Only recent human history: American, Japanese, American, Japanese ownership of Ogasawara



What’s surprising about Ogasawara is that there are no indigenous people. First settled in the mid 1800s by Americans who departed from Hawaii, the Japanese seized it during their colonial expansion, retaken by the United States after World War II, and then returned to Japan in the 1970s.

There are numerous reminders of the war. Inside the many hills you still see dank tunnels created for the island’s defense. Apparently there was no land war here, unlike (somewhat nearby) Iwo Jima. There’s also this incredibly forlorn-looking, Saint George church in the main port village. I love how the entry walkway does not meet the current sidewalk.

It’s odd to be in a place with such little human history. The English name for the islands, Bonin, is a mispronunciation of the Japanese words “no people” (bu nin, or mu nin).


Nonbei Yokocho


Between the new Miyashita park and Shibuya station, I came across this lovely alley called Nonbei Yokocho, full of tiny bars. Maybe because it’s next to the train tracks, a marginal urban space, this collection of old houses built before or just after the war have survived. I love the weeping willows, the lanterns, and the reminder of Shibuya’s earlier incarnations.

Inside a Japanese nuclear power plant


A fascinating short video from IDG News Service’s @martyn_williams shows the inside of a functioning nuclear power plant in Japan. It’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa, the world’s largest nuclear plant, on the Japan Sea, also known as the East Sea of Korea.

In the past two weeks, we have all learned many details about nuclear power generation: from containment vessels to doughnut-shaped torus, steam venting, cooling pools, basement pumps and generators, and dangers from radioactive iodine and cesium. While the Daichi survived the earthquake, several days without electricity led to pressure build-up, exposed fuel rods, explosions, and radioactive releases.

Most Japanese school children are given tours of nuclear facilities to encourage familiarization and acceptance. Watching the video above, I am struck by the incongruity of these images of rational organization with the recent realization that a lack of power can quickly turn these engineering marvels into a grave threat to human existence.

It is interesting that the video above, and I am certain the hundreds of school tours, fail to mention that the reactors serve a second and equally dangerous function: they are the storage locations for spent nuclear rods. While the active rods have control rods and secured cases, the spent rods seem to be in less protected parts of the reactors.

The explosions at the Daichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima have literally blown the lid off a scary reality that is normally kept far from conscious thinking. Everyone knows that nuclear waste and the long-term dangers it poses are the by-product of this “clean,” low carbon energy. What is less known is that these spent rods remain near population centers and alongside ocean coasts that routinely experience tsunamis and earthquakes. They remain hidden from view within the plants because the rods are difficult to transport safely and few communities would welcome them.

I expect that as the crisis becomes less acute, there will be more attention to the questions of how much energy we need, how to balance what is possible with what is prudent, and how to make visible the true costs of energy production, including the wars used to “secure” petroleum from hostile regions, and the potential contamination of people and land from nuclear power and waste.

In the coming weeks, this blog will focus on recovery from the nuclear crisis, including increased city bicycling, reduced power consumption, and other positive developments. I will also show signs of Tokyo’s spring, and other evidence that the natural world continues in spite of human activity.

Shrine shelters two enormous trees in Roka-koen


Recently I was helping my friend Matt making bonsais in his Roka-koen apartment in Setagaya when I saw this incredible sunset. This is his view looking west from his fifth floor apartment. It’s amazing how dense Tokyo is, and how far the city spreads out from the center.

A small Shinto shrine is the reason that these two giant trees are still there. Dating back perhaps to just after the war, these trees seem to be an important stepping stone for neighborhood and regional birds. With the clear winter skies and the leaves gone, you can see Mount Fuji through the trees.

Why aren’t mature trees recognized as a vital urban resource? How can these small islands of nature be connected with larger parks and other micro-green spaces? What is the role of Shinto as a religion and as thousands of property owners in supporting urban wildlife?

Unexpected fall scene in traditional Japanese garden


Tokyo palm trees with ginko leaves are not most foreigners’ image of the typical Japanese fall landscape.

I love this juxtaposition of Tokyo’s most common, self-seeding palm tree named Shuro (シュロ, or Trachycarpus fortunei) and fallen yellow ginko leaves. Most people think of fall as defined by maple leaves turning red, or winter as pine trees. This unexpected combination of ginko and palm is an alternative juxtaposition of deciduous and evergreen.

This photo is from “Shuro hill” at Tokyo’s oldest Japanese garden, Koishikawa Korakuen (小石川小楽園), created in the early Edo period by the second Tokugawa ruler. This area is also called “Kiso yama,”with the mountain, path, and stream designed to evoke the Kyoto highway. This is but one of many garden scenes that miniaturize famous places in Japan and China. My appreciation of this garden is indebted to the passion and knowledge shared by my professor Suzuki Makoto who gives the most extraordinary tour.

