It seems that the shop owner has long accommodated herself and her shop to the annual giant weed that ‘s growing just in front. The leaves are enormous. What is this summer weed?
UPDATE: Thanks to my smart readers, I’ve learned it’s called キリ (kiri) in Japanese and Paulownia tomentosa in Latin.
I spotted this lovely Kita Kamakura house from inside the train. I like how the station uses a simple screen that echoes the house’s wood fence. I also love how the summer weeds are running rampant at the bottom of the fence.
Rainy season propels city weeds, and signals the start of our jungle-like summer.
Dandelion and dokudami, Shibuya. Related: see previous post about dokudami weed, and reader comments about edible versions in Vietnam.
Fifteen minutes on the express train and four blocks from the station, my friend Joan is farming a small plot of land. It’s actually several short rows that form part of a much larger city farm owned and operated by a Japanese retiree. As soon as I saw him, I was glad that I, too, had prepared for weeding and harvesting by wearing the all important white work towel.
Joan blogs and writes about urban farming, farmers’ markets, city landscapes, and Japan travel. It was very exciting to actually see Joan at her farm. I was impressed that she had also recruited a neighbor and her husband’s co-worker to help with tidying up the winter beds, getting ready for planting, and harvesting and taking home the last winter vegetables. There was a huge leafy bounty that Joan shared with us: Russian kale, red karashina, brocoli, spinach, komatsuna, and shungiku. Joan also sent me home with some bergamot that I am growing on my balcony. I am still waiting for Joan’s famous bergamot potato salad recipe. And I was able to share what Joan gave me with three other households.
We all gathered at the farm just two weeks after the Tohoku quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. It was great to be outdoors, talking about city vegetables, chatting with friends and new acquaintances. I liked hearing about Joan’s permaculture ideas of doing less, leaving flowers to attract pollinators, and hand mowing rather than eliminating the weeds between rows. The Japanese man who owns the farm clearly has a different attitude since he keeps his farm empty of all plant life except for the vegetables he grows. I can sense that Joan and the farmer each want to show the other how to farm. There’s both conflict and mutual respect for each’s passion for city farming.
I hope to go back as often as I am invited.
Does anyone know the name of this flowering weed? It started growing out of our balcony satoyama box, and suddenly it reached two meters tall, intertwining itself with the morning glory on the green curtain. At first I wasn’t sure if it was an intentional plant, and then it started blooming. The flowers almost look like jasmine.
During the time I was documenting it and before I could post about it, I recently visited the University of Tokyo Botanic Garden (also called Koishikawa Botanic Garden). It’s a lovely garden, which I will post about soon, that traces back to 1684. Although full of history and botanic treasures, this Botanic Garden is also a bit overgrown with vines choking out the azaleas.
I am curious if anyone knows the name. I am guess it is very invasive. Do you think it is a satoyama plant or a kudzu-like danger?
UPDATE: I posted a revised article, “Sensing Four Seasons at a Tokyo Office Building,” on Huffington Post on July 30, 2010.
Some friends and I visited Pasona’s new office last week. They are a large Japanese staffing farm that had a highly publicized basement farm in their old Otemachi headquarters. This year they moved nearby to Yaesu in their own newly built, nine story headquarters between Tokyo Station and Nihonbashi. Pasona has unveiled a much more elaborately landscaped interior and exterior.
The image above is my favorite because it highlights the interface between the futuristic farm, dependent on a variety of grow lights including LEDs, and the urban environment outside. I am certain that the indoor vegetables will give them the most attention again, but actually I believe the exterior landscaping is more inspiring and impactful.
Below is a brief tour of interior and exterior. After the photo tour, I will suggest some metrics for judging the success of this very visible corporate monument to urban nature.
Glowing all the way across the wide downtown street even in daylight, a spectacular rice paddy with dozens of strong lights occupies the main lobby entrance of the building. The entrance doors are flanked on the outside by beautiful apple trees in giant rusted steel planters.
Almost the entire first floor of the building is devoted to the spectacle of vegetables planting, growing, and ripening under powerful grow lights: rice, tomatoes, melons, corn, eggplants, herbs, and lettuce. A large cafe features wood posts hung at angles and supporting canvas bags with soil and corn. One wall has a series of metal cases with purple lights and tiny fans that have a very “next century” feel.
There is also a room with racks and racks of lettuce, and a field of giant sunflowers. And everywhere vegetables and seedlings are arranged in attractive vignettes. Elsewhere, tomatos hang from the cut-outs in the ceiling. (Click to enlarge the photos below).
What I think works are the following:
- Pasona demonstrates its commitment to bringing nature into the city by devoting so much valuable space and employing great landscapers and designers.
- Pasona packages its vision in a combination of high design and new technology that is visually stunning, unique and in many ways hopeful.
- It is interesting how the cafe and second story meeting spaces are divided and enhanced by greenery. The constant changing as plants plants grow and get replaced, and juxtaposing informal meeting spaces with living plants is a welcome change from most office interiors.
But I also have to point out where the vision falls short.
- It largely fails as a public gathering place. The giant lobby rice paddy is at once open free to the public and oddly devoid of people, except for a few curious first time visitors. The strange color, strong heat, and loud sound of the lights seems to repel people. In fact, the employees use a side entrance, and bypass the lobby. There is no sense that employees or neighbors will use most of this space, except for suited young people using the cafe and second floor meeting rooms.
- The intensity of the lighting and sheer quantity beg the question of energy expenditure. Pasona must address how sustainable this idea of indoor agriculture is, and whether they see energy production or usage changing in the future of urban farming.
- There is no sense of season or natural habitat. It is understandable that birds and wildlife are not permitted inside, but their absence makes the interior seem sterile. Why is the corn ripening in May?
While the indoor farm will generate the most attention for Pasona, I think that the exterior landscaping is more impressive and ultimately more interesting for urban habitat creation and the integration of nature with work space. Two thirds of the building front and at least one side have been carefully planted on handsome screened balconies to produce four seasons of color. Included are citrus trees, wisteria vines, Japanese maple, blueberries, and flowering vines like clematis. Although the plants are small now, it is easy to imagine the exterior becoming a unique vertical forest and colorful garden over the next years.
The exterior vertical landscaping has 200 species of plants, and many trees that lose their leaves in the winter. The idea is that the plant mass will reduce carbon emissions, summer shade will keep the building cooler, and winter bare branches will allow more direct light during the cold season. While the public is not invited to the upper floors, it appears that the exterior plants are all on balconies that are either accessible or viewable from inside the offices. Click below to see posters that explain the exterior landscape and the designers who worked on this project, and how the exterior garden appears from the sidewalk below.
I am looking forward to watching the exterior of the building grow into its potential. And I am eager to hear how the office workers feel about the outdoor plants that are so close to their interior work spaces.
I’ll end this post with a dandelion weed I spotted on the edge of the rice field. It is this type of unplanned feature that makes natural landscapes so enchanting.
I have been noticing this weed with beautiful purple and white flowers all over Tokyo. It must be very hardy since it grows in the cracks of sidewalks and walls. Volunteer plants play an important role in urban nature, and show nature’s resilience despite our over-built environment.
I have a soft spot for weeds, and this dandelion I saw found a home in a sidewalk crack in busy Yotsuya. I admire the ability of weeds to place themselves, to exist and spread despite our best attempts at organizing our environment. The dandelion is exceptional because it is at once a food, a medicine, and an important early source of nectar for honeybees. Cities need more dandelions!
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.