Wide canal packed with with boats, bridges, elevated highways, and a trace of pre-industrial Edo



I love this canal view, the layers of visible history in buildings, and the wide water that evokes pre-industrial Edo life. Even the regrettable additions, like the elevated freeways, show how Tokyo constantly evolves not through great design but by continual addition to what was already there.

There is so much transportation infrastructure on this wide canal in Shibaura Ichome. I also love how the small post-war house at the corner has been built up over the years with additions, and then surrounded by a taller modernist office and more recent, larger buildings that are more about function than form. There’s something very calming about seeing this large expanse of water, and a view of how Tokyo became layered with new structures over time.

Recreating Edo style in Tokyo Station food shop



From shop staff uniform to packaging, this “ekiben” shop in Tokyo Station does a great job of evoking Edo history for today’s train travelers.


Old grove on Nodai campus


Like all of Tokyo, the Nodai campus seems to be in a state of constant demolition and reconstruction. I like how they have preserved this old grove of tall trees that remind you that this Agricultural school has a one hundred plus year history as a center of innovation and learning.

Thousands of tulips at Netherlands Embassy open house


Showing off 11,000 tulips specially planted, the Netherlands Embassy opens its gardens to the public on April 13 and 14. I was fortunate to go the first day, and see the splendid varieties of color, height, and shape before the rains started.

One of Tokyo’s oldest and most renowned garden maintenance firm expertly selected dozens of hybrids, created a grand walkway, and also integrated tulips into the main garden of the residence. Planning extended the season as long as possible, which I heard is about three weeks.

Amidst all the bright colors in this grand setting, I felt like I was in a mini-Keukenhof crossed with Gatsby’s home in West Egg. We caught a glimpse of two chefs working in the kitchen, which made me think this diplomatic outpost with 400 years of history is not so far from Downton Abbey.

If you have a chance, please go today, or in the fall on Culture Day when both the residence and garden are open to the public.

Rose and fujibakama evoke West and Japan


In my balcony garden, I like juxtaposing plants that evoke different places. Here is a late-blooming pink rose, originally from Asia yet cultivated extensively in Europe, along with fujibakama, one of Japan’s seven fall flowers. Mixing forms, colors, and histories make even the smallest garden fun.

Dutch embassy opens its doors for Culture Day


On Japan’s Culture Day, the Dutch Embassy in Tokyo opened the doors to its magnificent ambassador’s residence and garden. Hundreds of locals took advantage of this rare inside look. It reminded me that many of Tokyo’s greatest green spaces are in private hands or inaccessible to the public like the Imperial Palace.

It’s fantastic that the Netherlands embassy opens their diplomatic outpost to the public twice a year. The house was initially designed in the 1880s and rebuilt after the 1923 earthquake. Although some say the style is “colonial,” the building reminds me of upper class residences in the United State’s northeast. From some angles, I could imagine Gatsby throwing a large garden party.

The garden is a fantastic mix of towering pines and other trees, a pleasantly irregular lawn, and a mix of traditional Japanese garden plants with plenty of imports like roses. Within this well maintained garden, I was pleased to see Tokyo’s native palm tree, the shuro, which easily self-sows and carries a history of being used for centuries in domestic life, as brooms, roofing, and sandals.

The visit also reminded me of the centuries of Dutch-Japanese history. This year I visited Dejima in Nagasaki, the sole foreign trading post during the centuries when Japan remained otherwise closed to the world. The visit conjured scenes of trading ships, cultural emissaries, and globalization in its earlier stages.

Dahlia reminds me of San Francisco


Plants and especially flowers trigger memories. Recently lilacs were blooming in Tokyo, and it reminded me of childhood and my grandmother who was a garden hobbyist in Maryland. I tweeted about it, and heard from a friend about the memories she has of a lilac bush by a childhood bedroom. Seeing hostas in my in-laws’ garden reminds me of the suburban neighborhood of my childhood. Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons, and anemone evoke a Tea Trade era of Anglophilic commerce and class in the United States’ Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

Dahlias remind me of San Francisco, where it is the city flower. I love the huge variety and outrageous colors. And its interesting history of being first discovered in Mexico and then bred in the Netherlands. This red and white specimen was exquisite when I bought it and for another week. The number of blooms and buds was astounding. Not surprisingly, two weeks after buying this dahlia, the remaining buds refuse to open and I wonder if the plant will live even one more month.

I bought this plant at Shimachu, a large home center. Their plants always seems pumped up for sale. Unfortunately because of the proximity to my apartment (very bike-able) and low prices, I often buy from there. It’s a guilty pleasure similar to eating fast food.

Country roads leave traces in modern Tokyo

荷造りひもがこの大きな木を支えているのでしょうか? 東京に旧道の名残りがあります。

Do you think this twine can stabilize such a massive tree? Traces of an old country road in Tokyo.

Parallel to many elevated expressways and train lines are the vestiges of old country roads, some of which date back to Edo times. On last month’s @ArchitourTokyo bike tour of Suginami (and bordering areas), Linus Yng took me on some roads where you can sense the past and how the city has changed. This road is at once very wide and sparsely used. Another indication of the street’s age is the wonderful old tree whose canopy extends to the other side of the street.

I love the two recent additions to this tree: a bench provided by a neighbor, and the plastic twine around the trunk. Do you think this twine can stabilize such a massive tree?

Rivers in western Tokyo


Along three western Tokyo rivers you can see Edo history, green corridors, and flood control.

