One of my bike shortcuts.
Recently I brought 28 participants of the Dutch-Tokyo Still City workshop on “post-growth” urban life to Hamarikyu garden. This photo captures the simultaneity of activities inside and outside the garden: Edo-style pruning of pine trees, city dwellers enjoying traditional tea, port and luxury housing structures, even an incinerator chimney.
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.
I bike to school on Yamate Dori, one of Tokyo’s modern ring roads. It’s currently under construction and rather ugly: a freeway underground, a 6 lane road on the surface, sidewalks torn up, new and mostly undistinguishable apartment buildings. On this ride from Nakano to Shibuya, one of the highlights is glimpsing the stairs leading up to this tree-filled shrine. I stopped and found out that it is Yoyogi-Hachiman shrine. I haven’t made it up the stairs yet, but it beckons as an inviting escape from the more functional, profane city racing by it.
New town and old cities meet at this intersection.
On Linus Yng’s @ArchitourTokyo Western Tokyo bike exploration, the second stop was a fascinating corner. A wide and modern road (4 lanes, sidewalks)- Inokashira Dori (井の頭道り)- from the skyscraper district of Nishi Shinjuku meets a major ring road (6 lanes, sidewalks)- Kan-nana Dori (環七道り). The modern road dead ends into a narrow one-way street full of old sheds that must have housed many small businesses and residences in the post-war era.
I was fascinated by Linus’ explanation of how planning created these large roadways, and paradoxically preserves old neighborhoods on the edge. Although many maps show the road continuing through this neighborhood, Izumi (和泉名店街), the money and priority must have become exhausted. What you see instead is a neighborhood preserved for decades because no one will invest in improving or replacing buildings that are in a right-of-way of a possible, future major road.
In addition to the lane that runs in the center of the planned new roadway, Linus also pointed out the 10 to 15 story buildings that extend to the edge of where the road might one day be. In much of Tokyo, new buildings along major roads are often granted heights up to 15 stories, whereas the buildings behind them remain low. Tsukamoto Yoshiharu of Atelier Bow-Wow calls this the “cream puff pastry” of Tokyo urban planning, and explains that one function of these modern buildings, built to new standards, along the major roads is to provide a firebreak in this disaster-prone city.
It is amazing that for the width of the proposed road, the neighborhood is a time capsule of a Japan that was rebuilding itself rapidly after the war. I’d like to go back and explore more about who is still living there, what businesses thrived in the post-war period, and what creative re-use may be happening with these provisional buildings that were never intended to last this long.
UPDATE: Linus shared his excellent photos of this intersection with me later.
I love this giant hedge framing a modern house in Nakano. It’s even more beautiful at night, which is when we discovered it on a walk through the neighborhood.
The house is mostly concrete with wood on the second floor balconies and some bamboo as a screen for the ground floor. I love how the hedge opens up to provide an entrance to the house (and a permeable parking space). The outer hedge is then echoed by a shorter inner hedge close to the ground floor windows. On the right side, there’s a small gap and room to park a few bicycles. It’s a great combination of privacy and opening, concrete structure and plant life.
I like how the gardener has used bamboo poles to train the hedge into an arch over the entrance. It’s a simple and elegant support.
Viewed from the side, the house disappears behind the thick greenery. Usually I am a fan of much greater plant variety, but this residential garden shows how much can be achieved with a single species.
Recently I had the great fortune to meet Handa Mariko, President of the Parks and Recreation Foundation, at her office near Tokyo Tower. She explained the work she does managing fourteen national parks run by the Construction Ministry, and her role as designer of the enormous Showa Kinen park in western Tokyo, on the site of a former US military base.
Then, Handa-san took me and a senior executive of Hitachi, who kindly introduced us, to Shiba koen at the foot of Tokyo Tower. Shiba koen is a traditional Japanese garden surrounding an old sake building that houses a famous tofu restaurant called Ukai. The juxtaposition of tradition and post-war modernism, the protected pine tree and the aging metal tower is magical.
Tokyo University is hosting a symposium next month on Biodversity and Sustainability. It promises “a multi-faceted exploration of how to assess and rebuild traditionally human nature relationships into modern sustainable social systems.”
Speakers include Tokyo University professors, government leaders, and international researchers. You can see the program online (in English and Japanese) and fill out a free online registration (Japanese only). The sponsor is IR3S, or the The Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science.
On my way to price a vaccuum cleaner for our tatami floors (ended up buying at 1300 yen used vaccuum at a recycle shop), I was surprised to see this display of shimekazari at Muji, which was busy blasting Xmas music and offering holiday specials.
Shimekazari are end of the year Shinto displays for the home. They can include rice, rope, pine, and folded paper, and welcome ancestral harvest kami or spirits. Smaller ones hang on the door, and larger ones sit outside of homes and shops.
