Tokyo looks more magical at night. Walking across the Sumida River after seeing a sumo tournament, we admired the retro modern view of the bridges, elevated freeways, railway tracks, and inky black river. Even Sky Tree, the latest addition to this skyline, projects a futuristic image that is oddly familiar.
The green neon marks the Kanda river’s last bridge before joining the Sumida river. This river starts at Inokashira park in Kichijoji, west of where we live and winds for 26 kilometers before joining the Sumida and flowing into Tokyo Bay. A few years ago, I co-wrote an article about the Kanda river’s history and potential for new urbanism in Tokyo. You can download the 6 MB document in PDF form here.
At the bottom, you can see that there are still pleasure boats parked at the bottom of the Kanda for river dining and drinking. I’ve never been on these smaller boats.
Biking up the Kanda river to Kichijoji, I was surprised to see hundreds of yellow irises blooming in the river bed. I wish there was more access to the water, but seeing these bright flowers draws my attention to what else might be living and growing in the river.
Honeysuckle is such a sweet, if sometimes rampant vine. It’s not so common in Tokyo. When I smelled this one, I stopped my bike for a few minutes along the Kanda river.
On my third trip to Shibaura, I discovered that there is one canal that provides wonderful, up-close access to water. It’s the first canal when entering from the JR Yamanote station. There’s even paths below the bridges and just above the water. On a drizzly afternoon, it was magical to be below the roadway.
Most of Tokyo’s rivers are buried, and the few remaining ones, including much of the Kanda and Zenpukuji rivers, are channeled 10 meters below street level to manage flooding. Sometimes I hear ducks echoing in these canyons, but the distance between people and water is a missed opportunity.
At the Shibaura canal, I found a tiny canal opening that seems to do pre-date the more recent developments. I like the old stones at the entrance. All that’s missing from this canal is space to get your feet wet, or even go in for a swim.
A very strong typhoon is passing Tokyo and heading towards Tohoku. High winds and heavy rain shut down Tokyo’s trains and the bullet service to Osaka.
Recently, Mukunoki Ayumi gave me a tour of Kuboco, the construction and roof garden company where she works in Shitamachi. She graduated from Nodai, where I am a research fellow. The meeting took place thanks to Edgy Japan‘s Yanigasawa Hiroki. I immediately recognized the building when I spotted the incredible wisteria that is trellised across one building and climbs to the top of the adjoining 8 story building, where it provides rooftop shade on a trellis structure. Mukunoki-san told me that the vine is just eight years old and very vigorous!
Kuboco designs roof gardens and vertical gardens for commercial and retail buildings as well as residences. Since they are a construction company, they are able to combine garden design and maintenance with structural engineering, water-proofing, and retrofitting trellises for vines and vertical gardens onto older buildings.
Mukunoki-san reports seeing a shift from roof lawns to vegetables in Tokyo. She attributes this to customers wanting less maintenance and greater value from their outdoor spaces. Kabuco has roof gardens on both of its buildings, one a more social space and the other full of experiments with soil depth and new vegetables. Kuboco is very hands-on in providing advice about how to build roof gardens and what to grow. Mukunoki-san explained that last summer she grew tumeric because one of her clients wanted to grow it. On my visit, I saw blueberries, carrots, onions, parsley and other food on their demonstration gardens, and admired how they are testing out what can grow in 5, 10, 20, and 25 cm deep soil boxes. And for a while Kuboco’s roof garden provides fresh vegetables to a local onigiri restaurant.
She also introduced me to the Japanese term for “local food”: 地産地消 (chisanchishou, locally produced and locally consumed, with the first and third kanji being the word soil).
The 8 year old wisteria looks like it’s been on this building for much longer. It blooms best when trained horizontally.
I would love to try blueberries, too. It would be so satisfying to eat fresh blueberries, rather than the supermarket ones that have travelled from as far as Chile.
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.
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.
One of the pleasures of Tokyo is discovering small gems that are unexpected. Arriving a few minutes early to a meeting in Akihabara last month, I stumbled upon this small shrine that faces the south side of the Kanda River near Akihabara, best known for electronics, manga, and geeks. The surrounding streetscape is a crowded jumble of 80s buildings with a few pre-war relics.
It was great to duck into the shrine, and enjoy the shade, the running water in the stone basin for ritual hand washing, the wood structures, and the quiet of a place with few visitors. Enjoying this mini oasis, I realized that all the statues involve animals with huge balls.
I recognize tanuki, but I think there are other animals, too. On second viewing, the husband pointed out that all of the figures, despite looking quite different, are tanuki. Although many shrines feature foxes (kitsune, or oinarisama), it is rare to see a shrine focused on tanuki. A placard explains that “tanuki” is a pun on words that also means “passing the other” and refers to Edo women who competed with each other to produce male heirs.
This past weekend was the International Federation of Landscape Architects World Congress in Suzhou, China. My co-author Matthew Puntigam traveled there with professors and graduate students of the Tokyo University of Agriculture, and he presented our paper co-written with Professor Suzuki Makoto.
The Kanda River connects many residential, commercial, and downtown neighborhoods before emptying into the Sumida River. We looked at the past, present and possible future of what is the longest river that originates within Tokyo. The biodiversity potential is significant: in one small section of Tokyo’s Kanda river, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s 2001 survey documented 260 plant species, 42 riverbed species, 9 types of fish, 291 types of insects, 30 bird species, 2 reptiles species, and 3 mammal species.
You can download a PDF of our paper, Biodiversity and New Urbanism in Tokyo: The Role of the Kanda River (6 MB). Your comments and questions are most welcome.