worker

“These are Japanese tabi,” announces the young demolition worker

demolition_nakano_worker (1)

とてもフレンドリーなガテン系の青年は靴を指差して「ジャパニーズ足袋」と言いました。これから、中野にある住居の取り壊しのシリーズをはじめます。取り壊しの時に、住居の中が見えます。真夏なのに、若いガテン系さんは一所懸命に働きます。

On my way to the station, I first notice a large truck parked in front of an old house. A minute further down the small street, this orange-haired youth greets me, and points at his shoes, saying “these are Japanese tabi.” Tabi are the mitten-like shoes worn by Japanese construction workers and farmers. He very willingly posed for his portrait, with the demolition site in the background.

This is the start of a series on the demolition of two adjacent Nakano houses. One was, at one time, an elegant and understated Showa-era home, with clean lines and a few blue ceramic roof tiles as decoration. It’s neighbor is a more international-style home from perhaps the 1970s. The demolition took place during the heat of summer in August.

Home demolitions give you a rare peak inside the homes of strangers, allowing you to see interior courtyards, old kitchens, and other “private spaces.” The demolition requires weeks of dismantling and trash sorting. There’s some machinery for the heavy lifting, but much of the energy for these small projects comes from youth.

Edoble brings people together to eat free food growing in Tokyo

東京の「エドブル」は人を集めて、無料で料理を作ったり、食べたりします。
ハッサクという果物が食べられることを知っていますか? 区役所の公務員と一緒にハッサクを廃校になった中学校で収穫しました。先月、20人が集まって、ハッサクを切って、皮や種や膜を取って、マーマレードを作りました。もっとエドブルの料理パーティーに参加したい。

Through this blog, I was contacted by Edoble, whose tag line is “free food everywhere, in Tokyo.” Last month Edoble organized a hassaku marmelade party at a small shoutengai in Nakano, not far from where I live.

Edoble’s founder Jess Mantell is a Canadian designer, doctoral student, city explorer, and community organizer. As you can see from the poster above, she’s a great illustrator, too. At Keio University, she previously led a team that created an iPhone app that tracks movement across Tokyo with city sounds.

Edoble’s hassaku marmalade making event was great fun. Hassaku is a citrus tree that I often see growing in older gardens in Tokyo. The tree is very robust, and the fruits bright orange and large starting in winter. Seeing them makes me feel like there’s a bit of Florida or Southern California in Tokyo. But everyone had told me that the fruit is inedible. Jess’ idea was to bring people together to harvest and prepare hassaku.

It seems that if you pick the fruit at different times, the taste changes. Jess spotted mature hassaku trees in an abandoned city middle school near her house in south Nakano. She asked permission from the ward office to harvest the fruit in the spring, and several city workers unlocked the gate and joined her in collecting and sharing the fruit. That alone is pretty cool.

In June, Edoble hosted a marmalade party as a public event at a small space that is shared by the shoutengai association. On June 11, about twenty people very rapidly peeled the fruit, eliminated the membrane, put the seeds and membrane into a cheese cloth, and then boiled everything in four large pots. It was fun to see the amazing knife skills, particularly the older women and one young nursery school chef. We even got some help from some neighborhood kids.

The workshop was super-inspiring. It is great to realize how much food is growing in Tokyo, and that we can join with our neighbors in collecting and preparing super local food. Edoble’s accomplishment was in bringing together residents and local government, children and seniors, mostly Japanese and a few foreigners, mostly women and a few men.

Edoble reminds me that cities can grow a lot more of their own food, and that residents enjoy opportunities to work together and share food. Urban foraging is low cost and high return.

Small biodiversity garden for construction workers

高速道路の工事現場のまんなかに、きれいな生物多様性の庭があります。すべての働く場所は庭になるはずです。

I saw this beautiful biodiversity mini-garden at a construction site for the  combination surface and underground urban freeways along Yamate Dori not far from Yoyogi Park. Although I bike this route every weekday, it took me a while to realize that this garden was inside the construction site, and visible mostly to the construction workers. What a great idea that workers’ jobs can be improved with on-site gardens. It looks very modular and portable.

This project is, I think, by Shimizu Corporation, one of Japan’s big builders. It’s funny that they get more attention for their grandiose city on the ocean Green Float concept than some of the small and inexpensive projects that they are already carrying out.

Shibuya office tower has green wall on back side

垂直の庭は普通のオフィスビルを一変します。デットスペースをなくす渋谷の良い例です。

Since I have been taking an intensive Japanese language course in Shibuya, I have gotten to explore some of the back areas of Shibuya. Away from the massive crossing that is world famous (called a “scramble” in Japanese), and away from the crazy teen fashion, Shibuya is full of offices and even quiet residential neighborhoods.

