Tokyobling's Blog

Ryogoku Rainwater Harvesting Station

Posted in Places by tokyobling on April 9, 2014

While walking in Tokyo’s eastern Ryogoku, just to the east of Sumida river, I found this interesting structure between a road and a major park. It is a rainwater harvesting station, with an upside down umbrella for a roof and a water tank of 600 liters of water inside. The wood it is constructed from is taken from thinned out wood from the large wood plantations all over Japan. The idea behind this station is to harvest rain water to water the hedges and flower beds in the area, to take the pressure of the local water works. Naturally it would take thousands of these all over Tokyo to even make a dent in the local water use, but it is a great first step and an experiment to go back to a more sustainable lifestyle.

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Irori – The Japanese Hearth

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Places by tokyobling on December 18, 2013

Now that winter is coming and the weather forecast showed the symbol for snow here in Tokyo it might be interesting to talk about heating. This is the season where many foreigners (and indeed many Japanese) wonder aloud how Japanese homes can be so fantastically cold. The discussion usually involves plenty of curse words unfit for reproducing on a family blog like this! Foreigners usually wonder why Japanese homes aren’t better insulated. In northern Japan, including all of Hokkaido and large parts of the northernmost prefectures, insulated western style homes, complete with double or triple glazing, is the norm. In the rest of Japan you will very rarely find insulation in homes. One of the reasons for this is that insulation is basically for heated homes, and Japanese homes generally aren’t heated. While westerners use huge amounts of resources to ensure they have comfy homes at a perpetual 20 degrees no matter the season, Japanese are used to the old idea of heating only the people inside the house, although this is changing and more and more people heat their homes.

I remember some mornings in my first home in Tokyo, a rickety old three story wooden framed stick building where it was so cold that I found ice on the glass of water left beside my bed. The common feature in almost all Japanese homes is the kotatsu, a low table covered in a thick skirt and heated underneath, trapping all the heat inside and keeping the entire family gathered around it with their lower bodies comfy and warm and all bundled up in warm clothes on their upper bodies. This is such a universal feature in Japanese life that countless Japanese customs can be explained by observing how a family use their kotatsu in winter. Almost every family you talk to will have similar stories of refusing to leave the kotatsu and taking turns to get up for errands like changing the channel on the TV or getting mikan fruit from the kitchen. You will also get stories of whole families sleeping around the kotatsu rather than going up to their freezing bedrooms. There is even plenty of room for romance and fun around the kotatsu, for young and old couples. Any Japanese book, manga, anime or TV show depicting family life will have these kotatsu-scenes.

But before the kotatsu there was the irori, the Japanese hearth. It is a sunken hearth in the middle of the traditional Japanese living room, filled with fine sand and ashes. Contrary to common sense it is always made of wood, the sand protecting the fire-hardy pear tree heartwood from burning. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the Japanese have managed to invent a way to keep an open fire in a wooden fire pit inside a wooden house with paper doors and straw mat floors, in an ecological, economical and healthy way! The irori has many uses. It heats the room, it provides a spot to grill, cook or bake simple food. You can heat or boil water. It lights the room and keeps the fire alive throughout the night which was handy before matches or lighters. It dries clothes. It gathers the family and helps communication. It shows family hierarchy and provides a simple symbol of stability. It dries the timbers of the house, preventing rot, fungus and wood disease, preserving the house for hundreds of years (there is even one wooden house that has been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years).

In the old days when the smoke of the indoor fire was important for preserving the thatched roof of all homes, it was common to use both firewood and coal, but as people get more prosperous they prefer the smoke-less coal. In the old days people were free to pick fallen branches and harvest fallen logs but were not allowed to cut living wood, so it was easy to gather enough fuel for the irori. Making coal however was an extra step in the process and although an easy and simple job it was not possible for many families to gather enough wood or bamboo to make coal.

To stop sparks many irori had a woven mat hung over them, which could be used to dry fish, forage and fruit for preservation, but the classical irori always had a jizakagi, a hollow bamboo pole suspended from the ceiling containing a metal rod or chain, with a hook at the end. The jizaikagi is the most important tool in using the irori. It has a lever that is usually in the form of a fish, that allows you safely regulate the hight of the hook and how close your food or pot is to the fire.

Why the fish form? There are two often recited reasons for this. The fish being a water creature, is symbolically protecting against the fire of the hearth, thus preventing accidents and house fires. The other reason is related to the first, in that fish having no eyelids were thought to never sleep, which is a good ability to have if you are guarding a fire.

