hill

Temple entrance beckons at twilight

夕暮れの丘の上、寺は手招きします。景色が門を枠に入れて、門も景色を枠に入れます。

Visiting a nearby gallery, I wanted to show my friend the Gokokuji temple, just past the station. It was more magical and quiet than I had remembered. I love the long climb up the hill, and how the landscape frames the entrance gate, which in turn further frames the landscape.

A seashore covered in concrete

Recently I took a day trip to Iwaki with my in-laws. We ended the afternoon on the top floor of a 1980s hotel in a cafe which had the clever idea of placing sand on the floor below the tables that face out on the coast. On closer examination, I realized that both the small hill and the seashore are covered in concrete.

The view reminded me of Alex Kerr’s Dogs and Demons about how the institutional forces that lead the government to degrade the countryside and the environment. On the one hand, pouring concrete on the hillside protects the houses below, and presumably what look like huge concrete children’s jacks on the shore prevent flooding. But did they need to build houses on such perilous land, or was the lure of construction profits and kickbacks too great to pass up?

Tokyo University Sanshiro-ike garden in fall

On a beautiful warm November day, I discovered Tokyo University’s Sanshiro-ike garden. I had a few moments before a meeting, and saw on the campus map that there was a central garden on the main campus. I had assumed it would be a formal garden.

I was very surprised to descend a small hillside and encounter this natural looking pond. Looking in all directions, one sees only trees, water and sky, despite the compact size of the garden. Even on a warm weekend day with early fall foliage, few visitors were there. I was enchanted by the incredibly natural and removed-from-the-city feeling in this garden inside central Tokyo and Japan’s most famous university.

It takes a lot of artifice to make a city garden look so natural. The waterfall is amazing.

Continue reading to see some more images from Tokyo University, aka Todai.

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Views of Mount Fuji

Views of Mount Fuji

In the fall, views of Mount Fuji reappear in Tokyo. Summer is too hazy to see long distances clearly. Even in fall, the times you see Mount Fuji are unexpected, surprising and sublime. The view above and below is from our apartment balcony at sunset.

Views of Mount Fuji

There was a recent newspaper article about a Nippori, Tokyo neighborhood association‘s effort to save their view of Mount Fuji from a hillside named Fujimizaka, “the slope for seeing Mount Fuji.” The Nippori Fujimizaka is the last of sixteen hills named Fujimizaka in central Tokyo where the view has not yet been fully blocked by high rise construction. The Arakawa ward, where Nippori is located, would like to protect the views, but the Bunkyo ward, where the construction is occurring, would like the tax revenue from new construction.

Fujimizaka view, partly blocked

Although unsuccessful in preventing a 14 story building from blocking one third of the view in 2000, the Society to Protect Nippori’s Fujimizaka is organizing to protect the remaining two thirds view. The Mount Fuji view from Nippori was included in Hiroshige Utagawa’s famous woodblock prints of urban Edo life. The preservation leader is an 83 year old man named Kaneko Makoto.

Hiroshige's view of Mount Fuji from Edo

Visiting Nagano and Niigata with Nodai

Niigata Dream House

Last week I visited Nagano and Niigata prefectures with Nodai. It was my first experience seeing the incredible beauty of the countryside, the rice fields and satoyama ecosystems, steep hills, wood houses, and small towns. The focus of the trip was rural revitalization and experiencing history, both centuries-old and more recent, in landscape.

Although I had heard of satoyama from 5bai Midori, I had not expected to be so overwhelmed by the exuberant greenery of rice field, abundant water and forest. In some ways, the agricultural landscape looks like it had been there for 2,000 years of co-habitation between people and nature. Because of the small plots and terraces, much of the farming is still done by hand, and there was no evidence of industrial agri-business like flat Kansas wheat fields or Maryland chicken mega-factories.

Matthew Puntigam photo of Niigata satoyama

Our university field trip made clear that this is no pastoral eden. Abandoned houses and schools reflect a rapidly aging and shrinking population, and we witnessed buildings from Japan’s 1980s Bubble that were shuttered or on the verge of bankruptcy.

The trip included three major locations connected to efforts by Nodai’s professors in the Garden Design Laboratory and Landscape Architecture Science. The tour was led by Professors Shinji, Suzuki and Hattori.

1. Obuse in Nagano: an Edo town that was once a center of commerce and culture due to its location at the confluence of the Matsu-kawa River and Chikuma River, with a six hundred year history of chestnut trees and one hundred year old sake distillery. Today there is a famous Hokusai Museum, restaurants, chestnut foods, sake production, a marathon, and an “open garden” town program.

2. New Greenpia (ニュー・グリーンピア), a massive resort built in the 1980s to provide outdoor experiences for working class urban residents. A central feature is a garden designed by a Nodai professor, and the resort history shows how the exuberance of the Bubble laid a poor foundation for the past two decades. Its name refers to its green mission and its uto*pia*n ambitions.

3. Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial, which describes itself as “350 artworks, deployed in communities, rice fields, vacant houses and closed schools, are the fruit born from the collaboration and exchanges between rural locality and city, artist and satoyama, and young and old.” A Niigata Art Triennial director spoke with our group outside Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (see Nodai Trip, part 4, for more on this installation and Niigata Art Triennial).

Nodai Students in front of Niigata Dream House

The trip also included a chance to speak informally with the professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and Research Fellow, plus banquets with enormous portions, visits to Japan’s giant highway rest stops, and onsen bathing.

Nodai students at trip banquet

And lastly, there was an informal lesson on making onigiri for my foreign colleague and me.

I’ll post more photos and observations from the trip in the next days.

Awa Odori in Kagurazaka

As I posted yesterday, I observed the Awa Odori (阿波踊り) dance festival in Kagurazaka (神楽坂), a quiet hillside neighborhood in Shinjuku with many old buildings and known 100 years ago as an entertainment district with geishas.

The Awa Odori is a popular mid-summer festival that began in the 16th century in Tokushima in Shikoku prefecture. Fifteen or more dance troops, including all ages and children, climb up the Kagurazaka hill on the main street to the music of shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flutes, and kane bells. The dancing is broadly comedic, with exaggerated swagger suggesting drunken freedom. Lanterns line the road, and are carried by dancers.

Troops are formed by government pension workers, the local post office, neighborhood associations, schools and businesses. Despite rainfall, the dancers and large crowds of onlookers were enthusiastic. The lyrics according to Wikipedia are:

踊る阿呆に (Odoru ahou ni) The dancers are fools
見る阿呆 (Miru ahou) The watchers are fools
同じ阿呆なら (Onaji ahou nara) Both are fools alike so
踊らな損、損 (Odorana son, son) Why not dance?

There is also a call and response that reminded me of other street festivals, particularly the omatsuri (お祭) when portable shrines (omikoshi, お神輿) are carried through the streets. The words are without meaning but coordinate the movement: “Yattosa, yattosa”, “Hayaccha yaccha” and “Erai yaccha, erai yaccha”, “Yoi, yoi, yoi, yoi”.

Street festivals, by occupying public streets and bringing the community together to celebrate, seem a central part of Tokyo Green Space. By bringing together workers, students, kids, elderly, business owners, neighbors and tourists, street festivals connect people to history and each other.

I was reminded of a similar mix of public celebration and history the following night when I attended the Sumida River fireworks (hanabi, or はなび). It was startling how many young people wore traditional yukata and geta (well, some of them accessorized the old with flip flops or high heels).

Kids dancing at Awa Odori Kagurazaka

The last weekend of August, there is an even bigger Awa Odori in Koenji. Please click the link below to see more videos and still photos of the Kagurazaka event.

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