On Linus Yng’s @ArchitourTokyo Western Tokyo bike exploration, we passed three contrasting rivers. The first is a view of the Kanda (神田川) from Yamate Dori (山手道り), with Nishi Shinjuku in the background. Many people have explained to me that the deep channeling is designed to prevent flooding. But it seems nonsensical to me that the entire river, include its bed, must be hard surface with no plant life. Closer to the skyscrapers, I regularly bike along the Kanda at night on the way to my favorite sento, and often hear ducks and other birds. It’s amazing how resilient urban wildlife is, despite our worst actions.

The second image is one of the few remaining, visible portions of the Tamagawa josui (玉川上水). Both the Kanda and the Tamagawa josui were human constructed canals built during the early Edo period to direct fresh water to the castle in the center of Tokyo. This was a massive project with 50 kilometers of canal dug through woodlands, at some points up to 18 meters below ground. This project supplied freshwater to the city, and turned the outer woodlands into productive farm land.

The last image is of the Zenpukuji River (善福寺川), which like the Kanda begins at a natural spring, and flows into the city center. This river has been turned into a very attractive park and green corridor running through much of Suginami. I was fascinated that many recreational facilities, including baseball fields and tennis courts, also serve as flood reservoirs. You can see how the water will flow directly into the sunken sports area in the photo at the bottom.

Architecture bike tour with Linus Yng: First stop, space cube residence


Why is cool Tokyo modern architecture devoid of urban biodiversity?

I recently took Linus Yng’s wonderful bike tour of (mostly) Suginami, with a few detours in Setagaya. I highly recommend exploring Tokyo on a bike with this Swedish graduate student in architecture. His tours combine visits to notable contemporary buildings, and a broad understanding of Tokyo’s history, topography, planning, edges, forgotten spaces, and endless complexity.

I’ll be running a series of posts sharing what I learned on this 3 hour ride. There were so many interesting designs, so many traces of country roads and Edo canals, and some surprises along the way. Today’s post looks at a remarkable small residence, designed by Yamashita Yasuhiro of Atelier Tekuto, our first stop.

I am amazed that in Tokyo, people are able and willing to pay for innovative small residences that stand out from the vast majority of large and small buildings that are built rather than designed. I love how futuristic this house is, and wonder what it’s like to live inside.

Yet from a biodiversity and neighborly perspective, I am very skeptical of this project. It seems all the more ironic when I read the Design Boom interview that states the architect “creates his architecture based on the system of society, the environment and the function.” Although the neighboring buildings suffer from a lack of design, I admire how social they are in terms of informal gardens.

I wonder why this designed residence is so void of plants. Perhaps the owner has no interest in plants. Yet, I wonder if the architect could not have specified some low maintenance, high impact plantings that would have brought life to the building. Perhaps architects don’t want organic material interfering with the shapes and lines they create. Given how street gardens are so uniquely Tokyo, I think this architect, like many others, has missed a big opportunity to re-imagine public green space and sociability.

Orange tree by the Kanda River

A documentary television producer from Canada contacted me about filming an episode for their History Channel show about the history of sanitation in the world’s great cities called “Trasholopolis.” I was flattered that they had read this blog and my articles, and want to include me in their Tokyo episode.

I have posted the Kanda paper that was presented at the International Federation of Landscape Architects conference (co-authored with Matthew Puntigam and Professor Suzuki Makoto of Tokyo University of Agriculture). But I realize that I didn’t have a good size image of the Kanda from Nakano Fujimichio, with an orange tree in the foreground and the skyscrapers of Nishi Shinjuku in the background.

Squeezing mini-creek into San Francisco sidewalk

I am amazed by this illustration of how to squeeze a mini-creek into a San Francisco sidewalk (from the wonderful Streetsblog). Faced with an aging sewage infrastructure at risk of failure, San Francisco’s water utility is experimenting with bold, low-impact designs, including green roofs, daylighted creeks, rain barrels, and permeable pavement.

The obstacles to this change are enormous. For decades, urban water management has meant removing green space and channeling water into treatment plants. But if successful, mini-creeks and urban watersheds can significantly reduce sewage discharge to the city’s bay and rivers, with estimates ranging from 28% reduction to 91% reduction in water pollution.

In addition to the functional benefits of reduced pollution, mini-creeks will add beauty to what are now life-less streets, and attract wildlife and nature. Restoring creeks will provide a greater connection to the natural environment and urban history.

Newsweek Japan に私の書評が出ました。「江戸時代に学ぶエコライフ」(日本語)

Newsweek Japan に私の書評が出ました。「江戸時代に学ぶエコライフ」

Newsweek Japan published in Japanese my book review of Azby Brown’s Just Enough. Please see my review in the Huffington Post for a (slightly longer) English version.

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.


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.


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?


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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Firefly habitat in Okayama

Firefly habitat in Okayama

During an October visit to Okayama, a friend stumbled upon an amazing firefly habitat in Nishigawa park, a small canal with a lovely walking path cutting through the center of the city. Although now hatching below water, as the sign above shows, it was amazing to see how a city creats an urban habitat for fireflies. And it reminds me of Professor Suzuki Makoto’s firefly project in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

Okayama firefly habitat

The firefly habitat occupies one long block of the Nishigawa park, which has different walkways, seating areas and plant arrangements on each block. For fireflies, there is a small slow-flowing, side canal where the fireflies hatch on the opposite side of the wood bridge from the main canal. A huge wall of vegetation provides nocturnal darkness and protection.

Firefly habitat in Okayama

I am curious how long the park has been around, and what it is like during summer firefly season.

More on Nishigawa park after the jump.

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