satoyama

Purple berries on murasaki shikibu pop on light green foliage

紫式部の果実は薄緑の葉に似合います。この特別な秋の植物は『5倍緑』という都市里山箱のなかで成長します。史火陶芸教室の前を、歩行者が注目しています。季節ごとに、小さい風景ができあがります。史火のホームペジで、この5倍緑箱が二年前にどんなだったかを見られます。

I love how the purple berries pop against the light green foliage. This hardy shrub is a classic fall marker, and a reference to the female novelist of the thousand year old Tale of Genji. Unlike my balcony specimen, which dropped its berries while still green, this one outside Shiho ceramic studio looks fantastic. It’s growing in a 5bai midori, the modular urban satoyama box.

I bought the first box two years ago, and the second last year. They really thrive on this north-facing sidewalk and draw attention to the studio and store. If you click on Shiho’s website, you can see on the home page how small the first one was. It just needs lots of water, and very occasional pruning. There are so many local species that each season has something special and evocative of the Japanese landscape.

Small oak is sprouting new leaves and flowers

里山の箱の中で、小さな柏が若葉をのばし、花を咲かせています。

This small oak tree in my satoyama box is pushing out new leaves and flowers. I am a big fan of 5bai midori’s modular boxes full of native trees, bushes, and small plants. This box measures only 20 by 20 by 20 centimeters, yet it is full of plants and surprises. Some of them are evergreen, and it’s fun to watch the rest of the box revive in spring.

Update: I found the tag, and the tree is called konara in Japanese (コナラ). It’s an oak, with the Latin name (Quercus serrata). It’s a very typical Japanese forest tree, and its ample sap attracts good beetles like kabutomushi (カブトムシ). I wonder if we’ll get acorns out of this tree.

Modular satoyama box in full fall color

ベランダの庭には小さな里山がある。色が毎日変わって楽しみだ。

There’s a small satoyama in my balcony garden. The color changes every day.

The leaves on tis small tree in my balcony’s modular satoyama box are turning dark crimson. I love how this small box from 5bai Midori is full of Japanese native plants. I have kept this satoyama box for just over a year now, and always enjoy watching the change in seasons. It’s just 15 cm by 50 cm!

Anyone know the name of this flowering weed?

Does anyone know the name of this flowering weed? It started growing out of our balcony satoyama box, and suddenly it reached two meters tall, intertwining itself with the morning glory on the green curtain. At first I wasn’t sure if it was an intentional plant, and then it started blooming. The flowers almost look like jasmine.

During the time I was documenting it and before I could post about it, I recently visited the University of Tokyo Botanic Garden (also called Koishikawa Botanic Garden). It’s a lovely garden, which I will post about soon, that traces back to 1684. Although full of history and botanic treasures, this Botanic Garden is also a bit overgrown with vines choking out the azaleas.

I am curious if anyone knows the name. I am guess it is very invasive. Do you think it is a satoyama plant or a kudzu-like danger?

Balcony garden update

I took this photo a month ago, and our balcony garden is now even more lush. It’s amazing how much incredible heat and daily watering can increase bio-mass!

It’s amazing what you can fit in a sunny narrow space. I have six mini-watermelons ripening on the railing and green net, three Saipan lemons, two types of morning glory, the 5bai midori satoyama boxes bushing out, cucumbers still flowering and creating fast food, and some random flowers including mini-sunflowers, abutilon, and Suntory hybrids ミリオンベル (million bell) and アズーロコンパクト. Plus there’s basil, parsley, and thyme, all of which I put into my bolognese pasta lunch today.

The floor area is full with just enough room to walk through for watering. The vertical space is about half full with the net and some additional twine. I like how the old washing machine is nearly hidden by plants.

Some failures included corn, with tiny ears that formed and then turned brown. The rose which was so outrageously pumped up when purchased has hardly bloomed since. The incredible heat this month killed my first bonsai, a Japanese maple (もみじ) in a tiny pot.

Some surprises included the late growing bitter melon (ゴーヤー) now shooting up. I planted last year’s seed in April, and it hardly grew until about three weeks ago. Now it’s two meters tall, and perhaps will produce a few vegetables before typhoon season. Bitter melon tastes great with ground pork!

My friend Matthew, who now works at Sinajina, pruned my pine bonsai. Apparently now is the time to start thinking about shaping it and preparing it to look its most beautiful for the new year. I wonder how to keep my tiny garden green during winter.

Satoyama box pushing out graphic and colorful leaves

The new leaves on the shrubs in my satoyama box have wonderful graphic and colorful early summer leaves. The two 5bai midori satoyama boxes have been beautiful last fall, over the winter, spring, and now early summer. Despite their compact sizes (20 cm square and 15 by 30 cm rectangle), they are able to support a lot of plant growth, density, and variety.

