Not sure what the crew is up to, but it makes for a dramatic surprise in Ginza. Beware of the sidewalk shark!
Who’s going to Sunday’s 3.11 Tokyo Big March against nukes? It starts at 2 pm in Hibiya Park, with a silent prayer at 2.46 pm, and a march starting at 3 pm through Ginza and Yurakucho. By 5 pm, there will be a human chain around the Diet Building. I am looking to find hope on a grim anniversary. Info in English and Japanese.
Recently I heard Mishima Yoshiki present a paper about the revival of the Kyobashi river in central Tokyo. Like most of Tokyo’s legendary rivers and canals, it has long been buried underground, when the Edo tradition of water transportation gave way to twentieth century freeways for private autos and commercial trucks.
Mishima’s paper was presented at the Tokyo University’s Asia Mega-Cities symposium in a session devoted to urban rivers. His paper was co-authored with Hayashi Masaki, Shikanai Kyoko, and Ishikawa Mikiko. Mishima is a PhD candidate at Todai’s graduate school of engineering, and a landscape architect trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Many landscape architects and urban historians point to the centrality of water in Tokyo’s history, and there is a growing desire to see its renewal in our post-industrial era. Mishima’s talk highlighted the Edo functions of the Kyobashi river, the history of its “reclamation” or burial, and the opportunities to remake it today.
Mishima’s project team chose the Kyobashi river because it is in central Tokyo and it is relatively short, with a history of connecting the Edo castle to the ocean. The paper introduced the concept of the kashi, a riverside commons that served as a place for unloading goods and commercial markets and where no private structures were allowed to be created. Today it has exceptional potential because it represents a mere 600 meters of the 320 kilometer Tokyo Expressway system, and is used by only 4,000 of the 53,000 daily expressway vehicles. Plus, its central location offers enormous potential as public open space and high rent commercial space.
Mishima explained how the Kyobashi river, like most of Tokyo’s waterways, became devalued and ultimately buried in the twentieth century when natural and human disasters overwhelmed the city. The 1923 Kanto Earthquake destroyed the kashi, and many private buildings were constructed. River commerce had already declined, and increasing garbage raised sanitation problems. The firebombing of Tokyo during World War II left huge piles of ashes along the river banks, making open space again a place for waste.
The post-war period saw some bizarrely futuristic plans. The 1950 “Sky Building Plan” envisioned building twelve story buildings above the old river, with an expressway running through the second floor. I am curious why this plan was ultimately rejected. In its stead, the city built a series of elevated freeways, mostly public and some privately owned, with several including the Kyobashi river having commercial tenants on the ground floor.
I enjoyed seeing the model of the renewal of the Kyobashi river. Using rainwater, treated sewage, and springs, there were would be plenty of water to support the new river. Water is constantly being pumped out from the subway tunnels (this happens in New York City as well, which I learned in the fantastic book The World without Us by Alan Weisman).
The Kyobashi river concept combines commercial development with the creation of a huge new green corridor. Some buildings would be placed on the new river, as a way to generate revenue for the construction and maintenance of the new public spaces. Green roofs would integrate the new buildings with the park. People would have access to the river on bridges, plazas, water decks, and recreational boats. It would be great to also see a river edge that combined some elements of natural riverbank vegetation and habitat.
Several factors make the idea of this project at least conceivable. One, the Kyobashi river area is small and borders high rent Ginza. Second, the elevated freeway, like most of Tokyo’s expressways, was built in the rush to “modernize” before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Therefore, they do not meet current earthquake standards, and the city currently faces a choice between expensive retrofitting or potential collapse. (The earthquake damage to San Francisco’s Embarcadero freeway in 1989 provided the impetus for freeway removal and opening the bay to the city in the early 2000s, which has been a huge success). Lastly, the low rent payed by the private company suggests that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and its residents receive minimal compensation in exchange for the environmental costs of the freeway.
