Roppongi

Entrance to Shibuya from Roppongi is a river of auto traffic

六本木から渋谷に来ている車の流れが50年前の都市デザインを保ち続けています。東京はいつ21世紀の都市デザインをはじめることができるでしょうか。

Layers of auto traffic rush towards Shibuya station. Has any global city maintained its aging urban auto infrastructure as thoroughly as Tokyo? Planning wise, Tokyo today can feel like it’s reliving the 1960s, as if nothing has changed in terms of mobility, urban design, and creating maximum value in dense cities.

A tree of death outside Family Mart

I was speechless when I first saw this craft project outside a local convenience store. Perched above a cardboard box is a tree of death, made of dozens of cigarette cartons and festooned with Christmas lights. Maybe it was meant to generate attention for tobacco purchases before the recent 40% tax increase. I wonder who came up with the idea: the local store manager? a clerk inspired by craft or commerce?

When I think of all the urban dead space, retail store fronts are a real lost opportunity. This one is special in that in addition to being a missed opportunity for plants and life, it actively promotes death. I am still surprised how Japan lags the advanced nations in curbing smoking.

A rare visit to Roppongi brought to my attention another death environment. This is a free and public “lounge” where you are invited to sit down and puff some tobacco while surrounded by branded ads. I am sure there’s plenty of money to be made in selling death, but it’s a disgrace to see public space devoted to this activity.

Roppongi West Park is a quiet oasis on back street

Roppongi is a very foreign neighborhood for me since I rarely visit its offices, nightclubs and museums. However, with the recent conference, I took a friend along a back street between mega developments Mid Town and Roppongi Hills. We stumbled a very charming, small park named Roppongi West Park (六本木西公園). It was a welcome escape from the elevated freeways and concrete overload.

The park provides a great amount of shade and the loud murmur of cicadas. My fellow Maryland state friend and I wondered how come mid-Atlantic cicadas only appear every seven years, while Japanese ones go through similar seven year cycles but appear annually. The park had benches with businessmen smoking, chatting, using their cellphones, and escaping their offices. There were also sand box, playground, and a public bathroom.

Seeing this small gem made me think about the up-until-now unrealized possibilities for the mega developers to connect with their neighborhoods through landscapes. Mori Building talks about how its vertical gardens lower summer time temperature in its neighborhoods. And Mitsubishi Estate is concerned with making Marunouchi more attractive through livable streets.

Creating gardens and habitats that extend to nearby  pocket parks, as well as neighboring residential and commercial gardens, could brand these new places with historical memory, a signature fruit tree, butterfly or bird habitat, outdoor recreation, and innovative public place making. While the developers goal is to maximize rental income, attention to the neighborhood, its existing assets and people, could be a low-cost and high impact way to brand, differentiate, and attract visitors and tenants.

District landscaping is one of the most economical and transformative improvements. By extending beyond the limits of a single property or the holdings of one developer, district landscaping is vital to place-making, memory, habitat, and human affection.

Sensing Nature, at Mori Art Museum

I took a short break from the Epic 2010 ethnography in industry conference to see the Mori Art Museum’s Sensing Nature exhibit. Friends had told me about it, so I had high expectations. The exhibit is very conceptual and sensory at the same time, unfolding in a series of large installations that are familiar and strangely new views of our relationship with nature. It continues until November 7 at the top of Roppongi Hills.

It is a strange experience to go from the 62nd floor observatory, with 360 degree views of Tokyo and beyond, into these enormous and enclosed gallery spaces created by three mid-career Japanese artists: Yoshioka Tokujin, Shinoda Taro, and Kuribayashi Takashi. There are feathers, wind, water, forests, mud, mountains, and glass.

I was also struck that in almost all these the imaginative “new worlds,” it is impossible to experience the artists’ dreams without also being hyper-aware of our own presence within them. It is interesting to watch the reactions of other visitors, and to even catch unexpected images of ourselves. I highly recommend visiting the exhibit.

U Goto Florist

U Goto Florist, dragonfly and cactus candles

U Goto Florist in Roppongi is one of Tokyo’s oldest and most luxurious flower shops. The tray above is a stunning summer arrangement of bamboo fireflies, cactus candles and sand. Founded in 1892 and owned by the third generation of the same family, U Goto prides itself on being Western-style and employs three European flower designers trained in Dutch and French flower academies.

U Goto Florist green bouquet

Housed in a 1990s company-owned office building near Roppongi Crossing, U Goto is Western- style in a way that only Japanese could perfect. Multi-roomed and multi-layered, the high ceilinged shop includes cut flowers, fake flowers, and potted plants, and also offers flower-arranging classes. Some examples of unusual arrangements and bamboo framing were on display. The shop fittings– stone floors, marble work tables, distressed cabinets, an excess of crown molding that is still somehow rustic chic– evoke Manhattan or Paris.

U Goto Florist champagne gift

I was charmed that the staff offered me a demi-tasse of coffee, which gave me the opportunity to carefully observe them arranging and wrapping lavish bouquets of roses, dahlias, sunflowers and orchids in the finest papers. Orchid petals were carefully protected in cloth paper wrappings.

U Goto Florist twig and bamboo wreath

U Goto’s extremely high standards necessitate removing all flowers and plants that are even slightly past peak. Cut flowers are donated to hospitals, and plants to senior centers. The summer window display below would be replaced after the Obon holiday with a fall display, in spite of the continued heat and humidity. One designer was already thinking forward to the Christmas display.

U Goto Florist summer store window

Feria nightclub in Roppongi

Feria nightclub in Roppongi

A friend guided me to an amazing green wall outside Feria, a nightclub in Roppongi, in a small alley across from Midtown. Climbing the entire front facade, this four story vertical garden is densely planted and lush. I was told that it’s about three years old.

Here’s an image of the context.

Feria nightclub in Roppongi

And lastly the view from the street.

Feria nightclub in Roppongi

Feria’s website shows how cool the vertical garden looks illuminated at night. I am intrigued that the vertical garden is the core element of the nightclub’s visual identity, in person and online.

Feria nightclub, night view, from website

Olympic countdown

Olympic countdown

Yesterday in Roppongi’s Midtown, this well-dressed lady was promoting the countdown to the decision on the 2016 Olympic Games location. Tokyo is competing against Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Chicago. The lady’s digital sign, uniform, floral arrangement, and presence did not attract much attention in the busy shopping mall, and provided the uneasy spectacle of corporate boosterism without much popular interest.

The big decision day is October 2, 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Given the ecological theme to Tokyo’s Olympic bid, what will happen to green city initiatives if another city is chosen? How can Tokyo and the Olympic promoters gain more interest from local residents? Is Olympic pride more or less difficult to instill in this megalopolis than passion for urban ecology?