travel

Reports of tanuki traveling down river from the woodlands towards the commercial center

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タヌキさんは、森から東京に移動していると言われています。ソーシャルメディアに、この江戸時代に作られた玉川上水の写真が出てきました。ママチャリと古いピンク色のフィーチャフォンしかありませんが、友達ができるでしょうか。

Some say that tanuki is traveling down river from his woodland sanctuary in the direction of central Tokyo. On a social media site, tanuki can be seen next to the Tamagawa josui, a canal built for the great Edo city hundreds of years ago. Can he make friends, if his only tools are a mama-chari and an antique, pink “feature phone”?

Mint flowering in the late afternoon sun

突然、ベランダのミントに紫色の花がたくさん咲きました。午後遅くの日光に、葉は金と赤い色になります。秋の瞬間です。

My mint is suddenly full of purple flowers. And in the late afternoon sunlight, the leaves turn gold and red. It’s a fall moment.

I love having herbs on my city balcony: for cooking, for scent, and for variety. Mint is ridiculously easy to grow, and I hope the seeds travel and plant themselves somewhere nearby.

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.

City and Country, 1970s and now

“The Japanese think of the City in the way that Englishmen used to think of Mighty London. It is either one or the other. Rice paddies or the Ginza.” (p35)

I am reading the wonderful author Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, first published in 1971. Richie is the ultimate American expat in Japan, who stayed from the start of the Occupation until today, and this is a classic travel book focused on Seto Nai Kai (the Inland Sea), which I recently visited.

This passage struck me because Ginza Farm, which I have visited for Tokyo Green Space, overcomes the division between city and country by bringing a rice paddy to Ginza, Tokyo’s most celebrated commercial district full of De Beers, Cartier and now of course Uniqlo flagship stores.

Richie’s The Inland Sea also reminds me of the recently deceased French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, which chronicled an Amazon on the verge of extinction. In a similar voyage by boat, Richie bemoans the new highways and lure of the city that threaten the fishing economy and general isolation of these islands and peoples. What used to be called “salvage anthropology” clashes with contemporary feelings by focusing on purity and what is about to be lost. This antique attitude also portrays the writer as both the “first” and last foreigner to capture a vanishing culture, creating a false sense of importance for the individual writer.

Despite this unease, it is hard not to enjoy Richie’s beautiful writing, his insights on insider and outsider culture, and his only partly closeted attraction to Japan. And I do not doubt the gulf that once existed between city and country, which makes the current urban interest in rural life and agriculture all the more indicative of profound social and environmental change.

On a related topic, I read this week in the New York Times that Korea, which is generally more accepting of national diversity, is having difficulties integrating children of mixed marriages. Most mixed children are the progeny of Korean farmers and their Chinese, Filipino and Thai wives. Partly the social question is of race, but also of class and city versus country.

I was struck that Korea shares Japan’s rural abandonment, and seems ahead of Japan in responding through immigration. Perhaps Japan, too, will first open its doors to immigrants willing to live in its rural areas now inhabited almost exclusively by the elderly. Despite Japan’s xenophobia, immigrants as care-givers and farmers seem more likely than the techno fantasy of robots: more cost-effective as workers and more human in terms of care and culture.

Konoike Tomoko: Inter-Traveller

Konoike Tomoko: Inter-Traveller

I recently visited Konoike Tomoko’s (鴻池朋子) immersive retrsopective show called Inter-Traveller at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. Presented as a child-like journey to the center of the earth, Konoike’s art creates a universe of myths in which nature and humans become merged in fantasy: six-legged wolves, wolves and butterflies with young girl’s legs and red running shoes, volcanoes with human faces, a fuzzy ball character with legs and no head, a giant ball with antlers and wings and human birth, swords, and giant books.

Konoike Tomoko: Inter-Traveller

This first comprehensive exhibit include pencil on paper, painting, fusuma screens, installations, animations, and sculpture. Some rooms are entered by very low passage ways, and the second to last room has a giant spinning baby’s head covered in mirrors, surrounded by mariners’ ropes and broken glass. The movement of light around the room made me hold on to the railing with intense vertigo. The final room almost forces the visitor to confront nature and death in a tangible way; fortunately there was a discreet side escape for the squeamish.

I mention Konoike’s work because her wonderous myth-making projects a vision of humans in a state of crisis and seeking meaning through nature, mystery and travel. Just as some argue that most agricultural invention and technology comes from cities, I felt that Konoike’s art, while drawing on the natural world and spirits, is deeply urban and contemporary. The journey to the center of the earth and to rebirth, she suggest, involves imagination, play and communication between the living and the dead. I was not surprised to learn that her atelier is in one of the world’s most urban locations, Akihabara, and that her background includes toy and character design along with fine arts.

Konoike Tomoko Inter-Traveller