The Japan Times published my op-ed article “Tokyo’s urban design role.” My argument is that Tokyo’s past urban design failures paradoxically make it a model for rebuilding existing cities and designing hundreds of emerging cities. In the context of climate change and global warming, livable cities can create a new balance between people and nature.
I talk about fireflies, Ginza rice and honeybees, modern bonsai, satoyama in the city, businesses and biodiversity, and how Japan can promote innovations in urban life, alongside achievements in popular culture and high technology.
On November 1, Ginza Farm celebrated the rice harvest. The event began at 9 am on a Sunday morning and drew a crowd including children, parents, bloggers, an actress in an upcoming movie about farming, and the carpenter Hisano who built the beautiful tanbo, tables and benches. Above entrepreneur Iimura san helps the kids hang the rice along a bamboo rail.
Here’s what the rice looked like just before harvest.
Below is a photo of Hisano san, the Chiba carpenter who created Ginza Farm and Omotesando Farm.
After the jump are photos of the actress helping the children bundle the rice, two kids enjoying the remaining duck, and a sad note about how one duck died the previous week from an assault by a Ginza raccoon.
Walking in Tokyo always provides new discoveries. In Ginza, where global brands are housed in tall ultra-contemporary mid-rises, there are still small alleys and two story buildings. I was astounded to stumble upon this bakery housed in what seems the perfect simulation of the French countryside.
When Japanese set out to evoke a foreign scene, it is amazing how many details they add to create the perfect illusion. This bakery, Patisserie Qu’il fait bon, achieves its look with a simple two story structure with plentiful casement windows, a cobblestone driveway, and just slightly excessive exterior lighting. But perhaps even more effective is the landscaping: many layers of plants, all in pots, much like the humble gardens created by older ladies in countless residential streets. What makes this landscape at once bold and persuasive are the many layers, variety of colors that harmonize with the paint trim, and the assortment of metal and recycle wood plants with objects such as a rusted chair, a clock, some farm house wheels, and other bric-a-brac. I like how artfully “untamed” the landscape appears, despite being meticulously staged and styled.
For mature cities, creating green cities involves reclaiming unused and under-used spaces in crowded environments. For Tokyo, that largely means rooftops, walls and streets.
Japan introduced a successful concept called “pedestrian heaven” or hokousha tengoku (歩行者天国) in commercial districts including Ginza and Shinjuku. On weekends and holidays, small stretches of major roads are pedestrian-only. A similar project in Akihabara was discontinued after someon used a car and a knife to attack people in 2008. This is an unfortunate reaction, because in addition to promoting shopping, closing streets provides needed space for recreation, pets, children and walking.
There are just a handful of larger street closures that allow for greater recreation. On Sundays, Uchibori-dori outside the Imperial Palace is closed for a 3.5 kilimoters from 10 am to 3 pm. There’s even a free bike borrowing program. And there’s the Oifuto 9.5 kilometer cycling route near Haneda airport on Sundays.
Government visionaries would do well to consider how to turn more streets into occasional leisure, recreation and community spaces. The world’s largest is in Bogota, Colombia, with two million participants (30% of the population) using 120 kilometers of carfree space. Their “ciclovia” program traces back to the 1980s. This has inspired US cities such as New York and San Francisco to create similar programs.
In addition to these weekend or special event uses of streets, Tokyo could also convert many of its small streets into green alleys, parks and gardens. Tokyo’s side streets are already dominated by pedestrian and bicycle traffic, with very minimal auto usage. Since streets represent by far the largest public shared space in cities, these low auto traffic small streets could be transformed to provide greater human and environmental benefits. It would be great to see some pilot projects with pavement reduction, tree planting, community gardens, pocket parks, native plants, and biodiversity zones.
San Francisco is experimenting with some of these ideas, including a Pavement to Parks project that is creating temporary parks on underused asphalt. These parks, using tree trunks and other recycled materials, have proven very popular, and are part of a broader effort to reclaim public space.
My friend Jane Martin of Plant*SF has sent me some links describing the community benefits of these projects.
And lastly there is an interesting SF Streets Blog photo essay about a renaissance in public space in San Francisco.
