magic

Fruit tree and old home covered in thick snow

showa_home_snow_fruittree_window

柿の木と昭和時代風の窓は、大雪の下で魔法にかけられたように見えます。

The Showa-era home and its old persimmon tree I always pass on the pedestrian path look magical under thick snow.

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.

Continue reading

Night views of cemetery and harappa

Night view of cemetery

In urban settings, shrines and the entrances to cemeteries are open all day and night. Especially at night, they provide equal doses of nature and mystery that is both within and separate from normal urban life. These long exposure photos capture some of the magical beauty of nighttime trees, plants, shadows and stones.

Night views of cemetery

This experience in a nighttime cemetery reminds me of a term I recently learned from a Tokyo University professor who works at Hakuhodo: harappa (原っぱ). Harappa is an in-between urban and wild place that traditionally allowed children a space to play and explore. It could be a meadow, a grove of trees, or an abandoned building. With ever increasing construction and denser urban lives, these liminal spaces are harder to find. Shrines function as one of the most solid barriers against total urbanization.

A small tip: I recently learned how to take crisp nighttime photos with an inexpensive digital camera. To avoid shaking and blurring from long exposures, use the timer and set the camera on a hard surface.

Fireflies in Tokyo

Fireflies, photo by Akihiro, Flickr, Creative Commons

On the Nodai trip, Suzuki sensei told me of the work he is doing with a Shinagawa school to create a firefly habitat. This summer he took a middle school class to the countryside to experience fireflies. Once there, he also told the kids that they would have to help out in a rice field– a rare experience for most city kids.

Suzuki sensei is now leading meetings with the school about creating a firefly habitat on or near the school yard at Ono Gakuen Joshichuu Gaku (小野学園女子中学). Fireflies require clean, running water, and the school has the rights to unused wells and is near a stream that has been covered in concrete for decades.

The project has a small funding from the Japanese Ministry of Education, and in addition to Nodai, other participants include school administrators, parents, firefly habitat expert and Nodai alumnus Sakurai Jun (櫻井淳), and a specialist from the Tokyo Four Seasons Hotel (Chinzan-so), which is famous for its urban firefly garden.

In Japan, fireflies are associated with agriculture and rice paddies, and is the title of a chapter of the thousand year old novel The Tale of Genji. Fireflies are also associated with the folklore of hitodama, fiery apparitions of the souls of the recently dead that trick and beguile the living.

I am very inspired by Suzuki sensei’s vision for bringing nature and magic to urban kids with firefly habitat. I wonder how many streams and canals can be daylighted, what plants will promote urban biodiversity, what insects and animals are most important for promoting wildlife in the city.

(Note: Photo by Akihiro, shared on Flickr through Creative Commons)

Aqua Forest

Aqua Forest

Led by my moss-loving friend Britton Watkins, I visited Aqua Forest, an aquarium store focused more on plants than fish. They have an amazing selection of aquatic plants, and aquariums with wonderful miniature gardens using dozens of plants, stone and wood.

Aqua forest in Shinjuku

The magic of the underwater gardens is only magnified by the strange underground mall location, Sabunado 3chome (サブナード丁目).

Meeting Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品)

Meeting Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品)

Yesterday I had the amazing fortune to meet Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品) in Jiyūgaoka, Setagaya-ku. Recognized as a leading Japanese green designer and bonsai innovator, Kobayashi-sensei has a vision for bring an appreciation of nature through caring for plants to a wide audience.

By making plants into attractive small objects, Kobayashi-sensei has succeeded in attracting many young people to his shop, studio and classroom housed in a beautiful modern building. Trays of plants line the front of the building, and a shelf has been built above the door to the entrance for additional storage. Inside is a gallery setting, where small plants are growing in elegant yet simple pots arranged with moss and stones.

Sinajina entrance

My friend Britton, who is fluent in Japanese and a moss expert, and I arrived at his shop with little notice and no expectation that Kobayashi-sensei would have time to speak with us. I was surprised by his incredible hospitality: offering us cool green tea on a hot day, and talking at length about his philosophy of plants, his background, and his craft. He was wearing a t-shirt of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Having recently visited the far more traditional Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku, I immediately noticed the difference in approach. Whereas Kobayashi Kunio takes pride in caring for plants that are hundreds of years old, Kobayashi Kenji of Sinajina is excited to work with less expensive plant materials and to create modern imaginary worlds including miniature parks, decorative animals, and contemporary landscapes.

Kobayashi told me that his background was in landscape architecture, and that he worked on some large-scale projects including Tokyo Big Sight. In 1998, he went to Portland to study with Kawamoto Toshio-sensei of Japan Bonsai. Unlike landscape architecture where the drawings on paper represent large areas in small form, he enjoyed how designing miniatures means that the plan and the execution are at the same scale. And unlike traditional bonsai which focuses on a single old tree, Kobayashi’s style is closer to saikei, miniature landscapes that can contain multiple trees and younger plants. By studying outside Japan with Kawamoto-san, he learned traditional techniques but with great freedom to imagine his own style.

Kobayashi-sensei spoke and showed us two arrangements. The one in the photo at the top is a miniature park, with the small stones representing a path, the moss bushes, and the seedlings mature trees. Another was a tiny maple tree growing at an angle from a tiny round ceramic with a clump of moss and tiny stones. In neither case had he used traditional bonsai wires, and the plants were between six months and perhaps two years old.

Sinajina contemporary bonsai

Kobayashi-sensei says that traditional bonsai craft and ownership is the domain of old and powerful men. And that many urban gardeners are older women. As we talked, he was proud that his shop attracts many young people. A green entrepreneur friend had warned me that Kobayashi’s plants are “expensive,” but the $40 to $200 cost of plant and pot is nothing compared to traditional bonsai trees that far outlast human life spans. Yet, like traditional bonsais, they are both miniature environments and objects of tremendous beauty.

Kobayashi-sensei views caring for plants as a way for urban people to connect to the environment. He says it is not enough for urban people to visit the countryside for a day and appreciate the beauty of nature. In an age of “consumerist culture” where cut flowers and plants are considered disposable, he wants to seduce young people and children to see his plants not as accessories but as part of the family, like a pet, that requires care and attention.

By sending his magical plants into homes, and at prices that (at least some) kids can afford, he wants to inspire young people to appreciate plants at a very practical level. Care for them, or they will die. Close attention will allow city dwellers to learn about plant life cycles, witness seasonal change, see growth, and actively beautify them. Kobayashi-sensei compares plants to humans in that both need some grooming to look their best– people need to cut their hair and nails, while his plants need to to be up-potted every three years, pruned, and have their roots cut back. I was startled to hear him say that a potted plant has more chance to thrive than a wild one, because in the forest plants “fight each other” for light and nutrients.

Sinajina viewed from street