shitamachi

Some “downtown” characters form part of the organizing committee

men_sanjamatsuri
三社祭のまとめ係の人は、下町っぽいです。

These gentlemen look like they’ve participated in the Asakusa sanja matsuri many times before. They seem very much at home in Tokyo’s shitamachi, known for its traditional, Edo-influenced culture.

Visiting green roof company in Shitamachi

屋上と壁の庭はきれいなんです。

Recently, Mukunoki Ayumi gave me a tour of Kuboco, the construction and roof garden company where she works in Shitamachi. She graduated from Nodai, where I am a research fellow. The meeting took place thanks to Edgy Japan‘s Yanigasawa Hiroki.  I immediately recognized the building when I spotted the incredible wisteria that is trellised across one building and climbs to the top of the adjoining 8 story building, where it provides rooftop shade on a trellis structure. Mukunoki-san told me that the vine is just eight years old and very vigorous!

Kuboco designs roof gardens and vertical gardens for commercial and retail buildings as well as residences. Since they are a construction company, they are able to combine garden design and maintenance with structural engineering, water-proofing, and retrofitting trellises for vines and vertical gardens onto older buildings.

Mukunoki-san reports seeing a shift from roof lawns to vegetables in Tokyo. She attributes this to customers wanting less maintenance and greater value from their outdoor spaces. Kabuco has roof gardens on both of its buildings, one a more social space and the other full of experiments with soil depth and new vegetables. Kuboco is very hands-on in providing advice about how to build roof gardens and what to grow. Mukunoki-san explained that last summer she grew tumeric because one of her clients wanted to grow it. On my visit, I saw blueberries, carrots, onions, parsley and other food on their demonstration gardens, and admired how they are testing out what can grow in 5, 10, 20, and 25 cm deep soil boxes. And for a while Kuboco’s roof garden provides fresh vegetables to a local onigiri restaurant.

She also introduced me to the Japanese term for “local food”: 地産地消 (chisanchishou, locally produced and locally consumed, with the first and third kanji being the word soil).

The 8 year old wisteria looks like it’s been on this building for much longer. It blooms best when trained horizontally.

I would love to try blueberries, too. It would be so satisfying to eat fresh blueberries, rather than the supermarket ones that have travelled from as far as Chile.

Shitamachi walk before new year

Before the new year, I took a walk with Alastair Townsend, an American architect in Tokyo, from Yanaka to the new Sky Tree in Mukojima. Above is a sushi restaurant in Kiyokawa, a mostly desolate stretch in the middle of the walk. I was impressed how the shop owners created such a dense jungle in the small space between the restaurant and the sidewalk. The variety and density are magnificent, and it is only with careful observation can you observe the plastic pots supporting this small forest, and the chain link fence buried many years ago in plants.

After the jump, some more images including a decorative rope and bamboo structure covering a sculpted pine tree, the contrast between old and new houses, a residential orange and bonsai persimmon, a pygmy date palm that survives the Tokyo winter, and the oddly named “Sky Tree.”

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Tokyo in summer

Kafu Nagai self-portrait 1932 Edward Seidensticker biography

“It is the summer that makes life in Tokyo most beautiful . . . Bamboo cages with singing insects, painted fans, mosquito nets, sweet-smelling reed blinds set into miniature landscapes- where else are there appurtenances of such delicacy? . . . Sometimes, walking along a canal of a summer evening, I have found myself drunk with a mood as of hearing a samisen somewhere- in a courtesan’s room, perhaps, in a scene from Mokuami’s ‘The Robbers.'”

Summer is in full force in Tokyo now, and I am turning to literary inspiration to better understand this complex metropolis. Viewed from above, Tokyo is an endless concrete slab with few visible elements of nature. Viewed from the street, the city pulses with human and plant life, and its residents react to the constraints of the built environment with creativity.

In exploring the layers of Tokyo, I am relying on two books written in English. A Enbutsu Sumiko, a Japanese woman educated at Smith College, wrote  “Discover Shitamachi” in 1984, and I have been using it as a guide to the Edo era survivors in the area near the Sumida River first settled by artisans and merchants in the 1600s. Enbutsu also wrote A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo: 40 Walks for All Seasons in 2007, a wonderful book that suggests city walks organized by seasonal flowers.

More recently, I am reading noted Japanologist Edward Seidentsicker’s 1965 literary biography Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writing of Nagai Kafu, 1879-1959, from which the quote above about summer comes. Since I am still unable to read in Japanese, I rely on these historic works to better understand Tokyo’s strange mix of history and modernity. Seidensticker’s biography insists that his subject is “better and more important than any of his works” and that his work can only be understand in the context of his life, his city, and the Meiji tension between Edo and modernity.

Kafu Nagai 4 images Tokyo

Whether considering historic sites, ancient festivals and crafts, the ever-active wrecking ball, and latest popular culture, it is humbling to think that this tension between traditional and modern urbanity  has existed for over 100 years in Tokyo. I am looking forward to Seidentsticker’s chronicle of turn of the century Tokyo life, and visiting some of the same places myself to sense if there any echos still audible.