Decorating the ugly air conditioners


To walk through Tokyo is to see air conditioners strapped onto buildings and littering the sidewalk. I like how someone used a simple grid of stickers to transform these two units into something special. This is a rare Tokyo Green Space post with zero plants or living organisms.

Deep red vine in winter adds charm to concrete residence in Harajuku


This Harajuku residential buidling is bordered by tall bamboo and covered in a thick vine. I posted a photo of this building last summer shaded in dense green foliage. Now it’s turned red in early winter, and the contrast is very pleasing.

A walk through Harajuku backstreets on a hot summer day


With @luismendo visiting from Amsterdam, my Tokyo DIY Gardening pal Chris and I took him on a tour of Harajuku backstreets looking at gardens, eating tonkatsu, and stopping for some excellent cold coffee.

Harajuku is fun because the residential area has houses and gardens from all or almost all the past eight decades. The Harajuku gardens that appeal to me are similar to ones elsewhere in Tokyo for their simplicity and easy adaptation to urban life. Some results are clearly unintentional.

My photos include a three story garden of ivy and bamboo that covers one house and provides a buffer with its neighbor, a sleek concrete building’s balcony green curtains that are just starting to fill out on two floors, a blue flowering vine that somehow became a giant bush, a tiny entrance garden outside a pre-war house that has been converted into the very elegant Omotesando Coffee.

We also explored the enormous Danchi that between 246 road and Harajuku. This sprawling bauhaus-like public housing project has a wonderfully chaotic and varied set of gardens created by generations of residents. In July, we spotted lots of tomatoes, vertical bitter melon, and these purple gloves on top of an ad hoc garden support.

Leaving the apartment on a rainy spring day


This is the view from my apartment building lobby on a rainy spring day. Because of energy conservation, many lights are turned off. This increases the contrast between indoors and outdoors.

I walk through this lobby every day, and rarely think about it or consider taking a photo. Recently, I participated in the Xerox and City photo workshop at Vacant, led by Hirano Taro and organzized by Too Much magazine as part of their Romantic Geographies series. We were asked to take photos of our breakfast and then our trip to the workshop in Harajuku. It made me think more about spaces that become automatic or ignored.

Tokyo residents are more aware of energy use and lighting now. Many parts of the city are less brighly lit: from billboards to train stations to residences. By lowering our lighting, we are more attuned to natural cycles, and more sensitive to the boundaries between private and public, indoor and outdoor, personal and shared resources.

Pink and red together again


Spotted in Harajuku, this pink scooter parked next to red azaleas. I am overwhelmed by the extravagance of this product juxtaposed with nature in full bloom, and, of course, the color combination. For all those foreigners who think that Japanese culture is full of restraint and minimalism, this image shows the other side. This mix of nature and industrial product reminds me of the psychedelic backdrops to the ubiquitous television variety shows full of shiny objects, moving parts, and more colors than the rainbow.

Urban photography workshop at Vacant art center

都市とゼロックスという写真のワークショップに参加しました。たくさん勉強になって、楽しかったです。@TaroHirano77 や @VACANTbyNOIDEA や @toomuchmagazine や @sk8linus にありがとうございます。

I was fortunate to attend a photography workshop last week with the theme of Cities and Xerox. The event gathered about twenty Japanese creatives– including a sound engineer, high school art teacher, students, guidebook writer, book editor, lawyer, and salaryman– and together we created giant photographs layered together.

The workshop process was simple yet very fun. We were asked to take photographs on our way to the workshop. Then we each chose our best photographs for three topics: breakfast, landscapes, and people. The photographs were sent to FedEx Kinko to be blown up into various sizes. And then we worked together to layer them and staple them to a wood board, which would allow art center visitors to browse the images. While we waited for the photographs to be printed and biked back to the workshop, we also silkscreened t-shirts with the word “XEROXed.”

It’s great to see other people’s photographs and see how they view Tokyo. I was particularly struck by the breakfast images: everything from a traditional Japanese breakfast (many courses, including fish, rice, miso soup, pickles, etc) to a Denny’s, coffee, and those odd, squeezable jelly drinks in foil that are popular in Japan yet seem more suited to outer space. I was the only foreigner, but felt very welcomed by the organizers and participants.

The workshop was led by accomplished photographer Hirano Taro, who became famous for taking photographs of empty pools in California used by skateboarders. The workshop took place at Vacant art space in Harajuku as part of a series of Romantic Geography events created by Too Much Magazine’s Tsujimura Yoshi.

