Called keyaki in Japanese, these elegant trees give distinction to Tokyo’s global brand shopping street. These trees are gorgeous year-round, but especially in fall.
Walking in Omotesando, you can see the contrast between houses built before and after the 1980s. Unfortunately, most of the new houses occupy the entire lot, with no room for the sizable gardens in their pre-Bubble predecessors.
I was admiring this fragrant tree with poofy balls of yellow and white flowers on bare branches. It’s in a shallow residential garden near Omotesando Koffee. Luckily, the owner came by as I was photographing, and explained that it’s called mitsumata, because of its three branch structure.
Later, I learned it’s called paperbush in English, and it’s known for producing high quality paper, once used for Japanese bank notes. The Kew Botanic Garden website says that it originates in China and has been cultivated in Japan and Korea since the 16th century. It’s also used in Chinese medicine.
In the photo below, you can see how the newer residential styles, with sleek concrete facades, close the house from the street, and very often include no plants at all. A sad contrast for garden lovers.
I was captivated by this narrow green space between residences in Omotesando. The places between spaces have a tremendous appeal in dense Tokyo. This tiny space supports 15 meter tall bamboo, a tree shedding its leaves for winter, and the ubiquitous shuro palm tree that self-seeds throughout Tokyo.
On a recent wet night, Omotesando’s Zelkova leaves cast a golden glow on the sidewalk. It seems that fall leaves are late this year in Tokyo, but with a sudden drop in temperature the trees are now putting on a show. Like cherry blossom viewing, it’s an ephemeral sight. Check on the street trees this week!
Why is this major intersection so ugly? Pedestrians deserve better.
Some people think that Omotesando is Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées. There is an incredible zelkovia tunnel and many posh global brands. However, at the main crossing, just above the Omotesando train station, the aggressively barren non-landscape is shocking. The small in-ground landscape triangle and the four above ground planters contain nothing but dry soil and some lonely weeds.
I wonder how long they will remain this way. In a city where most people commute by train and foot, the areas above stations should be amongst the greenest, with nature being used to make these frequently passed areas more pleasant and inviting.
Zelkova, called keyaki in Japanese (ケヤキ), are a gorgeous Tokyo street tree. The best boulevards of mature zelkova are in Asagaya and Omotesando. Here you can see the branches are just leafing out. In the back of the detail image is Itoh Toyo’s sculptural building for Tods that appears to be built of zelkova branches rather than steel.
I have been working most of March and early April in Nishi Azabu Juban, and I often bike to the office. Biking in Tokyo is fun for discovering back streets, but its also fun to speed along a straight boulevard, especially one with such a magnificent canopy. These photos were taken near my new favorite retro van turned into mobile espresso shop, Motoya Express.
It’s funny how plants connect you even more with people than nature. Thank you Twitter’s @mygardeninjapan for this apple mint. From balcony to balcony!
I recently met up with Twitter’s @mygardeninjapan after exchanging many online comments and thoroughly enjoying his detailed documentation of his balcony garden in Yokohama. Along with @a_small_lab and Tokyo DIY Gardening‘s Chris, we had a bento lunch in a temple garden and then a fascinating walk around the Omotesando danchi.
It was very kind of @mygardeninjapan to give us these small wooden pots with mint plants from his garden and hand-made signs with illustrated care instructions. His ladybug logo reminds me of his blog story about his efforts to attract ladybugs to his balcony garden. I am looking forward to growing and eating this mint in my balcony.
Omotesando is Tokyo’s most exclusive shopping street, a zelkovia-lined street of international brands for sale in buildings designed by world-renowned architects (Dior, Ralph Lauren, Channel, Louis Vuitton, etc). Surpassing Ginza for shopping, Omotesando also has spiritual significance as the entrance to Meiji Jingu shrine.
Rushing to an appointment, I was stunned to see this mobile bonsai shop outside a construction site. It’s typical in Tokyo that cycles of renewal involve demolition, scraping, and rebuilding. More surprising is to see how this plant sales person has staked out valuable real estate for a shop that can be unloaded from the three-wheeled scooter’s back trunk.
The trunk itself is used as a display case, and the front of the scooter covered in a banner announcing that its owner is selling bonsai plants.
Both in terms of retail structure and goods, the incongruity could not be greater: mobile and monument, formal and informal, luxury and sidewalk, imported and indigenous, fashion and plants.
Just off Omotesando on Aoyama Dori is a three story vertical garden of ivy growing in giant ceramic pots. The load bearing structure must have added something to the cost, but the ceramic pots and ivy create a simple and low-cost vertical garden.
The garden wall is on the side of an office tower, and adds greenery and some whimsy while blocking the view of a concrete wall forming the side of the neighboring building. It also frames the side of the underground garage entrance.
