I often tell people that Tokyo’s urban life is wonderful in spite of city planning. On the one hand, this view valorizes the activities of everyday people in making public spaces alive with plants, care, and community. On the other hand, it also expresses a resignation that city leaders cannot or will not improve city life.
Recently I attended TEDxSeeds at Yokohama’s restored port. In addition to wonderful historic buildings that are preserved and reused, the entire port area has a revitalized public park and waterfront promenade. One of the most spectacular public places is the undulating rooftop park above the International Ferry Terminal, designed by London’s Foreign Office Architects; in Japanese it’s called Osanbashi.
This is a bold example of creating a new open space that combines commerce (the business of loading and unloading passenger ships) with a place for residents and visitors to stroll and relax on the waterfront. I heard one Yokohama resident refer to the building as “the whale” building because of its curvy surface.
If Tokyo city leaders thought big, what kind of new public spaces could be created here? How could some of its past be made visible and accessible today? What natural resources could be reclaimed with great architecture and some vision? It seems in terms of city planning that Japan’s other cities are more dynamic and more forward-looking than its capital.
On a drizzly day last week, I met an English landscape architect and her architect husband at Canal Cafe on the Soto-bori moat (外濠) at Iidabashi station. I often pass this moat riding the Chuo and Sobu JR trains, but it was lovely to have a meeting alongside the water. The birds seemed happy in the light rain. (UPDATE: The birds are cormorants, or in Japanese u (鵜). They are fish-eaters).
We had a long conversation about conservation agriculture and energy efficient, low-income housing. After enjoying the moat, we took a walk through Kagurazaka and explored its many alleys. I love this neighborhood, and it’s fun to see this historic entertainment district during the day. I love how inward focused the bars and restaurants are, with straw blinds and plants preserving privacy for their customers.
Approaching by foot or by car, you would not know that up ahead is one of Tokyo’s most famous historic landmarks, Nihonbashi (日本橋, or literally Japan Bridge). During Edo, it was an important wooden bridge in the center of the capital. Today, Japan’s highway network uses the bridge as the zero mile marker.
Despite its landmark status, the 1911 stone bridge is obscured by the elevated freeway. When I visited, I saw a pair of elderly Japanese tourists taking photos of themselves with the bridge. The many pedestrians and the speeding cars on street and freeway level showed no signs of recognition that this space was special.
Like many of Tokyo’s rivers, what could be natural habitat and urban attraction has become dead space. Apart from one outdoor hotel cafe, the neighboring buildings face away from the river, freeway, pillars, and exhaust.
I do not imagine these six old shop buildings in Shibuya will remain much longer: they are shuttered and covered in nets, undoubtedly waiting for demolition. It is sad that there is so little historic memory in Shibuya.
Next to Tsukishima is Tsukudajima, a tiny island that escaped the earthquake, war and high rise redevelopment. While not all of the houses have been preserved, the scale and and small alleys have been. Walking there today, you can see residents still fishing, visit a beautiful old shrine Sumiyoshi Jinja, buy tsukudani (fish boiled in miso sauce) from Edo-era stores, and attend annual obon and omatsuri festivals.
This August there will be a special omatsuri festival that happens only once every 50 years. See the government website for more information: http://tsukuda.chuo.tokyo.jp/
More photos after the jump.