Ceramic studio spring garden

I take care of my relatives ceramic studio garden. Last year’s 5bai midori “satoyama unit,” installed during a fall typhoon, is coming back with lots of new growth. This photo shows off the yellow flowers “yamabuki”, a vigorous Japanese shrub. Sometimes you see white flowers, or multi-petalled yellow ones.

Shiho ceramic studio‘s back yard is a small l-shape raised beds. Much of it is shaded by persimmon and plum trees and the neighbors’ homes. The garden includes a volunteer shurro palm tree (しゅろ, 棕櫚) and a Japanese herb called sanshou (サンショウ) that traveled from the neighboring store’s bicycle parking lot.

A lot of what I planted at the end of last year has come back, including hydrangea, lilies of the valley, hostas, rosemary, jasmine, and a lantern flower vine that almost fully covers the chain link fence. And the giant cymbidium orchid has been blooming through April. It’s great to hear that the ceramic teachers and students are enjoying the garden.

I think the eight bags of compost helped a lot in improving the soil and make this shade garden thrive.

One plant that didn’t survive the Tokyo winter is a plant commonly called “purple princess” in San Francisco. To fill the gap left by the plant and my hope for it growing large fast and covering the cinder block wall. I brought over a kanamemochi shrub: a quick growing and very popular Tokyo shrub with distinctive red, new spring leaves. I also planted a yuzu lemon tree and a white single petal yamabuki.

COP 10 Biodiversity Conference

On Saturday I went to a symposium at Tokyo University on Biodiversity and Sustainability: Rebuilding Society in Harmony with Nature, an educational forum that precedes this year’s COP 10 biodiversity conference in Nagoya. Many knowledgeable speakers spoke, including scientists, academics, government and corporate leaders. I especially liked Todai’s IR3S director Takeuchi Kazuhiko’s succinct formulation of the satoyama human-nature balance relying on traditional knowledge, modern science, and a “new commons” or vision of shared space that transcends government, private property, and national borders.

There were, of course, many discouraging facts. I was startled to learn that a single bottle of beer consumes 300 bottles of water in production. One speaker showed a graphic of how fishmeal from all over the world is transported to Thailand’s shrimp farms, making both the production and distribution of seafood a globalized product. I also learned that the 2002 United Nations goals on preserving biodiversity had not been met by a single country as of 2010. And lastly, I heard that the 20% level of knowledge and concern about biodiversity in Japan was one of the world’s highest levels of national awareness.

Given the challenges to preserving biodiversity, I was extremely disappointed by the top-down views and assumptions of the speakers. With no audience interaction, questions, or comments, the event seemed to invite trust in the capacity of elite academics, government leaders and United Nations bureaucrats working together. When Professor Takeuchi asked at the very end what can be done to avert a catastrophic tipping point, the Coalition on Biodiversity’s Executive Secretary talked about UNESCO’s role in cultural production. A top academic then spoke about the need to involve “the media” and celebrities to raise awareness.

I was surprised that such intelligent leaders believe in the viability of a top-down approach for reshaping the global economy and land use. In this formal auditorium at Japan’s most prestigious school, it was a missed opportunity not to provide action ideas for the hundreds of attendees. And to think of the “media” as the broadcast media is to overlook the tremendous power and potential of social media and popular participation.

One speaker briefly mentioned a lake biodiversity monitoring project that included local residents, government workers, and scientists. I would like to have heard more about how urban residents can connect with nature and become advocates for protecting and expanding habitat. Tokyo Green Space has documented the passion and energy of ordinary city residents, and I believe there is much more that can be done by engaging with bird-watchers, school children, seniors, and gardeners.

Winter flowers in balcony garden

Reading about this weekend’s winter snowstorm in the US mid-Atlantic, I realize how mild and wonderful Tokyo winters are. December is the season for camellias, and the balcony garden also has pansies, fairy white daisies, cyclamen, geranium, decorative cabbage, one last morning glory flower, and a maple bonsai just turning red now.

Below you can see the 5bai Midori satoyama box that has a mix of countryside plants, including deciduous and evergreen small shrubs, grasses, vines, and weeds.

Japan Times: Tokyo’s urban design role

The Japan Times published my op-ed article “Tokyo’s urban design role.” My argument is that Tokyo’s past urban design failures paradoxically make it a model for rebuilding existing cities and designing hundreds of emerging cities. In the context of climate change and global warming, livable cities can create a new balance between people and  nature.

I talk about fireflies, Ginza rice and honeybees, modern bonsai, satoyama in the city, businesses and biodiversity, and how Japan can promote innovations in urban life, alongside achievements in popular culture and high technology.

