portable

Shinto prayers at nearby empty lot. Will a house replace this summer-time bat field?

shinto_prayers_empty_lot_na
新しい家を建てる前に神道の儀式をするのは、日本の習慣です。夏、この空き地には、コウモリがよく来ました

I did a double take on my bike as I passed this portable Shinto ceremony on a nearby empty lot. Ostensibly, they are praying to the local gods in advance of constructing a residence. But I think this is not the first year they’ve done the ceremony here.

This summer the weeds were rampant, and the empty space became a bat colony. Somehow the Mercedes in the foreground of a Japanese religious ritual no longer surprises me, even in Nakano.

Bonsai shedding leaves

冬の日光は、室内で植物を撮影するのにいいと思います。

ベランダの庭には、植木鉢が多いです。ですから、室内に持って来るのが簡単です。一つの植物はお客さんを接待するときに使えますし、気分を変えてくれます。盆栽は一番持ち運びがよくて、いくつかの要素が小さな世界を作ってくれます。

The winter sunlight is particularly good for indoor plant portrait photography.

Bonsais are the ultimate in portable and creating an entire, changing world with few elements. Part of gardening involves the overall effect of dozens or hundreds of plants. But part is also the specific plant and season.

As a balcony gardener using containers, I have many small plants that are especially portable. A single indoor plant can welcome a guest or create a mood.

Fall festivals along the old main roads in western Tokyo

西東京の9月の祭りは、旧街道の住民を繋げます。御神輿やお盆踊りや神社の祭りは地元の神を見えるようにします。秋の祭りも町の人々に農業の周期を思い出させます。音楽や衣装や銀賞や踊りが大好きです。特別の料理、提灯、お年寄りや高校生が集まって、普通の公共空間が生き生きとしてきます。

One of my favorite times in Tokyo are the September festivals, with portable shrine carrying and yukata-clad dancing happening in small groups up and down the main roads that pre-date the west-bound Marunouchi subway and Chuo train line. These photos are from Ome Kaido and Itsukaiichi Kaido.

The fall festivals connect city life with agrarian traditions, and by bringing the shrines into the road they literally bring the local spirits into view. I like the music, the costumes, chanting and dancing. But also the festival food stalls, lanterns, and crowds of seniors and high schoolers.

Traffic cone planter

賢いアイデアです。トラフィックコーンの上で、簡単な金属の仕掛けで、植木鉢を四個支えています。横に並んでいるので、スペースの効率が良いです。 高さの違いもおもしろいです。

What a clever idea! This simple metal structure places four flowerpots on a traffic cone. It’s very space efficient because all four are in a single line, with a slight variation in height.

Small biodiversity garden for construction workers

高速道路の工事現場のまんなかに、きれいな生物多様性の庭があります。すべての働く場所は庭になるはずです。

I saw this beautiful biodiversity mini-garden at a construction site for the  combination surface and underground urban freeways along Yamate Dori not far from Yoyogi Park. Although I bike this route every weekday, it took me a while to realize that this garden was inside the construction site, and visible mostly to the construction workers. What a great idea that workers’ jobs can be improved with on-site gardens. It looks very modular and portable.

This project is, I think, by Shimizu Corporation, one of Japan’s big builders. It’s funny that they get more attention for their grandiose city on the ocean Green Float concept than some of the small and inexpensive projects that they are already carrying out.

Fall omatsuri in my neighborhood

The lanterns announce that the omatsuri festival will be happening Using simple plumbers’ fixtures and scaffolding, flexible and removable frames for lighted paper lanterns are erected all over the city.

I find omatsuri incredibly charming: a public street festival evoking rice farming and harvests, organized in Tokyo around tiny local shrines, work organizations, and local associations. A friend told me that in his town, the whole town celebrates together. But in the large megalopolis of Tokyo, the intensely local nature of each celebration is very personal and social.

Members of my apartment building are some of the main leaders of our local shrine’s festivities, which includes children’s and adults’ parading through the streets with portable shrines, flute, drum and bell music, (Japanese) lion dancing, traditional clothes including hapi (cotton jackets), and lots of public drinking.

At the shrine, one of my neighbors offered me a free shaved ice. I hesitated to accept other offers of food or drink because I did not want to be carrying the portable shrine; I know from experience that this is best left to younger and drunker participants.

Just in the other direction, on the same weekend, a small park gets transformed into a space for dozens to do “bon” dancing around a raised platform. Mostly seniors, they dance to various traditional and regional songs, while wearing yukatas. Children and even dogs come wearing this summer kimono. Unlike the local shrine, this small park has an area for more commercial “omatsuri” games and foods, including delicious mini-cakes, the ever present chocolate banana on a stick, yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and more shaved ice.

I experimented this time with black-and-white photos that seem to make the event more timeless and nostalgic. It’s funny to see something very contemporary, like a child taking a cellphone photo of her chocolate banana, using this backward-seeming technology and juxtaposed with dances and music that may be centuries old. There’s something timeless about cast iron pans used over a gas grill to make the small cakes sold 12 or 40 to a bag.

I feel a certain surge of excitement when the portable shrines enter the large boulevard or fill the small streets radiating out from it. The shrine is very heavy, and there’s a definite camaraderie formed by sharing this load.

I’ll end the post with a short video of the dancing. The drumming and bells are live, and the other music and voice from an old CD player and simple amplifier sound system.

