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An old danchi housing from the 1950s being replaced with “The Garden Residence”

garden_residence3_nakano

家の近くで、古い団地が新しいマンションに建て替えられています。Garden Residenceという英語の名前はありふれていると思います。

A large parcel in my neighborhood is being excavated for a new housing project, called “The Garden Residence.” Who doesn’t like gardens, but couldn’t they have come up with a more unique name? I am curious what landscape will be visible to the neighbors.

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Making bonsai pots at Shiho

史火の教室で盆栽用の植木鉢を作っています。

In the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear crisis, it seems many have retreated into their homes and offices. Now more than ever is the time to go outside, interact with neighbors, and support your local small businesses in Tokyo: restaurants, vegetable shops, artisans, and creative studios.

I started making a series of bonsai pots at the ceramic studio Shiho. Here’s the basic process:

Step 1: Create shapes. Form clay into a block, slice off slabs, place slabs around molds covered in cheese cloth, remove, and let sit to harden.

Step 2 (between 2 days and 2 weeks after creating shapes): Trim the tops and sides. Add holes and channels for drainage. Carve name in bottom.

Step 3: First firing.

Step 4: Add glaze. I will leave each pot partly unglazed to show off the clay.

Step 5: Second firing.

The whole process may take 6 to 8 weeks, depending on the studio’s firing schedule and my free time.

Small green spots in Nihonbashi

Small green spaces in Nihonbashi include the Kabuto shrine and anonymous wall gardens.

日本橋の小さな緑。兜神社と名前の知らない庭です。とてもいいですよ。

In addition to a few historic corporate and government landscapes, Nihonbashi also has small shrines and anonymous micro-gardens. Canada’s Discovery History program filmed me talking about these locations. By accident, I stumbled upon a small Shinto shrine called Kabuto. It stands between a building covered in scaffolding and multiple elevated freeways just east of Edobashi bridge. It’s also across the street from the Bubble-era Tokyo Stock Exchange. Just behind it is the river.

Kabuto means samurai helmet. The shrine lends its name to the surrounding area. At the entrance are simple wood doors with the kanji for “kabuto” etched. The shrine seems very well maintained, and I wonder if those responsible for the shrine are the current business neighbors or descendants of generations of shrine keepers. I wonder, too, if the shrine used to be larger and better connected to the river. Now it seems almost swallowed up by the man-made environment on three side and from above.

It’s interesting that while the Tokyo Station area is full of new towers and multinational corporations, there are also still some small alleys and low buildings that provide a glimpse of the past. I found this curious sidewalk garden outside a five-story building that houses a reflexology clinic, a ramen shop, accountants, and probably a residence on top.

Here’s the list of tenants and the old entrance door. The garden is simple, well-cared for, and a cheerful sight in a densely packed area.

Paris japonica has the world’s longest genome

Especially relevant now that the world is focusing on biodiversity with the COP 10 conference in Nagoya, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens has identified Paris japonica as having the world’s longest genome sequence, fifty times greater than the human genome.

Scientific American reports that plants with more DNA take longer to grow and to reproduce, making them especially endangered. This sub-alpine canopy plant has only seven known habitats in the world. More details in the September 2010 issue of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

I wonder if my United States readers know that our country is the only one of 193 countries that did not sign the 1993 Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biodiversity, and has only observer rather than voting status at this month’s Nagoya COP 10 conference.

(Thank you, Christophe, for sending me this news story. With the mutual French-Japanese attraction, this plant has a charmed name as well as a 100 meter genome strand).

Baby bitter melon in September typhoon

Today’s mild typhoon is a welcome relief after more than six weeks of record-breaking heat and absolutely no rain in central Tokyo. I was getting worried about the street trees and all the “independent” plant life that survives in Tokyo without human care.

For some reason, the bitter melon I planted by seed in April only recently started climbing like crazy. Here’s an image of a baby bitter melon in the rain, with its flower still attached. Hope to eat some in a few weeks.

Did you know that Japanese typhoons are not given names like in the United States? Today’s typhoon is simply 10W.

Elaborate sidewalk garden includes plant labels and stools

This Shinjuku ni-chome sidewalk garden is exceptional in its size, care, and labeling. The gardener lives in a former shop in an old building on what is now a busy entertainment district. From the sidewalk, you can see what appears to be merchandise, t-shirts and a few dress shirts, in the front room open to the street.

The gardener and his wife are often visible in the inner room which is partly visible. This type of retail/residential architecture is very Tokyo mid-century, and there are examples in many neighborhoods of former shop owners living in these spaces, some with remnants of their former businesses.

What I love about this sidewalk garden is the gardener’s obvious care and attention to creating a display of many plants. Nearly all of the pots rests on stools or low tables, with the highest ones closest to the road and the lower ones facing pedestrians on the sidewalk.

I am also amazed that the plants are all labeled, even the most obvious ones such as “rose” (バラ). I asked the older man why he labeled them, and he said that people often ask him and he doesn’t always remember the plant name.

The other amazing thing about the garden is just how big it is. There is easily more than one hundred plants. In addition to cover five meters or more in front of his building and his neighbors, he also expanded to an equally large area across the street. He is often outside watering and taking care of the plants.

I admire this gardener’s love for plants, his colonizing public space, and adding beauty in a crowded neighborhood.

Flowering volunteer

This plant in the foreground arrived on its own to my balcony container garden, and now it is flowering. The flowers look like peas, and the plant is growing vigorously with a nice cascading shape. Does anyone know the name of this plant?

In gardening, the unplanned is often the most intriguing. I wonder if the seed came in the wind, in the soil of another purchased plant, or by bird droppings. Even a small artificial ecosystem can take on a life of its own.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Encouraged by my host Suzuki Makoto sensei at Tokyo University of Agriculture, I recently visited the Edo Gardening Flowers exhibit being held at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art until November 26,2009. The exhibit has spectacular colorful wood block prints showing flowers and plants in a variety of urban settings including kimonos, at festivals, commercials nurseries, educational materials, Kabuki actors, and Noh dramas.

The exhibit theme is that the Edo period experienced a “gardening culture” in which a passion for gardens and flowers permeated all social classes, including court nobles, shoguns, feudal lords and the common people. According to the catalogue, “the Japanese people’s passion to flowers surprised the American botanist Robert Fortune as seen in his diary upon his visit to Japan in the late Edo period.”

An interesting comparison is also made between between the widespread practice of Edo gardening and also the interest of common people in wood block prints. It is wonderful to see the use of flowers and plants in both high culture realms and in depictions of everyday life during the Edo period.

Two of my favorite prints are collections of plants used by children to learn the names of flowers. The one below, from the back cover of the exhibit catalog, has the names in hiragana. The exhibit also includes Edo era ceramic plant pots.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Some more images after the jump, and also a list of plants seen in the wood block prints.

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