tree

Crowds visit Shinjuku Gyoen for cherry blossom viewing despite the cold

crowds_trees_hanami_shinjukugyoen
今年の新宿御苑の花見は、寒い天気なのに、木が好きな人が集まっていました。

These photos are from this year’s rather cold cherry blossom season, which meant easier access to some of the best spots. I love the difference in scale between the old trees and the people they attract. I also love how prepared the city is to manage the expected crowds of tree lovers.

crowd_management_hanami

Showa house features large tree on narrow lane

showa_house_nakano_backstreet

狭い路地に、昭和時代の自宅や成熟した木は素敵です。中野で。

I love this Showa house, its gorgeous tree, and the juxtaposition with small parking lot and blue roofed 80s townhouse. There is a charm to these older houses and their mature landscapes.

Espaliered persimmon in front of Aoyama school

「espalier」というフランス語の意味は木を垣根仕立てにすることです。東京ではちょっと珍しいですけど、混雑した都市の中で、この二次元にされた植物は適切です。最近、学校の前に背の高い垣根仕立てにした柿の木を見ました。

I am a big fan of espaliered trees. By pruning a tree into a 2D shape, it fits into the dense urban landscape. Here’s a mature, espaliered persimmon tree in front of a public school in Aoyama. I wonder if the kids will eat the fruit.

I am going to be posting this week different fall fruit trees I’ve seen over the past few weeks. What is your favorite urban fruit tree?

Triple platanus tree canopy at Shinjuku gyoen

新宿御苑で三本のプラタヌスという木が一つの天蓋をつくっています。たくさんの年月を経て、それぞれ木はアンバランスになりましたが、一緒に大きいな丸い形を作っています。古い木には、時間と協調の効果が見えます。

These three Platanus trees form one giant canopy. I like how each one is unbalanced, but together over the decades they have created a single round form. With older trees, you can see the effects of time and cooperation.

Shrine entrance invites tree lovers and prayers

自転車で日本語の学校に行く途中で、山手道路沿いにいつもこの階段を見ます。坂を登って、林と神社を訊ねたい。代々木八幡の神社に行ったことがありますか。

I bike to school on Yamate Dori, one of Tokyo’s modern ring roads. It’s currently under construction and rather ugly: a freeway underground, a 6 lane road on the surface, sidewalks torn up, new and mostly undistinguishable apartment buildings. On this ride from Nakano to Shibuya, one of the highlights is glimpsing the stairs leading up to this tree-filled shrine. I stopped and found out that it is Yoyogi-Hachiman shrine. I haven’t made it up the stairs yet, but it beckons as an inviting escape from the more functional, profane city racing by it.

Intoxicating night scent of Angel’s Trumpet

Leaving an inspiring talk in Nishi Azabu-Juban yesterday evening, the intoxicating scent of Angel’s Trumpet made me pause. And take a photo.

Brugmansia is also very common in San Francisco (and many continents including New Zealand), although it comes originally from South America. It produces an incredible scent, but only at night. In Tokyo, the summer heat seems to overwhelm the plant. By fall, this hardy large shrub/small tree grows to three or four meters in height, and flowers continuously until winter frost makes them die back. By May they begin to shoot up from the ground.

Angel’s Trumpet, sometimes also called Devil’s Trumpet, is a strangely familiar plant: hardy and decorative, with a shamanistic function in its native Amazon habitat.

Guest post: úti, a mobile game to discover nature

Frequently I hear from urban planners, professors, students, and green city people from around the world who want to share their projects or meet people in my network. I encourage them to create a guest blog post. Below is a French student project that turns urban or rural nature discovery into a video game. It sounds creative and fun! The makers will be at Tokyo’s Miraikan this week to talk about it. And, if you would like to share your project, please send in a guest blog post! [Editor]

Can nature be the playground of a video game? Interested in this idea, five students in digital design and production from Gobelins, l’école de l’image, Paris, worked for nine months on a common graduation project named úti (Icelandic for “outdoor”). By addressing the discovery of nature using a game, the team, composed of three graphic designers and two developers, wishes to approach a young audience.

The concept is simple: put in the shoes of a explorer, the player starts exploring the nature that surrounds him, be it a green space downtown, or a forest in the countryside.

The game is composed of a mobile application, which uses GPS to record the walking path and provide the player with contextual activities: discover nearby points of interest, identify tree species, take part in collaborative timelapse animations by taking photos…

Back home, the player can visualize the territory he explored and the species he identified, by connecting to his base camp on úti website.

úti will be showcased at the Digital Content Expo, in the Miraikan, from tomorrow to Sunday. You will be able to test the mobile application and meet the team at the “Futur en Seine” stand (1F).

They are looking for partners and investors, so if you are interested in supporting the project, please contact the team at contact@projet-uti.com

More info on the Digital Content Expo website: http://www.dcexpo.jp/en/programs/futurenseine/

Visit úti website for video demos: http://www.projet-uti.com

A tree of death outside Family Mart

I was speechless when I first saw this craft project outside a local convenience store. Perched above a cardboard box is a tree of death, made of dozens of cigarette cartons and festooned with Christmas lights. Maybe it was meant to generate attention for tobacco purchases before the recent 40% tax increase. I wonder who came up with the idea: the local store manager? a clerk inspired by craft or commerce?

When I think of all the urban dead space, retail store fronts are a real lost opportunity. This one is special in that in addition to being a missed opportunity for plants and life, it actively promotes death. I am still surprised how Japan lags the advanced nations in curbing smoking.