Empty lots are abundant and under-used

Tokyo is full of empty lots that mark the time between demolition and building. Sometimes they stay empty for more than a year. Most are turned into automated parking lots, some so small they only provide space for a single car. Some in busier neighborhoods get covered in gravel and host crepe shops in a trailer.

The empty lot above, just off Omotesando in Aoyama has three uses: tapioca drinks for sale, vending machines, and ashtrays for smokers. Considering the proximity to so much high-end shopping and so many people, it seems like a vastly under-utilized urban space.

It would be cool to see something more useful in these temporary spaces: energy generators, plants for shade and habitat, edible gardens, nurseries to grow and sell plants, attractive places for relaxation, socializing, and pets. Their design would need to be portable, modular, and generate some minimal income for the owner. Creating a prototype space for these liminal spaces would be a great project for a local government, corporation, or non-traditional marketing company.

Summer omatsuri festivals invite spirits to commercial areas

Starting in May, summer omatsuri festivals are a public celebration of the local gods that exist in even the densest, most commercial parts of Tokyo. One of my favorite festivals is at Hanazono Shrine, in between Shinjuku san-chome, Kabukicho, and Shinjuku ni-chome, an area of department stores, fast fashion, a station with more than 2 million daily commuters, nightclubs, host clubs, and gay bars.

Above you can see a temporary shrine being constructed with metal poles, bamboo, and paper symbols outside Isetan’s flagship department store.

The festival brings together long-time residents, small business owners, and even the large commercial enterprises. The above photo shows a small neighborhood shrine, where I had previously noticed seniors playing a ring toss game. When I visited during preparations, the old timers invited me to participate in carrying their portable shrine (see below) around the neighborhood and to the main shrine. Knowing how heavy the shrine is, I politely declined.

Plants at Kawagoe festival

Plants at Kawagoe festival

At the Kawagoe festival, or omatsuri, last weekend, there was a small street full of plant sellers, including this one focused on succulents and cactuses. Other featured plants included chrysanthemums, many of them sold without plastic pots. Many neighborhood festivals include a group of plant sellers, in addition to portable shrines, street food and other activities.

Fall omatsuri

Night omatsuri

This month there are many neighborhood omatsuri, festivals organized by local shrines to celebrate the harvest. Like the summer omatsuri I wrote about earlier, the festivals include carrying portable shrines through the streets, taiko drums, music, costumes include happi and fundoshi, public eating and drinking, and much neighborhood socializing.

Above is a large night festival in Suginami, popular with young people. The long path to the shrine is lined with hundreds of food stalls, selling regional foods and even imported ones like shawarma (which Japanese call kebab). Chocolate-covered bananas, light-up horns, and beer all seem popular.

Several features of omatsuri are particularly relevant to Tokyo Green Space: the celebration in the city of a harvest festival, the use of streets for community gathering, the multi-generational bonds of community that are formed and maintained.

Kids omatsuri

Last weekend, my local shrine celebrated with a kid’s omatsuri one day, and an adult one the next day. Each day the parade made a stop in front of my apartment building, turning the parking lot into a public festival. The supermarket offered free drinks and food, and I met several young fathers and kids who live in my building. The woman next door who tends an overflowing flower garden in the alley was at the shrine, watering the ground. She welcomed me and gave me a tour of the shrine area, which had portable structures and the doors open in the small permanent building. You can see it is surrounded by blue sheets for an impromptu seating area.

Local shrine open for omatsuri

I was also struck by the mesmerizing music. A band played in front of the shrine: three drummers, a flute player, and a simple metal instrument that resembles a tin bowl. The Youtube video gives you an idea of how it sounds.

After the jump, you can see a few extra pictures showing how the procession takes over the main street.

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Nodai Trip (part 5): Medical Herbman Cafe Project

Medical Herbman Cafe Project at Niigata Triennial

The Medical Herbman Cafe Project was one of the most inspiring landscape interventions we saw at the Niigata Art Triennial. Placed next to the school that had been closed less than 20 years after opening, the Medical Herbman Cafe Project consists of two elements: a mobile cafe that folds up into a container that fits on the back of a truck, and a herb garden planted in the shape of a person. The whole project is meant to be portable and sustainable.

Niigata Medical Herbman Cafe Project sign

The garden is organized so that the plants are grown along the body part that are most helped by each herb. The cafe serves over 20 varieties of herbal teas and cookies. I tried oubako tea and azami (thistle) cookie. The aesthetics of the cafe is recycled wood and rustic chic, with one room serving food and another providing seating and event space. Small plants were growing in white gardening gloves.

Medical Herbman Cafe Project

The Medical Herbman Cafe Project is powerful because it goes beyond a momentary appreciation of nature for city tourists, and promotes a healing connection between plants and people, countryside and city. I had mixed feelings that the Niigata Art Triennial benefits from the over-abundance of abandoned property in the countryside, and provides tourists and locals with a brief experience of rural experience and tourist commerce.

If the Obuse building restoration shows the relevance of old buildings and agricultural traditions from chestnuts to sake, the Medical Herbman Cafe Project suggest that rural knowledge of herbs has a place in the daily life of our urbanized world. It would be cool to see Medical Herbman Cafe Project set up in a city, perhaps using a school yard, land temporarily empty during development, or a public park like Shinjuku Goen or Yoyogi.

The menu below and the photo of the cafe above come from the Medical Herbman Cafe Project website. Although the site text is mostly in Japanese, the design and images will appeal to non-Japanese readers, too.

Medical Herbman Cafe Project menu

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