Balcony garden in early November

Balcony garden view of Mt Fuji

With cooler nights, fall is definitely upon us. I took these photos in the first week of November to document the passing of the seasons on our balcony garden. Above a dramatic sunset over Mt Fuji illuminates the very end of the morning glory green curtain. As you can see in the photo below, there are still many flowers, including cosmos, murasaki shikibu, cyclamen, geranium, fujibakama, a creamy daisy, and a few other annuals.

Balcony garden in early November

One of the satoyama unit‘s plant is flowering now, while some of the deciduous plants are dropping their leaves.

Blossom on satoyama unit from 5bai midori

The black pine bonsai I assembled at Kobayashi Kenji Sensei’s class at Sinajina is doing well.

black pine bonsai from Kobayashi Kenji Sensei's class at Sinajina

And we put the ojizō-sama made at the ceramic studio into one of the satoyama units.

Ojizō-sama in satoyama unit

More photos of fall plants, including lemon tree, ceramics, and more images of the satoyama units after the jump.

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5bai Midori plants arrive during typhoon

5bai Midori plants arrive during typhoon, Shiho pottery studio

Thursday 5bai Midori delivered the three “satoyama units” I ordered, two for my home and one for Shiho, the pottery studio I attend in Suginami. I was amazed that the delivery service was uninterrupted by Typhoon #18 (known as Melor outside Japan), the first typhoon to hit Japan’s mainland in two years.

5bai Midori in boxes at home

5bai Midori’s native plants were more than I expected. It takes 4 weeks from ordering to delivery, and they arrive in large cardboard boxes. When the teachers and students opened the box at Shiho, they found a lizard. I hope he adjusts to life in the big city.

5bai Midori box at Shiho

The “satoyama units” are amazing: a mix of small trees, bushes, grasses and vines. The Shiho unit is a 30 centimeter square. The home ones for the balcony are 20 cm square and a rectangle measuring 15 cm by 50 cm. Included is a detailed list of the plants, including name, family name, latin name, description and care instructions. There is even a description of the metal frame and the soil. Attached to many plants are small metal tags with the plant’s name.

5bai Midori plants arrive during typhoon

I will blog about the seasonal change and growth of these 5bai Midori satoyama units. The locations could not be more different: the home balcony is on a high floor balcony with full southern sun. The pottery studio faces north and is underneath an awning.

5bai Midori plants arrive during typhoon

The pottery teachers were somewhat concerned about police protests (apparently they previously complained about the air conditioning units that also sit on the small strip of pavement between studio and sidewalk), and the possibility of theft. Still, they are excited to have this live environment which will slow pedestrians down and introduce more people to their studio. If it works out, I’d like to add several more units.

Here are my previous posts about 5bai Midori:

Beautifying major streets (May 5)
Meeting Tase Michio (May 21)
5bai Midori, or 5 sided green (May 22)
3 Projects created by 5bai Midori (July 22)
Satoyama and biodiversity (August 26)

And here are the sketches they created when we first discussed the projects.

5bai midori sketch for Shiho garden 5bai midori sketch for balcony garden

The balcony plant list is: Reineckea carnea, Quercus acustissima, Quercus serrata, Camellia sasanqua, Quercus myrsinaefolia, Clematis terniflora, Carex siderosticta, Trachelospermum asiaticum, Trachelospermum jasminoides, Eurya japonica, Petasites japonicus, Ardisia japonica, Liriope muscari, Kerria japonica.

Nodai Trip (part 4): Niigata Art Triennial

Last 3 students, Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial

The Echigo Tsumari or Niigata Art Triennial was our last stop, and it, too, reflected the themes of history in landscape and rural revitalization. We visited a small portion of the 350 sites, mostly abandoned houses and schools, spread out in several hillside villages. This two month features world-class international art, much of it conceptual, and draws audiences from around Japan and the world.

The above sculpture, using local river-harvested drift wood and washed out neon colors, represents the last three students in an old school started in the Edo period. The oldest parts of the building have been opened to show the mud and bamboo walls below the plaster and paint. With only the very elderly still living in these towns, new and modern buildings that once provided education and shelter are now abandoned. These spaces provide an over-abundance of space for art, and much of it is haunting.

Modern school closed in Niigata

The school above was created only thirty years ago, and was closed nineteen years after opening. It seems to be on the verge of being reclaimed by the forest. For the Triennial, French artists Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman turned the interior was turned into a theatrical, high art haunted house recalling the school and amplifying the gloom. Visitors enter a pitch black auditorium, covered in hay, with benches and fans. There are hallways with dark mirror windows, the sound of a heart beat, and a room full of what appear to be plexiglass coffins.

