public plants with their unequaled personal safety in streets and transit.

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Rushing into a men’s room in the Tokyo Metro, I glimpsed ivy growing in a two-liter plastic bottle lying on its side. In the twenty-first century, United States cities permanently closed their subway restrooms for “public safety.” Here in Tokyo I could calmly imagine the anonymous person who beautified an underground utility with a living organism and minimal resources. Did he return regularly to change the water? What inspired his passion for plants and his kindness to strangers?

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Across the four seasons, I observed Tokyo residents celebrating nature together in public places. For hanami (cherry blossom viewing), it is common to see people sleeping overnight in parks and along rivers to reserve spaces for blue sheets and the next day’s outdoor party for family, co-workers, or friends. The pink cherry blossoms transform the entire city as boisterous crowds share drinks and food. In fall, many thousands view ginko trees turning bright yellow in Aoyama, and special evening “light up” displays of red maple trees in traditional Japanese public gardens.

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Winter flowers, with spring and fall references

I am surprised to see narcissus flowers blooming outdoors just days before the winter solstice. These photos are from Shinjuku Gyoen, which is amazingly beautiful in every season.

I love how the narcissus contrast against the dormant, leaf-less cherry trees above. And below their bright white flowers pop against a bed of fallen ginko leaves.