February 13 2013 11:22 – Indische buurt, Amsterdam

I caught the flu last weekend and have been confined to my home for the last few days. A home that’s starting to look increasingly messy, since my body hurts, my eyes are tired and I don’t have the energy to clean up, or properly do the dishes. In a way my place is starting to be reminiscent of Yama’s apartment, a friend in Tokyo who we stayed with.

The physical struggle with my flu brings back the memories of the workshop we organized in Tokyo last October/November. Working and living in Tokyo for two months was as much mentally stimulating and confusing as it was physically exhausting. It is amazing how visceral an impact a place can have on you.

November 17 2012 6:45 – Sasazuka, Tokyo

It is very early. After a shower and a coffee I wait for the phone call in the greyish light of dawn.
The phone rings at the expected time. It’s Kanae for J-Wave radio, Tokyo’s biggest radio station. First I have to do some voice performance test. Then I have to hold the line and wait to be interviewed by John Kibera for his radio show Global Frontline. Apparently he’s a big name in Japan, but for me the more exciting fact is that supposedly 7 million people will be listening.

He greets me and says, “good evening mr. Gardner” assuming i’ve already left Japan, I let it slide. He asks me what the Still City Tokyo project is about. I explain that the project explores the meaning of growth and non-growth in our society, and that with our project we try to imagine what a post-growth urban society might look like. And that we’ve chosen for Tokyo as our first case-study, since Japan’s economy hasn’t been growing for two decades, and demographically it is now shrinking and rapidly ageing. I go on to explain about the workshop itself. That we brought together about 40 to 50 architects, designers, artists, social scientists and other urban explorers to make an alternative guide to Tokyo, and to explore the idea of a Still City.

I could playback the general information easily.

He asked “and how did it go?” Amazingly enough he caught me off guard with that simple question. I went on to explain that it had been quite a struggle, to get to grips with the city, to understand it. I explained that it was almost as if the city was fighting back, that it didn’t allow us to reveal any of it’s secrets, as if we were intruders.

February 13 2013 12:15 – Indische buurt, Amsterdam

Now when I think of it, the physicality of the struggle, of understanding a place and a culture perhaps relates to the seemingly simple idea of two cultures with their own distinct temporalities. I mean, one could simply opposes the Japanese cycle to the Western linear progression of time. But although this is so simply said, and conceptually appealing, in lived experience, on the ground in a city like Tokyo it results in utter confusion.

Because, where does time exist in the first place. I cannot go to a place and a culture and then experience their sense of time. Since how I experience time is inseparable from me. It lives, dies and is shaped by my consciousness. Time exists together with consciousness, my perceptions and how I understand these through the culture I’ve lived in all my live.

A city where the average age of a building is younger that the average age of an inhabitant.

I think the Tokyoite must have a different sense of time to be able to deal with a city like Tokyo. A city so vast, endless and claustrophobic that the horizon is nowhere to be found from any street. A city that works as efficient as a machine, no dirt, no crime and with signs and lines that dictate the choreography of human flow on platforms and street-crossings. A city where the average age of a building is younger that the average age of an inhabitant. 26 versus 40. Which would mean that in a lifetime one could see the entire city and every building in it change three times over. A city with no plan, no master-plan, no direction. A city with an architecture so generic, as if produced by an algorithm, and triggering a continuous stream of deja-vu moments wherever in the city you may be. A city where power is invisible, no grand boulevards, axis, rotunda’s. Just a grand vacuum in the center, an eye in the storm. A dark-forest that houses the imperial family.

October 15 2012 09:10 – Tokyo, Shinjuku Tully’s

One of my favorite times of the day is my bike-ride from Yama’s house in Nakano to Shinjuku. The 15 minute bike-ride gives me comfort, a familiar ritual from my life in Amsterdam. We approach the Shinjuku’s skyscraper district, and spot our skyscraper. One of funky new ones, called “the cocoon”.

The other day I saw the top of it opening like the a sand-worm from Dune, eating up a helicopter from the sky.

We arrive at the foot of the cocoon, lock our bikes, get our coffee and install ourselves for another day in our crowded ad-hoc office: Tully’s coffee. Why is this our office? Because it is one of the rare places where we are able to get internet for a decent prize. Upon the first week of arrival, we couldn’t believe how in this technological utopia we were barely able to communicate amongst ourselves or with the outside world. Open wifi is practically non existent, your western phone doesn’t work. You cannot get any pre-paid card, phone or one of those amazing portable wireless 4G wifi router that are advertised everywhere. The bottom-line is that you have to be Japanese or need to have a residence permit to be able to plug into the Japanese matrix.

Tully's Together alone in Tully’s

Tully’s is a generic star-bucks inspired coffee-shop. The typical scenery consists of Japanese staring into their mobile’s and sipping their late’s, and about half of the clientele is alone. You’ll see the same thing in any coffee shop or restaurant, and often they’ll also sleep there; curled up on a bench or with their head resting on their arms on the table. It is true that the Japanese work very hard, long hours, and their weekend usually constitutes of one only day. Add to that the gruesome commute many Tokyoites have to take, four hours per day if you live on the outskirts of this megalopolis. The toilet in any establishment is also a popular place, especially the female ones. A zone of privacy, where you can temporarily shut out a city in which every square meter is utilized.

You could say that the home of many Tokyoites is literally Tokyo itself. A home exploded and distributed across the many spaces where they pass their time: coffee places, bars, toilets, shops, restaurants, trains, metro’s and offices, and finally at the end of the day their actual home, which often functions as little more than a bed-room.