Given Tokyo’s already high incidence of walking, transit and biking for most urban trips (for work, school, shopping, and leisure), there is no reason Tokyo should not be at the forefront of experiments in turning streets into usable space.
Leaving Ginza Farm, I spotted a famous Ginza institution, the Shiroi Bara or White Rose cafe in an ancient brick building. Between Ginza Farm and the undulating de Beers building on Kazutou Street, just off Chuo Street, the White Rose dates from 1931, the early rise of Ginza, and is associated with the writers Nagai Kafū and Kikuchi Kan and the 2-26 coup attempt in 1936. Given how little history is preserved in Tokyo, it is amazing that this cabaret remains in business full of retro charm.
(Note: Top photo by weblog244, shared on Flickr through Creative Commons)
This amazing photograph of Hakutsuru Sake rooftop rice field in Ginza comes from photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, and appeared as part of National Geographic’s global green rooftop photo essay.
Last week the Ginza Honey Bee Project (銀座ミツバチプロジェクト) founders Takayasu Kazuo (高安和夫) and Tanaka Atsuo (田中淳夫) talked with me about their successful four year old honey-making project in the middle of Ginza, and showed me their rooftop hives.
We met in a unremarkable conference room in a nondescript office building behind Matsuya department store. A group of veterinarians was leaving, and we would soon be joined by a professional photographer. In the years since they launched urban bee farming in Tokyo’s most expensive commercial district, Ginza Honey Bee Project has attracted attention from local, national and international media, including National Geographic, BBC, CNN and many others.
Takayasu-san and Tanaka-san lead an all-volunteer effort, and their backgrounds are suitably in organic farming and real estate. They are deeply committed to keeping bees and reviving an industry that is in decline. Tanaka-san explained two factors contributing to the decline in the Japanese honey industry: deforestation after World War II to rebuild Japan and the increasing use of pesticides in rice farming. And while other countries are also experiencing “colony collapse disorder,” Japan is particularly vulnerable to the advanced age of its farmers and a decline in beekeepers from 15,000 to about 2,500.
Ginza Honey Bee Project aims to revive honey production, and increase awareness of the relationship between bees, nature and people. It was initially difficult to gain the permission of all 25 building tenants to have eight hives on the roof, housing 300,000 bees. Now they are producing 440 kilos of honey per year, one third of which goes to the volunteers and the remaining 3,000,000 yen in sales are donated to Ginza neighborhood projects such as an opera concert, a Farm Aid Ginza event in support of organic agriculture, local tree planting, and roof greening to create bee habitats. The large volunteer base includes Ginza club “mama-sans” and bartenders, landscape architects, art therapists and kids. Matsuya department store, a project sponsor, uses the Ginza honey in special pastries and a cocktail.
One interesting story Tanaka-san told was how Ginza Honey Bee Project rescued bees from nearby Tsukudajima that were going to be exterminated. There is now a hive of Japanese bees, which previously were not considered suitable for honey-making. Japanese bees are said to be at once “more gentle” and also “less loyal” to their hives. Despite some initial fears, we were encouraged to put our fingers in the honey-comb for a taste, and it was delicious.
The Ginza bees travel to the Imperial Palace and Hamarikyu, “flying faster than taxis.” The honey is labeled according to the nectar source, including chestnut, orange, clover and mint. The honey bottles are marked with the collection date. Future plans include a hoped-for 20 hive farm near Tokyo Station.
Mikimoto in Ginza often has season flower displays that attract crowds of camera phone fans. This month it is lotus. I am always amazed at how Tokyoites are so enraptured at flower displays, displaying a hunger and appreciation for natural beauty in the city.
Last week I sat down with Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) at Ginza Farm, with a translator, and learned much more about his ideas for Ginza Farm, his background and his next project.
Iimura-san told me that he is very interested in urban farming in Japan and worldwide. His background has given him unique skills for pulling off something that at first seems impossible: creating a ground level rice farm in one of Tokyo’s most expensive neighborhoods.
