media

First fall maple leaves turning yellow and red

This weekend we’ve had two typhoons in Tokyo. My friend laughed about this, but it’s really handy to have rain pants if you plan to bike or even walk when the wind is high. A few days ago, we were in the mountains outside of Tokyo and saw our first fall maple leaves turning yellow and red.

I am looking forward to the television weather reports that will soon be tracking the progress of fall foliage from north eastern Japan down to south western Japan. I love the media fixation on fall foliage and spring cherry blossoms, marking the season and reminding the viewer of Japan’s geography. Altitude makes a big difference, too.

COP 10 Biodiversity Conference

On Saturday I went to a symposium at Tokyo University on Biodiversity and Sustainability: Rebuilding Society in Harmony with Nature, an educational forum that precedes this year’s COP 10 biodiversity conference in Nagoya. Many knowledgeable speakers spoke, including scientists, academics, government and corporate leaders. I especially liked Todai’s IR3S director Takeuchi Kazuhiko’s succinct formulation of the satoyama human-nature balance relying on traditional knowledge, modern science, and a “new commons” or vision of shared space that transcends government, private property, and national borders.

There were, of course, many discouraging facts. I was startled to learn that a single bottle of beer consumes 300 bottles of water in production. One speaker showed a graphic of how fishmeal from all over the world is transported to Thailand’s shrimp farms, making both the production and distribution of seafood a globalized product. I also learned that the 2002 United Nations goals on preserving biodiversity had not been met by a single country as of 2010. And lastly, I heard that the 20% level of knowledge and concern about biodiversity in Japan was one of the world’s highest levels of national awareness.

Given the challenges to preserving biodiversity, I was extremely disappointed by the top-down views and assumptions of the speakers. With no audience interaction, questions, or comments, the event seemed to invite trust in the capacity of elite academics, government leaders and United Nations bureaucrats working together. When Professor Takeuchi asked at the very end what can be done to avert a catastrophic tipping point, the Coalition on Biodiversity’s Executive Secretary talked about UNESCO’s role in cultural production. A top academic then spoke about the need to involve “the media” and celebrities to raise awareness.

I was surprised that such intelligent leaders believe in the viability of a top-down approach for reshaping the global economy and land use. In this formal auditorium at Japan’s most prestigious school, it was a missed opportunity not to provide action ideas for the hundreds of attendees. And to think of the “media” as the broadcast media is to overlook the tremendous power and potential of social media and popular participation.

One speaker briefly mentioned a lake biodiversity monitoring project that included local residents, government workers, and scientists. I would like to have heard more about how urban residents can connect with nature and become advocates for protecting and expanding habitat. Tokyo Green Space has documented the passion and energy of ordinary city residents, and I believe there is much more that can be done by engaging with bird-watchers, school children, seniors, and gardeners.

Omotesando Farm

Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) at Omotesando Farm

On the first of September, Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) opened Omotesando Farm (表参道彩園), a roof-top garden rental space in a central upscale commercial and residential district. He is offering sixteen small plots at rents ranging from $170 to $250 per month (15,750 to 23,100 yen). Although community gardens exist in outer neighborhoods of Tokyo, Omotesando Farm is only the second roof-top one in central Tokyo. The other is on top of the JR Ebisu station.

Omotesando Farm

With stunning views of Shinjuku, Roppongi and Aoyama, the roof is located on a three story modern structure, next door to the Paul Smith boutique on a small back street. Because the roof is concrete, no structural changes were necessary. Iimura-san brought in special light-weight soil from a Chiba Research Center (Norin), and the same wood artisan Hirano who created Ginza Farm built the planters and deck here using untreated Japanese cedar (杉). Both are great examples of fine craftsmanship combining function, elegance, and avoidance of chemicals. On the roof perimeter, vines have been planted to cover the banister.

Omotesando Farm

Iimura-san explained several surprises in starting this new urban farming concept. He was able to quickly rent all the plots, with many responding to ads on Yahoo Japan and all registering online. Iimura-san imagined that he would attract people who live nearby and families. However, these first customers are almost all young, many couples, and most are drawn by the proximity of Omotesando Farm to their work spaces. While visiting, I spoke briefly to an older customer who lives in Saitama, but is making Omotesando Farm part of his work day. He showed off his vegetable seedlings protected with plastic bottles from the birds.

Omotesando Farm seedlings

Iimura-san estimates that 70% of his customers are female, and that 75% are new to vegetable farming. Omotesando Farms is planning to provide a coaching system, using agricultural students and/or farmers visiting on the weekends. Although Omotesando Farms does not have the public access that the street-level Ginza Farm does, there has been tremendous media attention, including newspapers, television and radio. Even Japan’s top business newspaper, the Nikkei, has written a story about Omotesando Farm. Iimura-san thinks it is because this project combines “LOHAS” (a lifestyle of health and sustainability) with a green business idea that turns wasted space into a profitable business benefiting green entrepreneurs and property owners.

Iimura-san is already planning to open several more rental garden plots early next year, in Harajuku and Chuo-ku. I wish him luck in inspiring urban residents to grow their own food and creating an urban farming business.

Omotesando Farm