I often pass the front of this bland and typical office tower. Recently, I was walking in the back alley, and realized that the entire rear facade is planted. I’ll have to go back some more to see if the wall of green grows thicker. It seems like a simple yet impressive structure for transforming the dead vertical space, and providing a beautiful garden for the office workers and neighbors. Well done!

Docomo Tower reflecting in office window behind Shinjuku Goen

Within minutes of taking this photo, a monsoon-like rainstorm chased everyone off the street unexpectedly. I was struck by this reflection of the Docomo Tower behind Shinjuku Goen in the semi-transparent windows of this office building.

The Docomo Tower is meant to look like a modern version of the Chrysler Building, but without windows or ornamentation it is stark. Something about the combination of the rows of fluorescent lights, office workers in starched white shirts, enclosed network communications, and the lush urban forest appeals to me.

Benefits of corporate gardens

Great New York Times story about benefits of corporate gardens, including Pepsi-Co and Aveda. Improves worker morale, eating, health, and informal conversation across departments. Why doesn’t every company create a small edible garden? By adding native plants to storefronts and walls, and giving small plants to customers, corporations can brand themselves and create distributed habitat, too.

A shrine in a construction site

Near the Ikura crossing, close to Tokyo Tower, I saw this construction site with a shrine inside. It’s the wooden structure in the center of the photograph, resting on top of a storage shed or perhaps portable toilet.

I noticed that the building was going up next to a small shrine, because a formal concrete gate remains close to the construction area, perhaps on the same lot. However, I was most surprised by this tiny wood shrine within the construction site.

I wonder if the workers bring this small shrine wherever they work. Or if it is related to the shrine next to the construction site. In any case, I am amazed by the juxtaposition of modern building and sacred space; engineering and spirit protection; concrete, rebar, and wood.

Have any of my readers seen a shrine within a construction site? Are there shrines or gods that specifically protect construction workers?

Holiday plants in Metro & Odakyu stations

I am not a big fan of the artificial tree or of Christmas. But Japanese love holidays, imported and national. I wonder whether the stations planned these small seasonal displays, or if they were the initiatives of long-time workers.

I prefer the use of the flowering “Christmas” cactus at the Shinjuku Odakyu station. And below the JR Metro Aoyama Itchome station’s faux snow tree in all its slightly adorned glory.

Drunk salary man passed out in flower bed

Drunk salary man passed out in flower bed

Friday night outside Shinjuku station, I noticed a salary man lying unconscious in a flower bed. The two young women sitting next to him wondered what this foreigner was photographing. I mentioned that in the United States, it’s not safe to be passed out in public, but they laughed and said, “It’s OK.”

I marvel at the safety of Tokyo, the world’s largest city, where it is not uncommon to see well-dressed people passed out from inebriation on sidewalks, train platforms, and occasionally on top of plants. There seems something poetic almost about the juxtaposition of office worker, flower and soil. Like seeing early elementary school children riding the trains alone, seeing adults passed out in public makes me reflect on how rarely we can feel free, unguarded and safe in United States and European cities.

In both cases, Japanese hardly notice that these things are happening. It’s just normal and “OK.”

Bento and Japanese Beauty

Japanese and German knives

Today’s New York Times has a great “Room for Debate” feature where four cultural experts discuss the beauty of the Japanese bento box. Although seemingly off-topic from Tokyo Green Space, the discussion expresses relevant cultural aesthetics and the importance of beauty, simplicity, and care.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, talks about simplicity and making due in an island nation with limited natural resources. I like his view that Japanese value “making less into more,” and traces bento creation to Kyoto food, a fanciful illusion that masks limited food resources.

Bento box

Kenya Hara, art director of Muji and professor of Musashino Art University, talks about shokunin kishitsu, or craftsman’s spirit. By cleaning carefully, working diligently, or preparing lunch boxes with creativity, airport cleaners, construction workers and home-makers make the mundane into something beautiful.

I also like how he claims Japanese have a special ability, “an incapacity to see ugliness,” that allows them to ignore urban chaos, ugly architecture and bad signage. In the drabbest office or construction environment, there is still a space to enjoy a perfect bento lunch.

It is easy to see how some of these ideas are expressed in the beautification of public spaces: ordinary people working within the constraints of an often poorly designed urban landscape, creating small vignettes of beauty with a mix of artistry and care, and sharing these creations with minimal self-importance.