tatami

Why old homes and city farms are disappearing

Kyodo mansion entrance

For a city that suffered tremendous human and structural damages from World War II fire bombs, it is sad how little efforts are taken to preserve older houses and farms in Tokyo. The tax code, which levies an inheritance tax on the real value of property, literally forces many families to sell or subdivide their childhood homes in order to pay the tax bill.

Kyodo mansion overview

When parents die, the wooden homes with large yards and small urban farms become quickly transformed into multi-unit condos and apartments. New construction in Tokyo is often cheap and pre-fabricated, with the idea being that buildings should last for thirty years before being raised and rebuilt. Old gardens and trees are replaced with hardscape that provides neither shade nor habitat.

Kyodo mansion side view

Above are images of a grand home and garden near Nodai, the Tokyo University of Agriculture. It is one of only a handful of historic homes along the 20 minute walk between the Kyodo station and Nodai.

Below is an example from my neighborhood of brand new construction of a six unit building on what was previously a single family lot with garden. The amount of planting probably covers less than 2% of the lot size, and there’s four parking spaces paved in front.

New construction in Nakano

Changes to the tax code are necessary to stop this steady erasure of history and habitat. Click the link below to see another nearby house during demolition and its rebuilt form.

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Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden

Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden

Traditional Japanese garden Kyu Shiba Rikyu dates to 1678 when land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay became the residence of Okugawa Tadatamo, an official of Tokugawa Shogunate. Kyu Shiba Rikyu is one of Tokyo’s oldest gardens, along with Koishikawa Korakuen. Kyu Shiba Rikyu was destroyed by fire in the 1923 earthquake, rebuilt and gifted by the Emperor as a city park.

Kyu Shiba Rikyu garden

Today this stroll garden with a focal pond and two small islands sits steps from Hamamatsuchou station, and surrounded by office buildings, bullet trains, the JR Yamanote line, a monorail, elevated train, and two elevated highways. The pond reflects manicured black pines, office towers and billboards. There is also a very elegant archery range with grass lawn, tatami seating area, and targets inked by hand. (See photos after the jump below).

Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden

The pond and island were created over 400 years ago to recall China’s Seiko Lake (Xi Hu) and Reizan sacred mountain in Hangzhou (Zhejiang). Like at Koishikawa Korakuen, Kyu Shiba Rikyu was created at a time when garden design, philosophy, literature, and painting all borrowed heavily from China. Given our last century’s conflicts between Japan and China, is it too much to hope for artistic borrowings in this century?

A wonderful garden diplomacy would be a photographic exploration of these 400 year old Japanese gardens and the Chinese landscapes that inspired them. How have the natural and designed environments changed? What contemporary landscapes could inspire today’s art exchanges?

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