This irori and the old men volunteering to tending the fire is inside a beautiful old house at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum (江戸東京たてもの園), in Koganei, western Tokyo. The last photo is of the inside of the house, very thin walls and absolutely no insulation even in the middle of winter.

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Recommended Reading – Just Enough

Posted in Opinion, Stuff by tokyobling on July 27, 2013

I don’t normally review books on this blog but there is this one book that I just can’t ignore, it is easily my favorite book about Japan, and also strangely enough, about our future. “Just Enough – Lessons in living green from traditional Japan” by the scholar Azby Brown happens to be the only book I know that actually provides practical answers to the predicament we all face today, overpopulation, peak oil, peak water, basically peak everything. The fact that humanity is wreaking all sorts of havoc on this planet can’t have escaped anyone. Our social and economical systems are based on a theory of infinite growth in a finite world, something that is both practically and theoretically impossible. Too many humans are using up too many resources, there is an ever accelerating rate of loss of species, biodiversity, forests, farmland, natural resources, accessible water, etc. Our oceans are acidifying, overfished and polluted. Or quest to feed an ever more hungry economy forces us to use ever more expensive and damaging systems of extracting fossil fuels, farmland is turned into shopping malls, forests are turned into desserts and in most places these changes are irreversible.

We can either start changing our lifestyles right now, when we still have choices, or we can just wait for the whole modern system to run into the brick wall of system collapse. One of the main reasons we don’t want to change though, is because we have no role models, we have no examples where humans have managed to turn an ecology on the brink of collapse to something resembling a sustainable society, but unknown to most westerners and ignored by many Japanese, there is one. Azby Brown, an American scholar based in Tokyo has written a book about the one and only human society to have functioned more or less sustainably, the one of Japan in the Edo period (roughly 1600-1868). In this book he describes Japan as it was before the Edo period, rocked by civil wars, overpopulation, rapid deforestation, pollution and the loss of farm land to erosion. Pre-Edo Japan was very similar to our global society today, as an isolated island nation it was heading towards irreversible ecological and social collapse. However, something happened, an enlightened and clever political regime came into power that saw the problems and had the intelligence and willpower to act. During the Edo period, ever aspect of life in Japan, from the lowliest commoner to the lords of the country, changed. Every single human activity was remodeled to be sustainable and fit into the large scheme. Nothing was wasted, everything manmade was well thought out and designed to perfection, every scrap of nutrition was recycled and although the country was almost completely isolated and had access to absolutely no other energy than muscle power, the whole country went from being on the brink of collapse into becoming a prosperous, socially and technologically advanced culture with a stable population of 30 million (including the biggest and cleanest city on Earth at the time, Edo, with 1,4 million people), no deforestation and farmland that actually became more and more fertile generation after generation.

This book, of which I have read both the English and the Japanese versions many times (as you can see from the worn out cover of my old hardcover copy) describe this remarkable change and the sacrifices that were necessary. Obviously not all of these would be immediately acceptable to us modern humans, but in the end they proved both successful and sustainable for the people of Japan. Azby Brown’s work and this book might just be one of the most important books ever written about sustainable societies for a modern audience. It is certainly the only book that is able to provide an example of a human society that actually did work. When I get depressed thinking about where our modern society is going and the damage we are doing to our planet I like to pick up this book and imagine again a society that was proof that humans can live long and prosper, without relying on finite resources or the plundering of our planet.

You can get this book on Amazon here, or the Japanese version here. I actually bought many of the Japanese version to give out to like minded friends. The book is well illustrated and so full of facts, charts, explanations of everything from recycling to kimono patterns that is great fun to read or even to just dip into and pick up a fact here and there.

Even if you are not interested in ecology or the future of the planet, the books is fantastic because it will explain so many things about Japan, the Japanese society and the Japanese language that you’d certainly never be able to gather from just living here. Even my Japanese friends who read this have had an Aha! experience on nearly every page. Wandering around in modern Tokyo with this book I am able to find in almost every block, even after 160 or more years later, many traces of the old sustainable Edo, even in my own block, and in my landlord’s family history, it all matches up. I can not recommend this book enough. Please check out its official website here.

More links:
National Geographic Review.
The San Francisco Chronicle Review.
TED Tokyo Talk – The Edo Approach.
The Atlantic article on Urban Farming by Azby Brown.

