Tokyo is one of the world’s largest and most populated cities. It is best known as a vast metropolis or megacity, yet 3.44% of Tokyo is green space. This week I visited green spaces in Tokyo—gardens, shrine complexes, parks, and tree-lined walkways. I also had the opportunity to visit Tamagawa University to visit elementary classrooms and to learn about the principles that ground the educational program there.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Walking in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was a good place to reflect on Japanese garden design and how different framing views support different kinds of learning. As Kaplan, Kaplan, and Ryan (1998) write,
“The Japanese garden provides an excellent example of how extensive even a small area can seem . . . such gardens pay careful attention to the details of nature (for example, stepping-stone pathways that compel one to stop and notice the small ferns or fallen leaves at one’s feet). Other principles used in the design of Japanese gardens include open screens or fences or vegetation that divide larger spaces, circuitous pathways that create a sense of a larger area, and positioning viewing points so that the entirety of the garden cannot be seen from any one place” (p. 72).
Below I share three different images of the garden and note how each view supports different considerations of the interactions of nature and culture.
This first view shows a large pond, footbridge, and surrounding plantings. Visitors can choose to walk in a circular route around the pond. From this part of the garden the megacity of Tokyo is not visible. I observed visitors stopping on the path to look carefully at branches and leaves that hang over the pathway, as well as at the swimming carp in the water. This part of the garden might reinforce a view of nature as an oasis from crowded city life. Although the setting looks natural, it is actually very purposefully designed and highly manicured.
This second view of the garden shows another pond and the Taiwan Pavilion. This view is a powerful reminder that humans have built structures for centuries; the setting is a provocative contrast of plants, water, and a human built structure. There are two ways to think about views/vistas in this image—the view of the structure nestled in the setting and the views of the garden that the building’s many open windows frame.
The third view of a pond and a footbridge shows how the garden is situated in very close proximity to the skyscrapers of the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. From this perspective the garden can be seen as being nestled within the megacity. Visitors might reflect on the different scales of the plants and the built environment, and consider how parks and green spaces make cities more livable.
My walk in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden helped me see connections between my previous sabbatical research project, where I focused on learning in botanic gardens, and how garden and park spaces are designed to hide, or reveal, how nature and culture shape landscapes.
In planning for this trip I met with an educator who has made more than 20 trips to Japan over the past 20+ years. She noted that Japanese shrine complexes, in addition to their religious significance, serve a similar function to North American parks—they are gathering places and are often sites of gardens and forests, and even recreation facilities and museums.
Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan and its guiding principle of harmony with nature has had great influence in Japanese garden design. Patricia Graham (2014) author of Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics & Culture writes,
“At the heart of Shinto practice is reverence for its millions of kami, the unseen deities who give and protect life, embodiments of life-sustaining forces of nature. Kami take many forms. They may occupy awe-inspiring places such as oddly shaped rocks, gnarled old trees, towering waterfalls, and majestic mountains, or they may be spirits of living or deceased personages, natural forces (such as thunder and rain), or even useful inanimate objects” (p. 71-72).
Garden and park designers create an environment by using rocks, trees and plants, water, and topography. These elements can be seen at the Shinto Meiji Shrine, a forested refuge in the busy Shinjuku area of Tokyo, a site the visitor guide pamphlet describes as “a place of calm in the heart of Tokyo.”
In describing the forest at the Meiji Shrine complex, the visitor guide explains the Shinto design principles. The forest area was created in honor of “Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, for their souls to dwell in.” Also, “The forest was carefully planned as an eternal forest that recreates itself.” The description also notes the paradox of defining what is nature or natural, “Now after about 100 years it cannot be distinguished from a natural forest inhabited by many endangered plants and animals.”
The forest and intentionally planted inner garden, with a water lily pond, azalea garden, large beds of iris plants, provide visitors with reminders of seasonal changes. Like the juxtaposition of the Taiwan Pavilion to the plantings and pond at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the Meiji Shrine complex is a human-built structure in contrast to the large surrounding forest, and is a reminder of how both natural forces and humans shape landscapes.
Respect for Nature is one of the twelve precepts that guide education at University Tamagawa. A comprehensive university, Tamagawa is home to a K-12 academy, a university, and graduate schools. I visited the campus and observed music, math, English and art classes at the elementary school. As I walked though the gardens on the Tamagawa campus with Holly and Sensi Chie Ohtani, we took time to visit the restored first building of the school—a home school for community children intentionally located in a garden.
The founder of Tamagawa University, education reformer Kuniyoshi Obara, worked to create an educational system focused on the whole person that supported students to see connections between community, freedom, and respect for nature. The University’s precept of Respect for Nature is defined as, “Mother Nature has offered great opportunities for education. We believe that it is important to teach students to preserve our precious natural environment.”
Nature and the Megacity
As the world’s largest city, Tokyo’s population density is a product of the shortage of available buildable landmass (the mountainous topography limits development to about one-third of the country’s landmass). My explorations in Tokyo have supported me to reflect on the role of nearby nature in megacities. Tokyo’s gardens, shrine complexes, tree-lined walkways, and parks provide opportunities for city dwellers and tourists to view nature in relation to the massive scale of the built environment of the city. While nearby nature can provide a sense of restoration, it can also support us to reflect on how topography shapes how cities are built and how we use natural resources.
For more information about this research project read the Project Overview.
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Graham, P. J. (2014). Japanese design: Art, aesthetics & culture. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., & Ryan, R. L. (1998). With people in mind: Design and management of everyday nature. Washington, D. C.: Island Press.
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