Niigata Triennial school recreated by Boltanski and Kalman

Juxtaposed with the gloom were many playful and surreal art works. Below is an outdoor grasshopper sculpture that moves as water fills the heads and cables connecting to indoor sculptures raise and shake dozens of wood puppets.

grasshopper sculpture

It was fun to experience the artwork and the environment with the young Nodai students. Many of them are from the countryside, and their interest and confusion in the art was palpable.

See below for more Niigata Art Triennial photos, including abandoned houses, fields, art and stories.

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Visiting Nagano and Niigata with Nodai

Niigata Dream House

Last week I visited Nagano and Niigata prefectures with Nodai. It was my first experience seeing the incredible beauty of the countryside, the rice fields and satoyama ecosystems, steep hills, wood houses, and small towns. The focus of the trip was rural revitalization and experiencing history, both centuries-old and more recent, in landscape.

Although I had heard of satoyama from 5bai Midori, I had not expected to be so overwhelmed by the exuberant greenery of rice field, abundant water and forest. In some ways, the agricultural landscape looks like it had been there for 2,000 years of co-habitation between people and nature. Because of the small plots and terraces, much of the farming is still done by hand, and there was no evidence of industrial agri-business like flat Kansas wheat fields or Maryland chicken mega-factories.

Matthew Puntigam photo of Niigata satoyama

Our university field trip made clear that this is no pastoral eden. Abandoned houses and schools reflect a rapidly aging and shrinking population, and we witnessed buildings from Japan’s 1980s Bubble that were shuttered or on the verge of bankruptcy.

The trip included three major locations connected to efforts by Nodai’s professors in the Garden Design Laboratory and Landscape Architecture Science. The tour was led by Professors Shinji, Suzuki and Hattori.

1. Obuse in Nagano: an Edo town that was once a center of commerce and culture due to its location at the confluence of the Matsu-kawa River and Chikuma River, with a six hundred year history of chestnut trees and one hundred year old sake distillery. Today there is a famous Hokusai Museum, restaurants, chestnut foods, sake production, a marathon, and an “open garden” town program.

2. New Greenpia (ニュー・グリーンピア), a massive resort built in the 1980s to provide outdoor experiences for working class urban residents. A central feature is a garden designed by a Nodai professor, and the resort history shows how the exuberance of the Bubble laid a poor foundation for the past two decades. Its name refers to its green mission and its uto*pia*n ambitions.

3. Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial, which describes itself as “350 artworks, deployed in communities, rice fields, vacant houses and closed schools, are the fruit born from the collaboration and exchanges between rural locality and city, artist and satoyama, and young and old.” A Niigata Art Triennial director spoke with our group outside Marina Abramovic’s Dream House (see Nodai Trip, part 4, for more on this installation and Niigata Art Triennial).

Nodai Students in front of Niigata Dream House

The trip also included a chance to speak informally with the professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and Research Fellow, plus banquets with enormous portions, visits to Japan’s giant highway rest stops, and onsen bathing.

Nodai students at trip banquet

And lastly, there was an informal lesson on making onigiri for my foreign colleague and me.

I’ll post more photos and observations from the trip in the next days.

Satoyama and biodiversity

Satoyama and biodiversity

Satoyama (里山), a term I first heard from 5bai Midori, describes a Japanese eco-system that supports biodiversity and is paradoxically the result of human transformation of forests over 2,000 years of rice farming. A fascinating Japan Times article explains what satoyama is, and how it is threatened on the one hand by large-scale agribusiness and pesticides that are sterilizing the land, and on the other hand by the encroachment of forests on villages that farmers are abandoning in rural Japan.

Satoyama are heavily managed forests and fields that replaced Japan’s densely shaded wilderness with a system of concentric rings of sato (village), satoyama (managed woodland), and okuyama (wild forest). In proximity to dwellings, cutting wood for fire provided openings in the forests that encouraged sun-tolerant trees and created habitat for wildflowers, butterflies, birds and other species that do not exist in wild forest. Cultivating rice paddies, and building the irrigation systems of reservoirs and canals that supply them, created aquatic and semi-aquatic habitat for amphibians, insects, water plants, crustaceans and fish. The system depends on the close proximity of all three rings, spread out over a large portion of Japan’s mountainous island habitat.

According to Japan’s Environment Ministry, more than half of Japan’s threatened plant and animal species live in satoyama areas. The Environment Ministry has created at least three editions of a national biodiversity strategy and launched a Satoyama Initiative that has included knowledge sharing with Asian regional conferences. And Japan will next year host the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) in Nagoya.

Resources in English include Takeuchi Kazuhiko et al’s book Satoyama: The Traditional Rural Landscape of Japan (Springer, 2002). And there’s a Japanese Environment Ministry video on satoyama on YouTube (no embedding unforuntately).