This last image shows the juxtaposition between this nearly 400 year old garden and modern Tokyo. In the background are Tokyo Dome (right) and the Bunkyo ward office (left). Many of the garden structures were destroyed during the 1945 fire-bombing of Tokyo, and the garden reduced in size by post-war development.

Despite its abbreviated size, the garden is large enough that only later did I realize I forgot to see the rice paddy on the north side. The loud bird cries indicate that this garden is a critical nature sanctuary in a crowded city.

Edge between new road and post-war past


New town and old cities meet at this intersection.

On Linus Yng’s @ArchitourTokyo Western Tokyo bike exploration, the second stop was a fascinating corner. A wide and modern road (4 lanes, sidewalks)- Inokashira Dori (井の頭道り)- from the skyscraper district of Nishi Shinjuku meets a major ring road (6 lanes, sidewalks)- Kan-nana Dori (環七道り). The modern road dead ends into a narrow one-way street full of old sheds that must have housed many small businesses and residences in the post-war era.

I was fascinated by Linus’ explanation of how planning created these large roadways, and paradoxically preserves old neighborhoods on the edge. Although many maps show the road continuing through this neighborhood, Izumi (和泉名店街), the money and priority must have become exhausted. What you see instead is a neighborhood preserved for decades because no one will invest in improving or replacing buildings that are in a right-of-way of a possible, future major road.

In addition to the lane that runs in the center of the planned new roadway, Linus also pointed out the 10 to 15 story buildings that extend to the edge of where the road might one day be. In much of Tokyo, new buildings along major roads are often granted heights up to 15 stories, whereas the buildings behind them remain low. Tsukamoto Yoshiharu of Atelier Bow-Wow calls this the “cream puff pastry” of Tokyo urban planning, and explains that one function of these modern buildings, built to new standards, along the major roads is to provide a firebreak in this disaster-prone city.

It is amazing that for the width of the proposed road, the neighborhood is a time capsule of a Japan that was rebuilding itself rapidly after the war. I’d like to go back and explore more about who is still living there, what businesses thrived in the post-war period, and what creative re-use may be happening with these provisional buildings that were never intended to last this long.

UPDATE: Linus shared his excellent photos of this intersection with me later.

Firefly habitat in Okayama

Firefly habitat in Okayama

During an October visit to Okayama, a friend stumbled upon an amazing firefly habitat in Nishigawa park, a small canal with a lovely walking path cutting through the center of the city. Although now hatching below water, as the sign above shows, it was amazing to see how a city creats an urban habitat for fireflies. And it reminds me of Professor Suzuki Makoto’s firefly project in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

Okayama firefly habitat

The firefly habitat occupies one long block of the Nishigawa park, which has different walkways, seating areas and plant arrangements on each block. For fireflies, there is a small slow-flowing, side canal where the fireflies hatch on the opposite side of the wood bridge from the main canal. A huge wall of vegetation provides nocturnal darkness and protection.

Firefly habitat in Okayama

I am curious how long the park has been around, and what it is like during summer firefly season.

More on Nishigawa park after the jump.

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Image of Tokyo residential vegetable garden in 1944

Tokyo residential vegetable garden in 1944

This is an image of a residential vegetable garden during the war in Tokyo from March 1944, published by Life Magazine. It comes from an amazing urban agriculture website called City Farmer, out of Vancouver, Canada.

United States residents are aware of our country’s World War II “victory gardens,” recently revived by the Obama White House. Yet somehow seeing a similar war-time image in Tokyo, shortly before the city was decimated by fire bombs, is surprising.

In times of war and scarcity, urban residents naturally turned to growing food in their gardens. Are today’s combination of unemployment and climate change enough to generate an equally widespread movement in global cities today? What skills have urban residents lost? What governmental and non-governmental resources could make urban agriculture a significant source of food?

Some images of the Obama’s White House garden after the jump.

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Tsukudajima: nature and history

Tsukudajima canal

Next to Tsukishima is Tsukudajima, a tiny island that escaped the earthquake, war and high rise redevelopment. While not all of the houses have been preserved, the scale and and small alleys have been. Walking there today, you can see residents still fishing, visit a beautiful old shrine Sumiyoshi Jinja, buy tsukudani (fish boiled in miso sauce) from Edo-era stores, and attend annual obon and omatsuri festivals.

Tsukudajima old streetscape

This August there will be a special omatsuri festival that happens only once every 50 years. See the government website for more information: http://tsukuda.chuo.tokyo.jp/

Special omatsuri Tsukudajima poster

More photos after the jump.

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Tsukishima: green alleys & new construction

Tsukishima: green alleys

Walking in Tsukishima is an interesting contrast between old and new, green alleys and wide boulevards, wood houses and new construction.

Some of the alleys are remarkably well planted. The alley in the photo above seems to benefit from trees whose roots forced themselves out of their pots and through the pavement. Tsukishima and Tsukudajima survived the earthquake and the war, but the pace of modern development has outpaced preservation.

Tsukishima: old houses & new construction

More photos after the jump.

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