Seeing shimekazari inside Muji was an uncanny juxtaposition of Shinto shrine and modern commerce, old Japan and Xmas, agrarian and urban.
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.
A single tree standing in the entrance to a modern Tokyo house provides a marvelous contrast between the traditional and the new. The beauty of the single tree and the clean lines of the boxy concrete home create a uniquely Japanese feeling, or what I introduced recently as wafu modern (和風モダン) in relation to Kuma Kenga’s new Nezu Museum and tea house.
The intricately pruned pine tree evokes hundreds of years of Japanese garden design almost single-handedly. The pairing suggests a forward-looking aesthetic that remembers and revitalizes traditional culture elements.
From an ecological perspective, the single tree and minimal shrubs provides very little habitat. This quiet cul-de-sac suffers a typical Tokyo over-abundance of pavement, which is a certain pathway to Tokyo Bay pollution from storm runoff and an obstacle to insect and plant life that could feed and shelter bees, birds and other urban wildlife.
Still, the effect of the tree is all the more dramatic against the excess of hardscape. I also would regret if urban ecology became a quantitative calculation of efficiencies and benefits. There must be a place for not only traditional culture but also the type of human care and aesthetic appreciation manifest in this stylized pine tree.
An interesting blog post about Tokyo’s environmental paradoxes by Piers Fawkes of PSFK, organizer of the Pure Living Tokyo idea salon last month sponsored by Nissan. In a very brief visit to Tokyo, Piers captures in words and photos some of the achievements in energy efficiency and resource maximization, while also lamenting wasteful consumerism and the desire to appear modern.
Recently I had the pleasure of taking Kobayashi Kenji’s modern bonsai class at Sinajina. In addition to making my own miniature landscape with a black pine, rock and moss, I learned that gardening in October is focused on making plants beautiful for New Year’s celebrations and guests.
The class used eight year old black pine trees. First we removed all the old, longer pine needles by hand and with tweezers. We removed nearly all the old soil to replace it with a fresh mix that includes volcanic rock and to expose some of the oldest roots at the base of the trunk. Then, we examined the tree to identify its “face” and position the tree in its new pot. Finally we added moss– in my case a taller hill that passes underneath one of the roots and a lower meadow– and small rocks.
Careful attention to form and style is clearly something that extends from miniature landscapes to residential garden landscapes. I am sure that many home-owners and gardeners are pruning their trees now to make sure that they are spectacular at New Year.
I also learned how to distinguish between black pine and red pine. Black pine needles are hard, unbending and sharp, while red pine needles are much softer to touch. Only when fully mature do red pine trees exhibit the bright red trunk that also distinguishes them. Black pine trees are mostly found near the sea, whereas red pine trees grow in the mountains.
Kobayashi sensei continues to be an inspiring guide to plants in urban life. In his anthropomorphism, plants become more human, and humans more embedded in nature. Plants are like people, he explains, in that they require most care during their first year, including more water. Once domesticated, plants cannot be returned to the wild since they have lost their survival skills and require continued human care.
Garden Square is located on an enormous plot of land in a quiet residential neighborhood in Nerima, Tokyo. Most of the land looks wild, and is used by a landscaping firm as its nursery. The owner also constructed a rustic chic modern building, with a pastry shop and flower and plant shop on the first floor, and an Italian restaurant on the second floor.
The back yard has a trellised vine, which on closer inspection, turned out to be a kiwi.
Across the street is an open wood structure with more plants for sale, open to passers-by.
Unfortunately, you cannot enter the nursery area. It is strange that this huge urban space appears more like a place for growing plants than retailing them.
I am continuing to read Edward Seidensticker’s Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writing of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959 (Stanford University Press, 1965). Kafū’s writing elegantly chronicles the Tokyo seasons, festivals, street scenes, and the clash of old Edo Tokyo with modernizing forces. The passage below seems particularly relevant to my previous post about the Tsukishima omasturi, and demonstrates Kafū’s love for the Sumida River, remnants of Edo, and nostalgic sounds.
“We first waited for everyone to assemble at the Garden of the Hundred Flowers, then proceeded to the Yoaomatsu restaurant. The upstairs room to which we were shown was really too cheap and vulgar, and we asked if there might not be something better, perhaps in one of the outbuildings. It seemed, though, that all the rooms were fairly much the same, and we had to make the best of what we had. It being the night of “the late moon,” the third night after the full moon, we all set out in a boat for the Azuma Bridge. At night you cannot see the factories and bronze statues, and there is only the moon gently lighting the surface of the water, and, white in the mist beyond, the houses of Imado and Hashiba on the left. Ah, here it is, I thought, almost ready to weep– the Sumida! We put the geisha ashore at the Mimeguri Landing, and as the boat tied up at Hanakawado, the drums and flutes of a festival came across the water to us, as if opening a domestic tragedy on the Kabuki stage. And so we disbanded.” (p 66, from Tidings from Okubo)