by Layla McCay, UD/MH Director
Cherry blossom season is upon us in Japan. The national news is filled with cherry blossom reports: it feels like everybody is invested in the specific day that the flowers will bloom in their town. There is good reason for this interest, and not just the national appreciation of beauty, flowers and the ephemeral nature of life. Cherry blossom behavior is part of Japan’s national psyche. In a unique moment of nationwide celebration, the country’s usual work-focused culture presses pause, and a different priority is embraced: cherry blossoms viewing, known as hanami. People walk amongst cherry blossoms, admire them, photograph them… Admiring cherry blossoms is part of the pulse of Japan.
As the flowers fleetingly blossom, so too does another fleeting pleasure: leisurely outdoor social interaction. Everyone dashes to their nearest cherry blossom location to enjoy raucous, convivial, drunken hanami parties, crowded on blue tarpaulin sheets spread under the trees. Offices, universities, friends, and just about anyone else organises hanami parties, characterised by picnicking (with copious alcohol usually involved). Office workers are even sent to the park early in the morning to secure a good spot.
Hanami picnics in Yoyogi Park. Photo by Stardog Champion. Used Under Creative Commons license.
But as the blossoms start to fade, so too does this particular form of social interaction. At the end of cherry blossom season, Japanese people pack up their picnic blankets and store them til next spring. This seems a missed opportunity: many people live in very small homes, particularly those in large cities like Tokyo, which inhibits their inviting others to their homes for socialising. Picnics should be an ideal solution. And yet they are not. Part of the reason may be lack of venue. Tokyo has only 5.4 m2 of green space per person; this compares to 11.8m2 in Paris, 26.9m2 in London and 29.1 m2 in New York. While picnicking takes over many public spaces during hanami season, for the rest of the time this is not appropriate, and many parks are designed to be admired, not as appropriate social dining spots for adults. But finding the right venue is not the only hurdle. Picnics do not tend to be part of Japanese culture. According to many Japanese people, picnicking outside at any non-hanami time of the year is generally considered 'bizarre', 'childish', and even 'suspicious'.
Hiroshi Ota, an architect, and Kaori Ito, an urban designer, helped establish the Tokyo Picnic Club in 2002. Its mission: to tempt Tokyoites to picnic outside of hanami season, socialising in natural settings year-round. They claim: ‘to picnic is the urban culture to utilize the public spaces, to make up for the deficiencies of our city life.’ The appreciation of parks is a cultural norm, but the idea of picnics is unusual. Yet they offer many benefits, not least the opportunity to promote good mental health in the city. Picnicking offers exposure to natural green spaces, encourages physical activity (at least walking to the picnic spot), and facilitates pro-social interaction, which are all urban factors associated with good mental health.
TRY A PICNIC TALK / Illustration: Kotori NOGUCHI, Design: Wataru Noritake
The connections between picnics in the park and good mental health tends to be underappreciated. “Japanese people don’t feel the direct connection between spending time in nature and health,” Ota explains. “However, if parks are used for community activities, that can lead to improved mental health.”
The Tokyo Picnic Club helps people make that all-important but unappreciated connection between urban design and mental health by linking picnics to more commonly accepted health promotion ideas. “In Japan, people tend to think about food when it comes to health. Since the idea of the picnic is based on food, this helps with the idea that going to the park for a picnic can help enhance health.” Ito adds that in Japan, expressing creativity is another important facet of mental health, and this can be achieved by preparing elaborate picnics. “When Japanese people enjoy creativity, they tend to feel happy. Therefore, we believe that writing a poem, making food, and wearing creative costumes during the picnic may also make people feel happy.”
There are further benefits to socialising in the park, Ito proposes: “If you go to a shopping centre, you will notice the lack of diversity. However, parks are open for anyone. You can see all the generations, including rich, poor, elderly and young people.”
Tokyo Picnic Club picnicking outside in Konan-ryokusei Park, Tokyo. Photo and copyright: Hajime Ishikawa
But their enthusiasm for picnics is not shared by everyone. The Tokyo Picnic Club described setting up picnics in various patches of green space around Tokyo – and measuring how long it took before their party caught the attention of the police and were reprimanded for their subversive attitude to picnicking outside the social boundaries of hanami season. It rarely takes long before they are questioned - and often asked to move on.
“We just want the places to have our picnic. We need neither benches nor waterworks. We simply want a spacious lawn. If Green Fields such as beautiful parks are open to us, the picnic becomes the art of encounter in our urban lifestyles. If Brown Fields such as ex-industrial sites or abandoned harbors are open to our picnic, we can develop meals, tools, manners and conversations to fit in the new atmosphere of the modern cityscape.”
The Tokyo Picnic Club hopes that by raising awareness, the value of year-round picnicking will be better understood and appreciated in Japan. Their efforts have included portable lawns, and Grass on Vacation, an art show where they remove aeroplane-shaped pieces of turf from locations where people do not sit on the grass, and take them on ‘vacation’ to other locations where the grass can 'enjoy' its intended use: people are encouraged to sit, lie, socialise, eat and generally enjoy the experience of nature in the city.
Grass On Vacation ANGYANG (2005)
Design: Hiroshi OTA + Kaori ITO + Toru KASHIHARA + Wataru KASHIHARA, Illustration: Kenji KITAMURA
The Tokyo Picnic Club smilingly insist that the "Right to Picnic" should be a basic human right for urban dwellers. Given the normality of picnicking in other cities all over the world, in Tokyo, this is a surprisingly subversive demand.
In time, the Picnic Club hope for proper observation of one of the 15 rules of Tokyo Picnic Club: every day is a picnic day. By encouraging people’s access to green space and positive, natural social interaction, this is also an apt mantra for mental health promotion in the city.
Illustration: Kotori NOGUCHI
About the Author
It is always inspiring to walk along New York City's High Line Park. Once disused, elevated rail tracks have been transformed into an overground walkway filled with greenery, places to sit, ice cream to eat, and views to enjoy.
The first time I visited the park, several years ago, it was calming and relaxing and contemplative - now the huge influx of visitors has made it very much less so, but still the access to close encounters with trees and shrubs, along with the art and views both of the city and out to the water, and the opportunities for private moments even amongst the crowds are some of the things that draw people there.
Layla McCay, UDMH Director
I took the photograph at the top of this blog while visiting Medellin, Colombia, and forgot about it until I was thinking about photographs for this website. It seems an apt basis for the first post on the UDMH blog. Medellin is a fascinating place. Named the world's most innovative city, they have shifted from a setting of danger and fear to an urban environment to be proud of. On the day I took this photograph, I visited one of the city's poorest areas to experience their game-changing public transport innovations, and admire their beautiful library. I was enchanted by the 385-metre long escalator and the 2km-long cable car, both linking this previously isolated area with the rest of the city (and in the other direction, providing easy, affordable access to a beautiful mountain park). Strolling through the streets en route to the library, I noted the numerous community spaces and the beautiful use of murals. I particularly loved the mural of a bus as it combines my delight at street art and my appreciation of public transport.
To start off our blog, here's my op-ed from the Huffington Post that was inspired by that trip, musing upon the future of reading and the library as a third space: Why We Should Let Go of Nostalgia and Embrace the Evolution of Libraries.
Sanity and Urbanity: