Exiting the Metro at Kudanshita, I was unprepared for the rush of young office workers during the first week of April, mixed with seniors heading to see Chidorigafuchi.
On the first anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters, I spent the afternoon at a memorial in Hibiya Park, and then joined tens of thousands forming a human chain around Japan’s national assembly, the Diet. I snapped a lot of photos, along with @sub_fauna, who took some great photos.
It was great to see so many people coming together to ask for fundamental change to energy and politics. Striking were the number of seniors, the odd costumes including several Pokemon, the mix of the mournful and colorful. A few Japanese friends asked me what a “human chain” was, as if it were a complicated imported notion. It was very touching to see people holding hands around the center of government.
I was also impressed with how organized the entire demonstration and policing were. The long cross-walk in front of the Diet was occupied only while the light was red. The police remained very calm, and their main tools were rolls of neon police tape, megaphones, and fabric traffic barriers with rings for lines of police to easily hold.
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.
Through this blog, I was contacted by Edoble, whose tag line is “free food everywhere, in Tokyo.” Last month Edoble organized a hassaku marmelade party at a small shoutengai in Nakano, not far from where I live.
Edoble’s founder Jess Mantell is a Canadian designer, doctoral student, city explorer, and community organizer. As you can see from the poster above, she’s a great illustrator, too. At Keio University, she previously led a team that created an iPhone app that tracks movement across Tokyo with city sounds.
Edoble’s hassaku marmalade making event was great fun. Hassaku is a citrus tree that I often see growing in older gardens in Tokyo. The tree is very robust, and the fruits bright orange and large starting in winter. Seeing them makes me feel like there’s a bit of Florida or Southern California in Tokyo. But everyone had told me that the fruit is inedible. Jess’ idea was to bring people together to harvest and prepare hassaku.
It seems that if you pick the fruit at different times, the taste changes. Jess spotted mature hassaku trees in an abandoned city middle school near her house in south Nakano. She asked permission from the ward office to harvest the fruit in the spring, and several city workers unlocked the gate and joined her in collecting and sharing the fruit. That alone is pretty cool.
In June, Edoble hosted a marmalade party as a public event at a small space that is shared by the shoutengai association. On June 11, about twenty people very rapidly peeled the fruit, eliminated the membrane, put the seeds and membrane into a cheese cloth, and then boiled everything in four large pots. It was fun to see the amazing knife skills, particularly the older women and one young nursery school chef. We even got some help from some neighborhood kids.
The workshop was super-inspiring. It is great to realize how much food is growing in Tokyo, and that we can join with our neighbors in collecting and preparing super local food. Edoble’s accomplishment was in bringing together residents and local government, children and seniors, mostly Japanese and a few foreigners, mostly women and a few men.
Edoble reminds me that cities can grow a lot more of their own food, and that residents enjoy opportunities to work together and share food. Urban foraging is low cost and high return.
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.
On busy Shinjuku Dori, near Shinjuku Gyoen, there is a tiny shrine. I was startled last weekend to see a group of senior citizens playing ring toss in front of the open shrine. It was interesting to hear that there is nothing sacrilegious about using sacred space for recreation.
Apparently children often played in shrines, so with the aging society and few places for outdoor activities, I guess it is no surprise to see seniors enjoying this outdoor games and social time. Here you can see how the shrine is a small open space on a busy street full of tall buildings and a firehouse.
Here’s more photos of the game and the streetscape in Shinjuku Ichome. It’s great to see how shrines preserve open space, provide space for mature trees and for recreation. This shrine has many layers of trees, including a cherry tree.
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.