Love for Japan [2]

The thing I miss the most due to the pandemic is Japan. I first visited in 2008 as part of an around the world trip which began in Australia and then featured an epic adventure over sea and land from Japan to Berlin without flying. I spent three weeks exploring Japan from the alleys of Tokyo to the temples of Kyoto. Hiking in the Japanese Alps to camping on the coast of the Sea of Japanese. From the incredible architecture to the amazing food, traditional gardens to futuristic trains, I quickly fell in love.

I returned to Japan in 2015 to work on a community project with the Architecture firm I started with a couple partners. We collaborated with the Portland Development Commission (now Prosper Portland) and a landscape architecture firm to help the small rural town of Aridagawa generate ideas on how to revitalize the community and attract young people to move back there (I’ll elaborate on this project another time). It was a life-changing experience and I’ve been traveling back to Japan every year since, both for work on the project as well as to visit new friends there and further explore the country. At least until the Pandemic paused travel.

2020 is the first year that I haven’t returned and Japan is probably the first place I’ll go when travel is safe and borders reopen. I miss the expansive urbanity of Tokyo with it’s incredible metro system, tiny alleys, micro-bars, incredible food, and the glow of illuminated streets at night. I miss the traditional temples and gardens tucked into the mountains. Mostly I miss the amazing people we have met, who have welcomed us and showed us glimpses of life that no tourist would ever see. I can’t wait to go back again to reconnect with friends, return to places we have grown familiar with, and see how our work there has impacted the community and evolved over time.

Things I wrote

  1. The World Feels Smaller
    A short post on my thoughts related to travel and the pandemic’s impact on my world. How scale has changed and how the geography that is accessible has dramatically shifted. Planes made far off countries feel close, the pandemic makes neighborhoods just a few miles distant feel far away. My current world is literally small, pre-pandemic the whole world felt small. It is strange how scale is relative.

  2. Tokyo, Japan Architecture Tour
    When I first was headed to Japan an architecture professor in Australia, who use to teach in Tokyo, gave me a copy of an architecture tour he wrote up for visiting friends and family. It was a great way to explore the city as an architecture student. As I followed his directions and advice I added my own notes, expanded upon the recommendations and updated the tour based on changes to the city over time. If you are heading to Tokyo and are looking for tips on what to see, places to eat, and significant architecture, this is a great place to start.

Weekly Design Inspiration

Muji Yō no Ie, or ‘plain house’

I love architecture that blends building and nature, spaces that flow from inside to outside. In this prefabricated home, Muji brought their design philosophy “to be confident in a simplicity that feels in no way inferior to splendor” and beautifully executed an elegant space that would be an incredible place to live in the landscape.

Things worth reading

  1. The 15-Minute City—No Cars Required—Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia
    This is the new dream of urban planners and city dwellers - having all of your needs met “within 15 minutes of their homes on foot, by bike, or on public transit.” It is one of the reasons I picked my neighborhood in Portland (The Alberta Arts district, close to the center of the purple area mapped in the article), eventually moved to downtown Portland, and since relocated to NYC. I want to live in a place where I never need to use a car to get the basic things I need to be comfortable and be happy. Grocery stores, shops, restaurants, cafes, entertainment, parks, housing, and employment should all be accessible within your neighborhood. This should be the primary metrics in which we judge new development: the idea that commuting is not necessary and every neighborhood has all the amenities needed to offer a great place to live.  

  2. Cottage Clusters: Portland’s chance to build community in a new way
    An older article discussing how Cottage Clusters should be better integrated into Portland’s Residential Infill Project code update (The RIP was passed by the City Council and should be implemented into the code in early 2021 and Cottage Clusters are allowed through a Planned Development). I’ve recently been reading various articles and codes related to Cottage Clusters for a couple of development projects I’m working on. I also think these are interesting development concepts that more communities across the country should allow by right in all residential areas. If anyone has great examples of successful cottage cluster style developments or is looking for someone to help with a project, please let me know.

  3. Streetmix
    Not something to read exactly, but rather a tool to (re)design your own street. Starting with a cross section of a road, you have the ability to transform the space by adding (or removing) lanes, incorporating bike paths, increase sidewalk widths, dedicate lanes to buses or transit, and more. This is a useful tool to generate graphics to help advocate for change to your neighborhood. Take a stab at designing the street you would like to see and share that with elected officials, Department of Transportation staff, and community groups to help make your town a better place to live. Street are a public resource that should accommodate a wide range of uses, not just a way for cars to get around.

  4. Stop Asking the Public What They Want
    This is one of the biggest frustrations I encounter through my interest in the built environment. It is just so hard to make positive change because all too often (all the time really) we end up distilling good ideas to the lowest common denominator based on community feedback.

    The opinions of individuals on how to handle things like traffic congestion are often heavily informed by anecdotal experience and misguided conventional wisdom.

    Experts should observe how communities use their built environment, what the problem areas are, and work to fix those quickly and incrementally. We should hire smart and talented people and let them do their jobs. Wasting months/years of time running community engagement workshops and trying to get people to tell the experts how to do their jobs or how to design a better street is bad policy and leads to bad end results. I’ve sat on these community advisory boards and presentation to my neighborhood associations. They are painful, unhelpful, and I see how City staff caters to the complainers more than focus on what is needed to make our city better.

Sharing the love.

a person/organization that deserves more attention

Two people who helped open opportunities for me in Japan and became great friends are Mitsu Yamazaki and Yasuhito Arii. They were the people who spearheaded the Aridagawa workshops and subsequent projects I’ve had the pleasure to work on. They have been incredible friends and supporters who gave a small architecture firm an opportunity that grew into a 5 year (and counting) collaboration.

Mitsu lives in Tokyo and runs an International business consultancy focused around business innovation, business development, urban design, and economic development projects. He also wrote a best selling urban planning book in Japan all about Portland’s urban planning and design. I met Mitsu 6+ years ago, and have seen his passion and dedication to building connections between Portland and Japan, helping companies do business across the Pacific, and sharing ideas that make communities stronger. If you are interested in doing business in Japan he is your man. If you are looking to develop stronger more sustainable communities, make him part of your team. And if you are ever in Tokyo look him up and treat him to a coffee or beer.

Arii-san is based in Wakayama City but can be found galivanting around Japan working with various towns and community groups, or hopping around the bars and cafes of Portland on one of his frequent trips there. Through his company Plus Social he helps connect investors with socially driven development projects. He works with community groups - particularly in smaller rural towns and villages - to start initiatives to support local economies and create sustainable developments. Beyond his socially driven work, he is an inspiring public speaker, an incredible host and tour guide, and probably one of the most well connected people in Japan - he seems to know everyone. On top of all of that he owns a hair salon in Wakayama and helped start Nomcraft Brewing in the project we worked on in Aridagawa. Long story short, Arii-san is an incredible friend, and inspiration, and one of the main reasons we want to keep returning to Japan. If you are traveling to japan, please pack a couple craft beers from your local brewery as a gift and deliver them to Arii-san!

Shameless Self Promotion:

These are the other things that I do for fun and/or money. I design custom homes and ADUs. I take photographs of textures. I draw. I write about the architecture that I visit on my travels and random thoughts I have as I explore the world.

Please share this newsletter with any friends or colleagues who may be interested.

Share A Better Built Environment | Lucas Gray