And then there was one….

Today the team headed back to New York City…. The absence of my fellow travellers has made the counting process a lot speedier: ‘san!’ But, on the down side, there is no one to watch your baggage when you are a stocking up on snacks for the Shinkansen. I miss you guys.

Without the welcome distraction of 18 of my closest friends, the Shinkansen ride back to Kyoto was very reflective. Our time in Tokyo was intense, insightful and sweet.  Personally I was confronted with equal parts ‘what I expected’ and ‘surprise.’ I was really taken by the strongly reactive nature of Tokyo’s built environment. Though we had learned about the city’s transitory nature: the Metabolists et al before we set out, Tokyo’s development (and much of Japan’s for the matter) at the mercy of earthquakes and fires, remained thematically front and center throughout our visit. From pocket parks that functioned as fire breaks to kilometers long high-rises which created safe zones for evacuation, from concrete buildings to 26-year structural-lifespans, natural disasters and their aftermaths have extensively informed the ‘design’ of Tokyo.

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The final day. Still smiling. Must be Martin-Sansei’s new shades.
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Snacks on the Shinkansen. Mistake made: no beer.
Public space, the object of the gazes of 19 pairs of eyes, 19 camera lenses and 19 red notebooks over the last 3 weeks, was simultaneously a perfectly tangible and illusive subject. I think we were all extremely conscious of leaving behind western perspectives as we observed but the question remained: is good public space, good public space regardless of the cultural context? Surely not entirely but are there at least some criteria for the mental checklist? One thing that stood out to most of us was the commonly seen lack of use of public space: empty pocket parks, sad looking ‘koens’ and station plazas not inviting to the idler. Was the culprit the general unavailability of seating? Or culturally speaking, is public space not important to a culture that is exceedingly private? On the other hand, with the majority of the population living in small residences, wouldn’t public space be of utmost priority? Such dualities filled my thought process throughout our extensive tours of all types of public space in Tokyo. Punctuated, of course, by:  Tadao Ando, external plumbing, tree crutches, ‘Hello, may I take your picture,’ hydrangeas, above ground infrastructure, Tadao Ando, shopping malls, composting toilets, Frank Lloyd Wrights surprise cameo, the subtleties of moss, reinforced concrete, station labyrinths, Tadao Ando, original architectural vocabulary, performative spaces, ‘renku’ haikus as a metaphor for city formation, surfers!, rain chains, community gardens and of course Tadao Ando. What a full and well-orchestrated trip. Good job everyone: we hiked Tokyo, learned the gamut and made new friends. All in a days (and nights) work X 18. 
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Kamogawa throwback: Sean and Graham take to the river.
I am now sitting on the west bank of the Kamogawa River back in Kyoto. The narrow park created by the extended banks of the river embodies the true spirit of public space, as I see it. Surrounded by bikers, walkers, woggers and joggers, there is room for improvisation. To the left of me there is some serious napping going on, to the right, a well-attended game of bocce ball is going down. I feel free to snack and even make occasional eye contact with a passer-by. What a treat! Tonight, I’ve been invited to a picnic back at the Kamogawa by Kawakatsu Shinichi (Katsu), director of rad lab (‘Research for Architectural Domain’ /  www.radlab.info) whose house I’ve been staying at since I’ve been back in Kyoto. I can’t think of a better way to bookend my day.

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Last man standing. Sakko’s house, Kyoto.
I’ve been staying with Katsu partially because my good friend Sakiko Sugawa, the target of my return visit, is in the process of being evicted.  As a matter of fact, she and her two roommates constitute the only household remaining of a small cluster of old homes in the Takano neighborhood of northwest Kyoto. All the homes in front of hers have been torn down, actually up to her exterior walls. The homes behind hers have all been abandoned and are in some stage of gutting. With her house ‘in the way’ the large machinery necessary to demolish them cannot get by. The cluster of a dozen, two and three story homes is being leveled to make room for the construction of a manshion, a new high-rise condo development. As the only renter of the group, Sakko has been the last to be negotiated with, the others, all owners, were bought out of their properties with the hope that Sakko would just leave without resistance. At this point the conditions are pretty much unlivable and yesterday Sakko had a productive meeting with a housing lawyer and we looked at a prospective new apartment for her in the same neighborhood. As someone once said, ‘you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.’ (I can’t believe we didn’t karaoke to that one…)For Sakko it’s time to move on but this move is bitter sweet.

Her house was the launching pad for Social Kitchen, which began as ‘Kissa Hanare.’ Here, every Monday for five years Sakko and two of her friends offered a set dinner menu to anyone who wanted to enjoy a meal and converse with whoever else had made the same decision.  Social Kitchen, now in it’s third year in it’s own building, carries on the tradition of Hanare, bringing people together over food, for lectures and study groups, to discuss, share and debate. Social Kitchen is a café and event space that works for social change through open collaboration and makes excellent scallion miso. (www.hanareproject.net)

I’m actually headed to Social Kitchen now to meet with some members of Hyslom, an artist collective / performance troupe, to proof some English subtitles for a (turns out: long!) film that they are submitting to a documentary film festival in Taipei. The repeated crossovers with urban planning among the Social Kitchen tertiaries have been pleasant if not surprising. Hyslom have been working on a project for the last three years, visiting the site of a commuter town underdevelopment between Kyoto and Osaka. Every Sunday since development began, they have been exploring the location through interaction and performance- while the workers are away… This Sunday, I’m slotted to join the crew on their weekly pilgrimage. I hope I don’t have to crawl through any water mains. From Hyslom: ‘The group aims to bring to the surface the features, systems, natural phenomena, and other things that have disappeared or been hidden as cities and towns transform and to consider the state of the cities and towns where they currently live.’ From me: the words physical and intense come to mind. (www.hyslom.com) Watch a ‘trailer’ of sorts here: www.vimeo.com/39884968.
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Social Kitchen Board meeting. Sunday, June 10th. You all were right above LA around then.
Next up: study group discussing Japanese architect Kon Wajiro (1888-1973) plus earthquakes. No rest for the weary.

With the rainy season having mercy on me and my bike seat successfully raised about six inches I have no complaints.  

From Kyoto, with love-

Natalie Vichnevsky

 


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    Pratt17 

    17 Pratt Institute students of City & Regional Planning along with their professors travel overseas to study in Japan.  

    During our 17 days we will hear from 17 different voices about their experiences in Japan.

    1.  Isabel
    2.  Iwona
    3.  Karen
    4.  William
    5.  Sara
    6.  Graham
    7.  Johane
    8.  Sean
    9.  Ana
    10.  Roxanne
    11.  Alexa
    12.  Alix
    13.  Victoria
    14.  Christopher
    15.  Joseph
    16.  Lacey
    17.  Natalie
    18.  Jia