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Ginpachi – Urban Beekeeping and Community Building

Posted in Ginpachi, Nature, Opinion, Places by tokyobling on February 2, 2013

Today’s post will be a little bit different, no flashy photos, but a rather flashy concept. I have always been interested in ecology, low scale human sized farming and beekeeping, and I always felt my life in Tokyo, fantastic as it is, lacked a bit of the natural touch. So I was thrilled when I learned about the Ginpachi – the Ginza Hachimitsu Project, an ecological project centered around the humble bee to build a local community, aid farms, assist in the rebuilding of the tsunami ravaged north east and get some pretty wonderful 100% ecological honey in the process! The story is not new, but it is a story well worth repeating and adding to. In 2006 a local Ginza man decided to try his hand at using his building’s roof space for something more interesting than just as a place to put the air conditioning, beekeeping. Now, keeping bees in such a fantastically densely populated and urban area as the heart of Tokyo, Ginza, is absolutely not an idea that comes naturally. For years more and more bees have succumbed to the double punch of pests (the varroa mite, a louse that kills bees in droves) and agricultural insecticides that disorient bees to such a degree that they can’t find their way home. This epidemic has crippled the beekeeping industry (and with it comes failed crops and harvests for all the plants and flowers and trees that are dependent on the bees for pollination) all over the world, indeed most beekeepers in rural areas of Japan has seen losses of between 50-100% of their swarms, every single year for the last few years. But as it turns out, the varroa mites can be somewhat controlled by medication and a tough ruthless extermination campaign, and above all, there is virtually no agricultural insecticides used in urban areas! But a big problem was how to persuade the locals to accept the bees in their neighborhood? The people behind the project personally went around and talked to as many organizations, trade clubs, business associations and local shops and offices as they could. They got a grudging acceptance to at least try it out, with the promise to stop if the bees turned out to be too much trouble. As a way of thanking the locals, the first year’s harvest of honey was distributed as gifts and suddenly the attitude towards the bees turned from fear to acceptance and even appreciation.

Today, seven years later, the Ginpachi project manages hives on two Ginza roof tops, about six big hives in all I think, half of it with western honey bees and half of it with the increasingly rare Japanese honey bee (which is smaller, calmer and not nearly as productive). Last year these two small rooftop apiaries combined produced a staggering 890kg of honey, of which the rare and expensive Japanese honey bees produced about 20kg. Ever since the first harvest demand has been very high and continually sells out as soon as it is put on the shop shelves. A large part of the harvest goes to local bars, beauty salons and bakeries where the honey is used in everything from cookies to cocktails and skin creams.

But the honey is just one part of the project. A simple idea to do something useful with otherwise neglected roof top space grew into an urban community project that roped in ecological farmers from all over Japan. In order to give the bees flowers to feed on other roof top owners in Ginza was asked to plant flowers, crops and vegetables on their gardens, and every year more and more roof tops are converted into ecological mini-farms, one of the biggest being the Mitsukoshi department store roof garden. When the earthquake and tsunami struck the north east in March 2011 the new Ginza urban community pulled together under the banner of the honey bee and organized Farm Aid to help farmers recover and restart their businesses by offering everything from micro finance to agricultural aid, energy assistance, a large and motivated volunteer work force to offers to buy the local product and sell or use in Ginza.

The honey bee project is now used as an informal and grass roots led way of reducing the use of insecticides in agriculture and encouraging farmers to think out side the box and find alternatives to reliance on insecticide heavy crops. The idea is, that if an area, a community, is clean enough for the humble honey bee to thrive, then it is good enough for humans! It might not be perfect or government approved, but it is local people doing something indisputably positive to their own local environments.

As news of the Ginza honey bee project got around the world other local urban bee keepers got in touch and there is now a loosely knit network of ecological farmers and urban bee keepers in several big cities around the world, all working without the help of governments. In fact, my visit to the project was not the first, a long list of foreigners from beekeepers to ambassadors and politicians from all over the world have stood on the same little roof in Ginza, learning how one small group of people can start with nothing and literally change their world for the better, without money, without government.

I am looking forward to following this project more closely, and I wished I could have told about all the great things they do, I have barely scratched the surface!

Key to photos:
1. On top of this building.
2. Seal for products under the honey bee project ecological banner!
3. Ecological Fukushima and Ginza rapeseed oil, a new product.
4. Part of a roof top garden run by volunteers from building workers.
5. The main apiary, the two boxes in the center are the main honey producers, the smaller ones are for experimenting.
6. Busy western bees in January?! Got to love the Japanese climate!
7. A bee that succumbed on his way back, fully laden with probably Camellia tree pollen!
8. Main apiary.
9. The Japanese honey bee apiary, note the smaller boxes.
10. Showing the difference between the frames used by the two different species.
11. Smoke puffer used to calm bees down when you do bad things to them, i.e. steal their honey!
12. The remains of last year’s harvest of Japanese, rare, honey. Each month tastes totally different, my favorite was the April and May honey, it tastes of sakura, cherry blossoms!

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