A rare visit to Roppongi brought to my attention another death environment. This is a free and public “lounge” where you are invited to sit down and puff some tobacco while surrounded by branded ads. I am sure there’s plenty of money to be made in selling death, but it’s a disgrace to see public space devoted to this activity.

Gorgeous tree garden despite lack of ground space

People often complain that there space is too limited to have a garden. This amazing single family residence in Sendaji has a tiny front yard between the house and wall that separates it from the street. Yet they have managed to create an amazing mini-forest garden of nicely pruned trees. Some are in the ground floor soil, and others in pots on the three levels of balconies and roof. There are dozens of trees, including evergreen and deciduous. On our visit, the pines and azaleas were especially beautiful.

I imagine this garden has been growing for at least ten or twenty years to reach this amazing fullness. So many people think that all they can plant are simple flower boxes, when vertical solutions can be so much more lush and interesting. This residential garden, discovered while visiting the famous restored Yasuda house across the street, is very inspiring.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Encouraged by my host Suzuki Makoto sensei at Tokyo University of Agriculture, I recently visited the Edo Gardening Flowers exhibit being held at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art until November 26,2009. The exhibit has spectacular colorful wood block prints showing flowers and plants in a variety of urban settings including kimonos, at festivals, commercials nurseries, educational materials, Kabuki actors, and Noh dramas.

The exhibit theme is that the Edo period experienced a “gardening culture” in which a passion for gardens and flowers permeated all social classes, including court nobles, shoguns, feudal lords and the common people. According to the catalogue, “the Japanese people’s passion to flowers surprised the American botanist Robert Fortune as seen in his diary upon his visit to Japan in the late Edo period.”

An interesting comparison is also made between between the widespread practice of Edo gardening and also the interest of common people in wood block prints. It is wonderful to see the use of flowers and plants in both high culture realms and in depictions of everyday life during the Edo period.

Two of my favorite prints are collections of plants used by children to learn the names of flowers. The one below, from the back cover of the exhibit catalog, has the names in hiragana. The exhibit also includes Edo era ceramic plant pots.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Some more images after the jump, and also a list of plants seen in the wood block prints.

Continue reading

Nouka no daikokoro: Locavore restaurant

Nouka no Daikokoro in Shinjuku

A new branch on Nouka no daikokoro (農家の台所), literally the Farmer’s Kitchen, has opened in Shinjuku, and is extremely popular. Housed on the fourth floor of a new tower, the restaurant brings a farm experience to urban resident with local food, an unusual interior, and information about local farmers.

Above the open kitchen and salad bar hang posters featuring the farmers who are growing the incredibly fresh vegetables being served. The posters are designed to look like election campaign posters, and the signage, including hanging cloth banners, introduce food producers to food consumers.

Farmer's Kitchen

The unusual farm experience begins with the entrance. Customers enter the restaurant through a large walk in refrigerator full of fresh produce for sale. If the wait for a table is too long, you can also buy a 700 yen (US$8) bento salad lunch and take it to nearby Shinjuku Goen.

Inside, the interior is an odd mix of a futuristic space (silver squishy floor and sleek counters) with a traditional space of tatami mats and low tables, and another utilitarian area of counters and tables near the salad bar. The first room has a papaya tree growing in a sleek tube, and the middle room a greenhouse with shelves of green peppers.

Nouka no daidokoro papaya tree

The vegetables were some of the tastiest I have had in Tokyo, and the lunch price very reasonable (800 yen for lunch set, 400 yen additional for raw salad bar). If you can’t get a reservation, it’s best to come late for lunch or early for dinner.

Farmer's Kitchen

Weed in Kanji: The language of nature

Weed in Kanji: the Language of Plants

Kanji, the Japanese characters that borrows from Chinese, are not only ideographic but also modular. The secret to memorizing hundreds and thousands of kanji is to focus on their elements for meaning and sound. As an adult learner, I am struck by how many of these core kanji elements represent nature, such as water, tree, mountain, fire, stone, sun, valley, soil, tree, and so on.

As an example, the word zassou (雑草) or weed is composed of two characters– zatsu (雑) or miscellaneous and kusa (草) or grass– and a total of five elements, including three characters that represent life forms: tree, bird, and plant. That zatsu character’s use of the number “nine” is perhaps arbitrary, but there is also a meaning that can be inferred by the combination of nine, tree and bird. Many Japanese words and personal names have at least one character or element that represents nature.

I must clarify that the above image and explanations come from Daiki Kusuya’s wonderful Kanji Starter 2 (IBC Publishing, 5th edition, 2008). The book does a great job of presenting simple to complex kanji, offering memorable explanations, and cross-referencing by number. Still, the author warns that he created his explanations to help second-language learners, and that they should not be taken as true etymology. I like how the author privileges memory and imagination over historical accuracy.

“The pictographs or ideas explaining kanji characters in this book may not necessarily be based on their historical development. They may be alterations or even my own creations. Again, the purpose of this book is to know the meanings of kanji characters, not to study how they were derived.”

I am simultaneously studying Japanese language and why urban Japanese, like many global counterparts, want a greater connection with nature. To an outsider, it is curious how nature is so pervasive in Japanese language. Perhaps many Japanese do not reflect on this aspect of their language, much like no one considers it remarkable that so many Tokyoites tend  flowers outside their homes and shops. As an anthropologist, I view this lack of discourse, this invisibility of the everyday, as evidence that it is a key aspect of the culture.