You can see our photographs through May 22 at Vacant. There are also coffee and beeswax events coming up. I had a fantastic time, and was very impressed with how accessible, fun and collaborative this event was.

Simple wood bench provides resting place at city shrine

On my walk with Chris Berthelsen through Harajuku, Jingumae, and Sendagaya, we stumbled into the Hatomori shrine (鳩森神社). In front of its splendid Noh theater, we noticed several lovely and very simple benches made of logs and what look like giant metal staples. Along with plenty of shade, it’s great this city shrine also provides a place to rest.

Tiny garden door leads to mini-forest in Harajuku

I was startled by this tiny garden door, not much taller than the bike’s handlebar. It’s amazing that in Harajuku there are still some old houses with their lush gardens. Most have been torn down and converted into multi-family buildings with minimal green space. While the wall prevents a full view, the small forest rising up and out of the property seems full of mystery and life.

Ivy trained into an X-shape topiary

I love how this ivy has been trained into a perfect X-shape topiary. Clearly following the form of the steel support for the apartment building’s facade, the tidy and even pruning also demonstrates the gardener’s on-going care. This local person must enjoy plants and the opportunity to make something artful in a small space.

Balcony overflows with bougainvillea and other plants

On a walk with Chris Berthelsen of Fixes, one of my favorite Tokyo blogs, we noticed this balcony overflowing with bougainvillea and other plants. Although many Tokyo balconies lack plants, it’s great to see one that is bursting with flowers and life. This corner balcony must have 40 or even 100 plants. I wonder what it looks like from inside the apartment.

I notice how they are using a small space tactic to maximize plants: vertical shaped pots which provide more soil for growing while occupying less horizontal space. This year I have started using similar shaped pots on my very full balcony.

Harajuku flower pot wall are more grandma than hipster

Most people think of Harajuku as being either luxury fashion or teen hipsters. But plenty of Harajuku is comprised of small streets, old houses, and long-term residents. I like how this garden is created entirely from flower pots lifted just off the street and hanging from the cinder block wall. That’s a lot of flowers for one tiny space.

Treehouse Hideaway cafe in Harajuku

Last week I explored the back alleys of Harajuku with Azby Brown, director of the KIT Future Design Institute and author of Just Enough: Lessons in Green Living from Traditional Japan. Beneath the veneer of teen fashion and continual demolition and rebuilding, we saw a small remnant of a four hundred year old cemetery, vestiges of hills and streams, and walls and buildings from the time of World War II.

But nothing was more striking than this Treehouse Hideaway Cafe on the north side of Harajuku, towards Yoyogi. A funky stairway leads up to a second story, green building that wraps around an enormous pine tree. Further up the tree is an open air platform. The treehouse was created by Kobayashi Takashi (小林崇). Kobayashi has created treehouses all over Japan.

So much of Tokyo and other urban built structures eradicates the natural environment it occupies. It is very cool to see the structure built around this old tree, and to see something you might associate with the countryside in the heart of Tokyo’s trendy fashion district.

Here’s a map to find the cafe. On the day we toured Harajuku, a flash mob assembled because of a rumored appearance by teen band Hey! Say! Jump, injuring several teen fans. We were fortunate not to get caught in that).

Walking in Aoyama and Harajuku

On a walk through Aoyama and Harajuku this winter, I entered Hatomori jinja, a beautiful green space with a shrine and and Noh theater.

It was strange to be in an urban oasis of trees and greenery and see this glass encased theater decorated with an elaborate pine tree painting.

Is art civilizing nature? Or is nature sheltering art? I do not understand much about Noh theater but I love how the image of an idealized pine assumes a sacred and formal role in the performance.

Across from the Noh theater is the shrine itself. Because it is winter, there is a circle of rice straw you walk through in order to enter the shrine. I love how this shrine had visual signs about how to wash your hands, and the proper way to pray. Japanese can be very precise in providing step-by-step instructions.

Aoyama is a mostly wealthy neighborhood, and includes a famous ginko lined street as well as the Crown Prince’s residence in Togu Gosho. There are many good-looking modern buildings, too. I was surprised to see this ruined old building.

Finally, heading into Harajuku, I saw an apartment building named Maison Harajuku covered in plants. I believe that it is a single vine originating from the right side of the front of the building. How long could it have taken for the vine to cover the building? What maintenance is required to keep it from swallowing the building?