Imperial Palace

Viewing Tokyo from within the gates of the Imperial Palace

marunouchi_view_from_imperialpalace_emperor_birthday

皇居の中から、丸の内を見るのは不思議な感じがします。前年、二回、皆が入ることができます。

A strange feeling to be leaving the Emperor’s home after his birthday address, with a view of the Marunouchi and Tokyo Station district from inside the imperial gates. The public is invited inside only twice a year.

Pine trees and lawn create a silent landscape

皇居の前に、黒松がたくさんあって、芝生は広いです。空っぽな感じがします。こんなに完璧な芝生を見ると、使われている有害な農薬のことを考えてしまいます。活気のない印象があります。

On the East Side of the Imperial Palace, there are hundreds of black pine trees in a vast field of lawn. Although the surrounding streets are full of cars, there’s an eery silence and emptiness in the park. Maybe it’s also the perfect quality of the lawn that also strikes me as life-less and full of harmful chemicals.

At Imperial Palace, few landscape elements create grand exterior

いつも自分の庭に新しい植物をもってきます。皇居の近くで、数は少ないけれど大きな規模に感動しました。松と水と石は本当に素敵です。

As a gardener, I am a maximalist with my own small space. Approaching the Imperial Palace from the Marunouchi business district, I am struck by the grandeur of using few elements at an enormous scale. Pine, water, and stone.

Mini pine forest outside Japan Supreme Court

Miniature pine forest outside Japan Supreme Court. In 1970s, traditional garden joined Brutalist architecture. Would love to see traditional garden with urban forest today.

最高裁判所の外にすてきな松の小さな森がある。70年代に日本庭園とブルータリスム建築は一緒になった。将来は日本庭園と都市の森は一緒になれるかな。

Walking in Chiyoda-ku opposite the Imperial Palace, I saw this forest of beautiful stunted pine trees above a stone wall. At eye level, there appear to be hundreds of carefully twisted pines whose canopy is less than one meter from the ground. Behind this gorgeous sea of needles is the Supreme Court of Japan (最高裁判所), a 1974 Brutalist concrete building that won awards for its architect Shinichi Okada.

I love the stone wall and the pine forest. In my dream, the once avant-guarde building could regain its ぷprominence by using the concrete structure to support a dense urban forest on its walls and roof. The wildness of the forest hill would contrast nicely with the austere pine forest serving as a formal moat to this newly enlivened public building. The contrast would be magnificent.

While I love the chaos of DIY gardens and the lushness of urban forests, there is also room for traditional Japanese gardens and techniques in the urban landscape, particularly around important public buildings. The contrast between heavily manipulated and more natural landscapes is a new concept at which Tokyo can excel.

 

Crow melon and Imperial Palace pruning

 

Walking around the Imperial Palace recently, I noticed what look like roma tomatoes growing on a wall. This vine is a famous weed called “crow melon” (カラス・ウリ). Apparently, it gets its name because it provides food for crows. The plants seems as resilient and citified as its avian namesake.

On the same walk, we noticed a boat in the Imperial Palace moat with guys using a small net to pick up leaves. Perhaps the trees above were pruned, and some fell into the moat. The meticulousness of the moat cleaning makes an interesting contrast for the untamed wildness of the crow melon vine and its avian companions.

Cherry madness starts early in Shinjuku Gyoen

Today was a gloriously sunny day with a warm breeze, and I found myself in Shinjuku Gyoen. Plenty of young families sprawled out on the lawn, with small kids playing ball. There’s a glorious magnolia pair near the entrance, but already the senior citizen, photo hobbyists brought out the big equipment to take photos of the early cherry trees.

Did you know that Shinjuku Gyoen has twelve species of cherry? And that they bloom from late February into mid April? There’s a very educational chart. I believe the one above is Prunus x kanzakura (カンザクラ、寒桜). If so, it’s about one to two weeks behind the schedule.

Not sure if I will be brave enough to return to Shinjuku Gyoen during peak cherry season when literally millions of people fill the park. Here’s my favorite photo from last year’s cherry season: a salaryman perched precariously on the Imperial Palace moat’s rail to snap a photo with his cellphone.

What’s your favorite place for cherry blossom viewing? Famous spots or neighborhood spots? What’s the most unlikely place you’ve seen cherry madness?

New Year Poetry Reading at Imperial Palace

On Thursday, the Imperial Palace hosted a formal New Year Poetry Reading, with this year’s theme being “light” (hikari). On this very formal occasion, the Emperor and Empresses read poems about walking in the gardens of their palace, the Crown Princess about walking in her garden in Akasaka, and the Crown Prince on seeing the sunlight from the top of Mount Fuji.

I was impressed by this very ritualized event celebrating the beauty of nature, the love of gardening, and the feelings evoked by the seasons. Although this blog most often celebrates ordinary peoples’ gardening efforts, this event reminds me that gardening in Japan permeates high society, artists and regular citizens, and is expressed in ritualized events and daily life.

Called waka, they are short poems of 31 syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. The poems capture natural beauty that is both refined and open to anyone, regardless of palace ownership. Images include sunlight, trees, ponds, paths, grass, with feelings evoked by seasons and the time of day.

After the jump, I have included this year’s poems in English translation and Japanese (romanji).

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Reclaiming streets beyond pedestrian heaven

Ginza pedestrian heaven

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.

Ginza pedestrian heaven

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.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/18/BA7G19O9P4.DTL

http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/07/17/san-jose-and-guerrero-plaza-could-mark-triumph-over-deadly-traffic/

http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/09/08/san-franciscos-two-newest-trial-plazas-nearly-complete/

http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/08/31/eyes-on-the-street-timber-san-joseguerrero-plaza-gets-tree-stumps/

http://sfpavementtoparks.sfplanning.org/

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.

