tokyo in retrospect

Sakura in full bloom at Shinjuku Gyoen Imperial Park

As I write this, I have been in Tokyo, Japan for just under a year. I’ve been living in my research, so to speak, exploring the megalopolis of Tokyo on a daily basis and trying to understand how this city came to be in the form that it has taken. I actually began researching Japanese urbanism while pursuing a post-professional Master in Design Studies at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, looking specifically at Imperial City Planning in Heian-kyo (modern day Kyoto) and Edo-Tokyo. My research on grid systems led me to apply for the MEXT Scholarship so that I could continue a tangent of this exploration related to Tokyo specifically. I joined Professor Ito Takeshi’s laboratory at Tokyo University in April 2010, starting as a research student initially, and then six months later, entering the Doctoral program after the requisite entrance exams, interview, thesis presentation and intensive Japanese language course.

It’s been a challenge to shift gears out of a professional career in architecture, having worked in Toronto and New York for nearly six years, designing educational facilities and private residences. The shift has been a welcome change, however, as I was craving the intellectually stimulating environment that a University offers. Being immersed in a new cultural setting has made this change even more dramatic and rewarding (honestly it has been frustrating at times too, as my Japanese ability is slowly improving, but I’ve welcomed the opportunity to learn a new language). I’ve gained a wealth of experience and skills, understanding how both cities and architecture are made in Japan and specifically within the urban environment of Tokyo.

It’s hard to believe a year has already gone by, but it’s once again Spring in Tokyo and my walk to the train station is fragrant with the blossoms of Plum trees. One thing that I’ve taken note of here is the extent to which nature and the city are intertwined, both physically and within the collective unconscious of the Japanese. As each season passes, with amazing accuracy (within one or two days in fact) the weather predictably changes and the rites of the new season are well underway.

The Spring is heralded by the blossoming of trees, Plum followed by the spectacle of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), the city parks crowded with revellers under canopies of white and pink. I was confronted by nature even in the densely built up area surrounding Hongo Campus in Bunkyo-ku (where I study in Central Tokyo). While large urban parks are a relatively new concept for Japanese cities post-Meji era, private postage stamp gardens and linear potted-plant gardens lining the roji (laneways) of Bunkyo-ku are more common. The Japanese notion of interior and exterior is blurred and fluid, with gardens spilling into cramped roji and interior spaces opening out onto the street to ventilate homes in the shoulder seasons (Spring and Fall). Despite the sheer density and lack of privacy, the city neighbourhoods open to reveal a soft and pliable inner space, which the Japanese call oku. This type of space is particular to Japanese cities and characteristic of the type of spaces one discovers deep within Tokyo’s neighbourhoods when the first signs of Spring arrive.

The Summer brings with it humid and often hot temperatures, the trees filled with the resonant sounds of early summer cicada (the late-summer cicada takes it’s place in August, singing a slightly different tune). Summer also enlivens the streets with matsuri (village festivals), each district celebrating its respective deity with the fanfare of parades, fireworks, music and shrine-decorating. At times one really feels transported back to the Edo-period, the crowds wearing yukatas (summer kimonos), and the chō (city district) transformed with lanterns, banners and road-side vendors. The cohesiveness and village-like atmosphere of Tokyo’s urban districts is apparent at this time of year, and it’s easy to see why the city functions so well. These chō are the basis of the city’s organization, built upon the intimate, closely-knit relationships of its residents, owners of local establishments and the regular visitors who frequent them. It’s been endlessly fascinating exploring these neighbourhoods, which exist in their village-like atmosphere, framed by a chaotic and crowded network of avenues. One quickly leaves behind the bustle and speed of the modern city as soon as one enters the enclosed world of the chō.

It was with a sense of relief and nostalgia that I welcomed the Fall and Winter, after a series of gusty and suddenly cold evenings. The city braced itself against the cold and steaming hot o-den (boiled vegetables and meat in a thin broth) became the meal of choice. A conflagration of colour filled the trees and Hongo campus became a tourist hot-spot for it’s spectacular, bright yellow Ginko foliage.

At the end of the fall I had the opportunity to intern at Ando Tadao’s office in Osaka through a recommendation from Ito sensei. I participated on an art gallery and hotel project, my contribution being an iterative series of model studies. My stay was for only a short period, after which I traveled to Kyoto to visit the temples and take in the breathtaking scenery of the city. The daily temperatures in the city swung quite dramatically with warm, comfortable days and frigid November evenings spent walking along the grand, linear avenues. The axial, gridded, imperial city Kyoto put into strong relief the differences between it and the more organic, radial city of Tokyo. Tokyo is a haptic, sensorial and experiential city which slowly reveals itrself to you. I reflected on this difference and began to appreciate the informal, complex and layered construction that is Tokyo.

As an architect and urbanist it has been a real privilege to be in Tokyo as a kind of observer and researcher. My sense of the city has been completely altered since my experience of living and studying this past year in Japan. It has shifted my perception and given me a new perspective on urbanism and architecture. It’s my hope that I will also contribute to a greater understanding between our two countries through intellectual and cultural exchange. Over the past six months I have been participating in a research group entitled, “Comparative Housing in the 60’s in Japan and the US / Canada” with two Assistant Professors and a Master’s student. I’ve offered my own perspective on Canadian and American cities and the types of issues we are facing in the Planning and Design fields. Our monthly meetings have also helped me move beyond a more superficial reading of the Japanese city and overcome some of the preconceptions I’ve had about urbanism here.

I’ve come to the realization that the Japanese city is an open-ended and continuous narrative that is constantly being edited, re-written and composed by both the powerful and those with whatever means they have to effect change. With this new sensibility, my approach to design and planning has been tempered by the knowledge that the city and nature are not necessarily polar opposites or in conflict with each other. The delicate interweaving I’ve found in Tokyo has helped me re-frame this seeming dichotomy as a continuous interface. I hope to continue to delve deeper into this great culture of city-building over the next two and a half-years of my scholarship, and formulate my own narrative about the intermingling of nature and artifice which comprises the hybrid Japanese city.

Copyright © 2010 Shabbar Sagarwala, All Rights Reserved. Any unauthorised commercial reproduction or distribution in part or in full will constitute an infringement of copyright. Permission granted to reproduce for educational use only.