Yama’s Apartment, July 2012 – 23:03 Nakano, Tokyo

It is as if somebody lives in a space but hasn’t completely made it their own. The furniture stands there. The cupboard, the bookshelves, a small couch, this small Ikea table, a bed, a rack with three synthesizers, a desk, and clothes on hangers in front of the window curtains. All as if they their locations are temporary. Suspended in animation. Scattered through-out this small one person apartment is stuff, thingies. Small in size, wrapped in plastic or packaged in little boxes. A messy galaxy of a magpie’s trinkets.

Yama's ApartmentYama’s Apartment, Nakano

We hear the fumbling of keys at the steel front door. It’s Yama who’s coming home. Yama is a salaryman working for an import-export company. He decided to work there so he could travel and see something of the world. He is smiling and excited and has with him a plastic-bag from Tokyu Hands, with in it pipets, measuring cups and other items which suggest he’s planning to do some kind of chemistry experiment. He is in his late 20s, and besides a young Japanese man in a suit, also somewhat of an artist. He explains he wants to flood a map of the world in its own resource consumption, symbolized by proportionally adding fluids that we consume daily, like milk, orange juice, etc.. The improvised experiment doesn’t work out, the paper map in the cardboard box get soaked, the fluids spill, more mess… But Yama clearly enjoys it.

The time Yama has for himself is limited. Two or three hours between arriving home and sleeping. All the time we have stayed at Yama, I’ve never seen him eat at home. He arrives around ten or eleven at night, and then he puts on his headphones to work a couple of hours producing his ambient music. Yama fits well in the statistics that show an increase in single households, and couples with no children. About 40% of Tokyo’s housing market is occupied by this group, and the real-estate developers are now building specifically for them – 20m2 or smaller single room apartments.

The transient feeling and the messiness of Yama’s apartment, are not unique to him. Tokyoites in general don’t invite friends over to their house, to cook together, eat, have a party. It is understood as a deeply private space, not a social space. Here the city can be shut out with a steel door. I think of my own house, my living-room, bookshelves, the stuff I put on the wall, the paraphernalia I collect as extensions of myself, of my character. My interior has a representational function, and my house is also a social space for occasional cooking for friends or a party. Tokyoites almost exclusively meet outside the house, in bars and restaurants.

The end of the city - Takao, Tokyo
The end of the city – Takao, Tokyo
JungleBeyond the fence – Takao, Tokyo

July 2012, Chuo Line – Shinjuku to Takao, (West) Tokyo

After one week in Tokyo we decide to see if can find the edge. The place where Tokyo ends. Especially Christiaan is troubled by feelings of claustrophobia. The labyrinthine interior we move around in seems infinite. Especially at night when all light is artificial, the distinction between inside and outside is obliterated. Traveling by metro, escalator, corridors and ticket gates and making your way through the ant’s nest that is Shinjuku station.

So we are escaping, desperate to see a horizon, an outside to this concrete jungle. We are taking the Chuo line, which will take us westward in a straight line above ground. While the train surfs over the ocean of rooftops the landscape very slowly but steadily changes. While equally generic, the fabric of city loosens up slightly, bigger social housing style blocks appear, sometimes you can spot a patch of agricultural land closed in by the city, and then also houses start to have gardens, slowly but steadily a little bit more air is creeping in between the buildings.

After two hours we reach the terminal station of this line. We get out and can see some where in the distance, green hills rising out of the city. We walk through Japanese suburbia, with its carefully trimmed trees and well kept walled gardens. We follow our instincts that will hopefully bring us to the edge of this city. We find a river, and yes, there it is. The end of the city. Demarcated by a fence that makes you wonder what is being protected, the city, or the wilderness? We continue to see if we can find a place where we can cross the fence and how we can climb the hill. We find a passage, and ascend the steps on the hillside to the top. We make our way through dim forest while it starts to rain, and finally reach a little Shinto shrine where we find shelter and stay for a while in a meditative state, glad to know the outside exists.

February 13 2013 16:19 – Indische buurt, Amsterdam

It was comforting to know that space was marked somewhere, a place where the city would stop, and begin. The Japanese must deal with space differently. Perhaps our hardship in coming to terms with the city was because we lacked to see something, a way of dealing with the fluidity of the Japanese city that allowed the Japanese to live in it. In the Dutch city, or for that matter the western city, space is more or less stable, space is the stable backdrop upon which life plays out. We cherish monuments, the older and the more authentic the better. They are the anchors of history in space, it makes the city readable like a timeline from center to periphery like the rings of a tree.

Photo - Jeptha DullaartWhere the temple is younger than the tower. Photo: Jeptha Dullaart

Dense medieval city fabric, renaissance constructions, neo-classical stations, museums and concert halls, 19th century city extensions, social housing in expressionist brickwork, post-war plattenbau, and sub-urban sprawl. The japanese city doesn’t allow those readings. Temples are younger than towers, and houses are built with contracts that include their demolition.

One could say that our space is stable, and time simply unfolds, come what may, go with the flow. Naturally we hope and plan for the best, for progress and growth, but you never know what the future might bring, let’s be practical about it.

For the Japanese one could say space is unstable. I mean, even the ground is not stable in Japan. You’ll feel an earthquake every other week. Thus time needs to have some stability, the rhythms of life, the year, work, school, the seasons, habits, conventions, rituals and traditions. Time is both fleeting and eternal. Every event, every instance recurs, an its recurrence provides stability. Thus while time flows, the recurrence of elements produce a continuum, a stable ground for existence. French sociologist Augustin Berque has called this “The Mythic Field” a symbolic layer that lies over the Japanese city. The elements that form it are temporal instead of permanent, and it is defined by actions rather than objects. This mythic field consists of local foods, the signs of convenience stores, the vending machines, the fleeting bloom of the cherry-blossom trees, the yearly neighborhood festival, the chimes on the train platforms, Japanese bureaucracy and the emperor. The mythic field contains traditional as well as contemporary elements, and people categorize themselves and their surroundings based on this layer.