Iimura-san recently worked with rural towns on revitalizing their small commercial streets, most recently in Shizoka. He realized that this local problem required new connections with the rest of the world. When he turned his attention to Tokyo farming, he drew on Ginza connections he forged as a venture capitalist. And finally his obvious skill with growing comes from his childhood on his parents’ farm in Shimoutsuba in Ibaraki prefecture, a town known for its high quality rice. The Ginza Farm soil and rice come from his parents’ farm.
How did Iimura-san secure a site that is on a small side street west and north of the intersection of Chuo Dori and Yanagi Dori (not far from the twisty De Beers building)? Using connections with tax accountants and attorneys, he located the plot and spent six months negotiating with the landlord. Although I do not know the details, apparently lending land between demolition and construction confers some significant tax advantages, yet still it took a long process of negotiation.
A giant photo banner at the back of the field proclaims that “One hundred rice farmers make Japan healthy.” Below is information about the supporting farms. Iimura-san contacted some of Japan’s most award-winning farms, appealing to their pride and patriotism. He spent two months sending documents and gaining equal support from these farmers.
Some of the activities at Ginza Farm have included a farmer’s market, a Tanabata festival with Nagashi Somen (noodle rolling along a long bamboo tube). At the festival, he said that the kids who participated were initially afraid of getting dirty, but that within five minutes they were throwing mud and “becoming monsters.” He wonders if it might have been the first time for many of these city kids to play in the dirt.
The field, the sitting area of benches and tables, the awning are all very rustic and well crafted. Iimura-san told us that a famous bamboo artist and his workers built much of it.
Iimura-san said that many types of people have visited. With the introduction of the ducklings, more women have become interested. I noticed an interesting mix of Ginza workers, including construction workers and shop clerks. Iimura-san explained that the school kids who helped plant the farm each received a plant to take home. Iimura-san was very proud that one kid came back to tell him that the rice he cared for was bigger and stronger than the Ginza Farm’s.
A true farmer, Iimura-san told me of very specific growing problems in Ginza that makes it hard to grow rice well. The sun does not shine into the field until 9 am which is bad. At night, the field is full of artificial light, which he has attempted to control with a large black plastic curtain he closes at dusk. “It’s important for the rice to sleep.” And finally, the night time temperature in Ginza is too warm, without the cool breezes found in the countryside.
Iimura-san has many future plans: to create another Ginza Farm next year, to find new markets for Japanese rice, and to open a rental farm (貸し農園) with sixteen roof top plots on the top of the Paul Smith building in Omotesando. He says the rental farm has wonderful views of Roppongi and Tokyo.
Iimura-san’s resourcefulness and passion will be very helpful, and I am looking forward to visiting Ginza Farm again and his next projects.
The photo at the top of the post and below show how the rice and the ducklings have grown so much within 10 days. While my last visit he showed me a tiny frog, this time he pointed out a small snail on the trunk of the entrance-way maple tree.
In a small Ginza alley, near Ginza Farm, I spotted this mini-watermelon growing in a pot outside a restaurant. What’s most delightful is that the gardener has carefully placed a wooden stand for support.
On a side street in Ginza, I noticed a rice farm and met Ginza Farm‘s CEO Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) and his assistant who were tending the rice and two cute ducklings. Shop clerks and construction clerks stopped by to admire the rice in its mid-summer glory.
The rice farm occupies an empty lot. At the end of the afternoon Iimura-san was draining the rice paddy, and his assistant was collecting the ducklings to take back to the office for the evening. On the left is a beautiful table and benches, on the back and right side a huge photo mural of rural Japanese rice farms, and in front a bamboo fence, some live bamboo, vines, a black pine, and a few cucumber plants.
The banner reads “100 rice farms make Japan healthy.” The project is apparently funded by this group of Japanese rice farmers, with support from a lumber association. The following day was going to feature an “onigiri” (rice ball) party at 5 pm, and there’s something planned for this Sunday, July 19.
Iimura-san was very friendly, and even pointed out a frog that had somehow discovered the rice paddy.