Aoyama Gakuin, one of Tokyo’s oldest schools, is a green oasis between Omotesando and Shibuya. Founded by American Methodist Episcopalians 135 years ago, the campus includes elementary to university education and has educated many of the country’s elite. The grounds include soaring trees, gardens that combine Japanese and Western styles, and neo-Gothic buildings.
The tall pine trees reminded me of Tokyo University of Agriculture, also founded in the Meiji period, and the buildings seem intentionally Ivy League, versus the more Bauhaus buildings at Nodai. Aoyama Gakuin’s location in central Tokyo makes it a natural oasis for people and wildlife.
Omotesando is known for its parade of imported brands: Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, etc. It also has an amazing canopy of zelkova trees (called keyaki or 欅 in Japanese). This photo taken on a rainy day earlier this week shows the trees covered in moss. Looking up from the busy sidewalk, you see many shades of green, bold patterns, and soaring structure that are oblivious to fashion and commerce.
Kobayashi Kenji from Sinajina taught two classes during the Silver Week holiday at Omotesando Hills. Using eight year old red pine trees, the students assembled their own saikei (miniature natural landscapes) in a 2 hour introductory class. Kobayashi sensei is clearly a gifted teacher, and enjoys sharing his plant mastery with a broad and often young audience. I will take his class next month in Jiyūgaoka.
Kobayashi sensei also told me about an exciting new public space project that he has been asked to coordinate. I will tell more details as I learn them, but it involves a difficult and large urban environment, heavily shaded by an elevated structure. Kobayashi sensei is hoping to bring in various public green space experts, including lighting and rice paddies. I am eager to see who he brings to this project and what he creates.
Last week I sat down with Iimura Kazuki (飯村一樹) at Ginza Farm, with a translator, and learned much more about his ideas for Ginza Farm, his background and his next project.
Iimura-san told me that he is very interested in urban farming in Japan and worldwide. His background has given him unique skills for pulling off something that at first seems impossible: creating a ground level rice farm in one of Tokyo’s most expensive neighborhoods.
Iimura-san recently worked with rural towns on revitalizing their small commercial streets, most recently in Shizoka. He realized that this local problem required new connections with the rest of the world. When he turned his attention to Tokyo farming, he drew on Ginza connections he forged as a venture capitalist. And finally his obvious skill with growing comes from his childhood on his parents’ farm in Shimoutsuba in Ibaraki prefecture, a town known for its high quality rice. The Ginza Farm soil and rice come from his parents’ farm.
How did Iimura-san secure a site that is on a small side street west and north of the intersection of Chuo Dori and Yanagi Dori (not far from the twisty De Beers building)? Using connections with tax accountants and attorneys, he located the plot and spent six months negotiating with the landlord. Although I do not know the details, apparently lending land between demolition and construction confers some significant tax advantages, yet still it took a long process of negotiation.
A giant photo banner at the back of the field proclaims that “One hundred rice farmers make Japan healthy.” Below is information about the supporting farms. Iimura-san contacted some of Japan’s most award-winning farms, appealing to their pride and patriotism. He spent two months sending documents and gaining equal support from these farmers.
Some of the activities at Ginza Farm have included a farmer’s market, a Tanabata festival with Nagashi Somen (noodle rolling along a long bamboo tube). At the festival, he said that the kids who participated were initially afraid of getting dirty, but that within five minutes they were throwing mud and “becoming monsters.” He wonders if it might have been the first time for many of these city kids to play in the dirt.
The field, the sitting area of benches and tables, the awning are all very rustic and well crafted. Iimura-san told us that a famous bamboo artist and his workers built much of it.
Iimura-san said that many types of people have visited. With the introduction of the ducklings, more women have become interested. I noticed an interesting mix of Ginza workers, including construction workers and shop clerks. Iimura-san explained that the school kids who helped plant the farm each received a plant to take home. Iimura-san was very proud that one kid came back to tell him that the rice he cared for was bigger and stronger than the Ginza Farm’s.
A true farmer, Iimura-san told me of very specific growing problems in Ginza that makes it hard to grow rice well. The sun does not shine into the field until 9 am which is bad. At night, the field is full of artificial light, which he has attempted to control with a large black plastic curtain he closes at dusk. “It’s important for the rice to sleep.” And finally, the night time temperature in Ginza is too warm, without the cool breezes found in the countryside.
Iimura-san has many future plans: to create another Ginza Farm next year, to find new markets for Japanese rice, and to open a rental farm (貸し農園) with sixteen roof top plots on the top of the Paul Smith building in Omotesando. He says the rental farm has wonderful views of Roppongi and Tokyo.
Iimura-san’s resourcefulness and passion will be very helpful, and I am looking forward to visiting Ginza Farm again and his next projects.
The photo at the top of the post and below show how the rice and the ducklings have grown so much within 10 days. While my last visit he showed me a tiny frog, this time he pointed out a small snail on the trunk of the entrance-way maple tree.