Suntory Midorie

Suntory Midorie

Recently I visited Suntory Midorie‘s showroom in Aoyama. The entrance vertical green wall with their company name was most impressive in terms of plant diversity and aesthetics. There are also about ten other designs showing the variety of looks they can create with wood frames and internal pump and watering system.

Suntory Midorie system

Suntory Midorie has created these indoor walls for offices, malls, cafes, airport lounges, and hair salons in Tokyo and Osaka. The systems use artificial planting material (half the weight of soil), hydroponic systems automated with pumps and timers, with water collecting at the base. The water drips from top to bottom once a week, and Suntory Midorie provides monthly maintenance to its corporate clients.

Suntory Midorie roof

In addition to these framed walls, Suntory Midorie also makes a horizontal roof top system that’s been used by Mitsui on an office tower near the Imperial Palace to mitigate the heat island effect and lower air conditioning costs. Suntory Midorie has done some exterior green walls, for a cafe, a hotel pool area, and a group of Shibuya vending machines.

Suntory Midorie home

A miniature system of small indoor frames, with no mechanical system, is sold online for residences and marketed as something young girls might enjoy taking care of. Suntory Midorie was founded in March 2008, and became independent of  its beverage manufacturer parent company Suntory in April 2009.

Ginza Honey Bee Project

Ginza Honey Bee Project, cropped poster

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.

Ginza Honey Bee Project label

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.

Ginza Honey Bee Project honeycomb

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.

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Meeting Tase Michio 田瀬理夫

Tase Michio, Umeki, and me in front of Tase's Tokyo studio

This week I had the amazing opportunity to meet one of my landscape design heroes, Tase Michio (田瀬理夫) of Plamtago. He has created urban architecture and a green business that bring native plants and habitats to urban areas. His most famous work is the 1995 Acros Fukuoka building, a 15 story lush hillside on top of a downtown office building. More recently, he provided the creative direction for 5bai Midori, a Tokyo company that brings “satoyama” (里山) or a slice of rural Japan into urban areas through a modular 5-sided system.

With a shock of grey hair, Tase sensei is patient with visitors, provocative and without pretense. Born 60 years ago in Ichigaya, Tokyo, not far from his current Plamtago home office, Tase says he has been monitoring the natural environment of Tokyo since his childhood. His view is that urban land use is worse today than in the 1970s. And despite the success of Acros Fukuoka, which looks fuller and more wild after 14 years of growth, Tase is disappointed that there have been no other high rises incorporating bio-diversity into their architecture.

Tase Michio's Acros Fukuoka

Tase describes his work as “Passive Architecture & Active Landscape with Nature.” For cities, he aims to increase the number of plant species, slow rainfall and filter it before it reaches rivers and bays, create healthy wildlife habitats, and improve the soil. I was struck that he sees as urban eco-system indicators tiny ticks, which reflect good soil and perhaps small animals, and also hawks. Ticks and at least one hawk reside in the forest of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.

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Nature in central Tokyo

Chidorigafuchi moat near Budo-kan

In the center of Tokyo, it is possible to be on a row boat and feel removed from the built environment. This is Chidorigafuchi moat near legendary concert hall Budo-kan, on the northwest side of the Imperial Palace. Chidorigafuchi is very famous for cherry blossom viewing (hanami), and practically deserted on this beautiful spring day.

Chidorigafuchi moat, Chiyoda

Real estate ecology

Mitsubishi Estates Heat Island District Plan

Mitsubishi Estates, one of Japan’s largest real estate companies, has created a comprehensive plan for the downtown business district of Otemachi-Marunouchi-Yurakucho, where it owns one third of the land.

Mitsubishi Estates’ size and ecological principles lead the company to think beyond the scale of individual buildings. District heating, cooling and hot water systems provide energy efficiency for 65 buildings. Rooftop greening lowered summer temperatures 25 degrees celsius compared with concrete slab roofs, mitigating the heat island effect. Other efforts to lower the summer temperatures include sidewalk sprinklers, street trees, vertical gardens, and permeable sidewalks and roadways.

Mitsubishi Estates Marunouchi properties

I am impressed that Mitsubishi Estates is not only improving the environment and efficiency of its own buildings, but taking a leading role in improving the city’s environment. Working on the district level, Mitsubishi Estates relates their greening efforts to a larger goal of using their district to connect cooler breezes from Tokyo Bay across the office towers and into the Imperial Palace grounds and other parts of central Tokyo.

Flower power

Salary man taking keitai sakura photo at Imperial Palace

Spring in Tokyo reminds you of the power that flowers have to capture human imagination. Cherry blossom viewing, which has its own name in Japanese, hanami (花見), draws people to socialize outdoors, drinking and eating on blue tarps with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.

The power of cherry blossoms (or sakura, 桜) even inspires acts of seeming recklessness. In the photo above, an older salary man is perched precariously above the Imperial Palace moat in his quest to take a close-up photo with his cellphone (or ketai).

As an anthropologist and foreigner in Japan, it is also striking to me how specific flower devotion in Japan is. On a hanami stroll, I noticed this beautiful yellow flowering bush called yamabuki, literally “mountain spray.” I have never seen it on either coast in the United States; an internet search gives its English name “kerria.” Despite the crowds in the Tokyo park, I felt that I alone was giving this flower some attention.

Yamabuki in Narita Higashi, Tokyo

At the end of this month, Good Day Books in Ebisu, will be hosting an author’s reading with Enbutsu Sumiko. Her Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo offers 40 walks in Tokyo focusing on seasonal flowers in various parks and gardens.

Enbutsu Sumiko, Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo