I’ve posted the photographs and slides from my recent talk at Shibaura House‘s Community Herb Garden event. My purpose was to encourage city residents to plant herbs because they are easy to grow and have many uses (culinary, cocktails, tea, scent, butterfly attractors).
Recently I brought 28 participants of the Dutch-Tokyo Still City workshop on “post-growth” urban life to Hamarikyu garden. This photo captures the simultaneity of activities inside and outside the garden: Edo-style pruning of pine trees, city dwellers enjoying traditional tea, port and luxury housing structures, even an incinerator chimney.
I’ve written before about this shikimi (シキミ) tree that’s thriving outside this wood house, long after it’s been unoccupied. The tree even jumped its pot, & the neighbors give it the occasional pruning to keep it out of the street.
At night and in bloom, it’s very alluring. But S warns me, “Don’t touch that poisonous tree.” Also known as Japanese star anise, the tree can be burned as incense. For tea, stick to the Chinese star anise, if you don’t want severe inflammation of the kidneys, urinary tract and digestive organs.
Two weeks after the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis, I looked at the thick roots growing at the base of the mint cuttings, and wondered what to do. I waited several days.
The first week, the Fukushima nuclear plant’s reactors, 220 kilometers to the north, had a series of spectacular hydrogen explosions. The second week the reactors assumed the role of toxic volcanoes, venting and spraying. The third week, we mostly hear about leakage and contamination into the land and sea.
In the second week, fearful of the rain, I harvested all of my snap and snow peas. In retrospect, this seems unduly cautious. Until now there’s been no evidence of dangerous radiation levels in Tokyo, so I finally decided to plant the mint in the balcony garden.
I considered making one giant clump, but then decided it might be more fun and more fragrant to spread it around the length of the garden. Since it’s a small garden, I need to combine ornament, scent and function. Wondering if I should make mint tea, or mojitos when they bush out?
realized that the mint cuttings were getting thick with roots sitting in the glass of water in the kitchen.
The Medical Herbman Cafe Project was one of the most inspiring landscape interventions we saw at the Niigata Art Triennial. Placed next to the school that had been closed less than 20 years after opening, the Medical Herbman Cafe Project consists of two elements: a mobile cafe that folds up into a container that fits on the back of a truck, and a herb garden planted in the shape of a person. The whole project is meant to be portable and sustainable.
The garden is organized so that the plants are grown along the body part that are most helped by each herb. The cafe serves over 20 varieties of herbal teas and cookies. I tried oubako tea and azami (thistle) cookie. The aesthetics of the cafe is recycled wood and rustic chic, with one room serving food and another providing seating and event space. Small plants were growing in white gardening gloves.
The Medical Herbman Cafe Project is powerful because it goes beyond a momentary appreciation of nature for city tourists, and promotes a healing connection between plants and people, countryside and city. I had mixed feelings that the Niigata Art Triennial benefits from the over-abundance of abandoned property in the countryside, and provides tourists and locals with a brief experience of rural experience and tourist commerce.
If the Obuse building restoration shows the relevance of old buildings and agricultural traditions from chestnuts to sake, the Medical Herbman Cafe Project suggest that rural knowledge of herbs has a place in the daily life of our urbanized world. It would be cool to see Medical Herbman Cafe Project set up in a city, perhaps using a school yard, land temporarily empty during development, or a public park like Shinjuku Goen or Yoyogi.
The menu below and the photo of the cafe above come from the Medical Herbman Cafe Project website. Although the site text is mostly in Japanese, the design and images will appeal to non-Japanese readers, too.