A Report from our Japan Correspondent

Background: As part of my ongoing, seemingly single handed crusade to look at multitasking of sidewalk spaces for multimodal use I was awarded a grant from the Architectural Foundation of Oregon (AFO) to study the ped/bike zone of urban streetscapes in Japan. So…

I am writing from my hotel room in Kobe looking out at the twinkling lights of the Akashi Kaikiyo Bridge – the world’s longest suspension bridge. All the lights, thousands, change into rainbow hues for 5 minutes at the top of each hour (wouldn’t this be great on Portland’s bridges?). It makes a very good reason to keep drinking in the 17th floor rooftop bar for multiple hourly increments. But the prices don’t.

So far I have been in 4 cities, studied dozens of streets (a few in detail), taken about 600 photos, interviewed about 1/2 dozen planners and academics, presented a paper on “Portland vs. Japan” at the 8th Annual Asian Urbanization conference where I learned a lot about things like the evolution of pan-Asian mega-cities and the transportation costs of distributing fresh vegetables in SE Asia (peas are big in India), while also getting a chance to meet and mingle with planners, engineers and geographer types from Nanjing, Taipei, Bangkok, New Delhi, Berlin, Vienna, Kyoto and the University of Akron (Ohio). During our conference bus tour I got within 30 yards of Prime Minister Koizumi (check this out for cultural difference related to street operations: “Oh so sorry, the Prime Minister is on top of a bus making a speech — yes, that guy right in front of you waving his arms — and traffic is moving slow around him, apologies we are late due to this vexing unforeseen inconvenience” vs. how many blocks would be barricaded for President Bush?) visited a historic Sake factory, and rode up in a tiny cable car halfway to the stars… uh oh… wrong song. Really all research related, I promise.

A trend is going on in Tokyo, and perhaps all over Japan and SE Asia that I have decided to call “collosalization”. Incoherently platted small properties that date back to Japan’s medieval period are being assembled by big developers who are then bulldozing everything so that gigantic new projects – like the Roppongi Hills complex – can be built. A major concern is whether this new type of development can maintain the fine grained texture of built environment that is so much a part of Japanese culture. There is so much detail everywhere…

Next stop was in Oita City, on the south island of Kyushu. This modest port city of around 500,000 is not so far from the size of Portland …. but imagine a Portland where from Burnside to Terwilliger along SW Broadway is a solid unbroken line of parked bikes, almost stacked on top of each other along the edge of the sidewalk. Imagine women with perfect hair in high heels and Givenchy dresses riding bikes around Nordies downtown – in 90 degree weather. Then imagine trains so long you can’t see either end of them coming into Union Station every five minutes. Even if you hate sushi – this should be Portland’s future! To support all the pedestrian vitality, the investment in paving, urban furnishings, etc. is very impressive. Ooops, room lights out – the bridge is doing its rainbow thing.

Kobe is a major port city of about 1.5 million, maybe not so far from Portland’s future build out(?). Very urbane and to some degree Westernized. Because of the Great Hanshin earthquake ten years ago an unprecedented amount of new building and infrastructure has been put in place. Certainly a city with its own distinct personality and some great streets. It has seven different subway lines, three distinct railway lines (often going almost the same places) a monorail and about a dozen different aerial tram lines. I was interested in this last on Portland’s behalf, but it turns out they are all distinctly touristy, so no commuter cable cars. Unless you would commute to the hot springs.

Aside from sketching, which takes forever, everything takes a lot longer than it would in the US. I stand and stare at the ubiquitous sign monument maps on the street for ages. Figuring out what train to catch, where to eat, which direction to walk in, how to talk to people… it all takes time. And then there are the distractions. Virtually everything: folding bikes, stationary shops, women in kimonos, comic books, robotic welcoming cats, temples, shrines, cable cars (Kobe has them all over the place), did I mention food?

Well, this is getting too long and maybe unfocused. Wanted you all to know I am surviving despite my substandard Japanese and super-standard height (only banged my head once today – improving). It is fabulous being here. Hope I can bring back some condensed experience that will be – if not immediately useful – at least thought provoking.

for now – sayonara,


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