Sunday, August 22, 2010

Visit to Curitiba Part II

In the 2006 book titled Revolutionary Wealth written by the futurists/writers Alvin & Heidi Toffler, there is a passage about a street in Curitiba.

“One midnight we accompanied its former mayor, Jaime Lerner, an urban planner by training, on a visit to its ‘24 Hour Street’, a block glistening with new coffee shops and restaurants jammed with young couples who smile, wave and call out ‘Jaime!’ The next street was designed to house twenty-four-hour professional services – doctors, dentists and lawyers. The next one was planned to hold twenty-four-municipal offices where individuals can get permits or licenses and take care of other city business at any hour.”

I was sorry that I didn’t visit the area described on my 2001 Curitiba trip and only saw the photographs. I read that the ex-mayor got the hint for the 24 Hour Street when he visited Sannomiya, Kobe. I recently asked my Facebook friend in Curitiba how is the street now and the answer was not something I expected. Currently the street is closed until further notice. It seems the plan highly acclaimed as futuristic by Tofflers encountered some glitches. However, my friend emphasized that Curitiba was the first Brazilian city where trucks started picking up house garbage for recycling at least twice a week. I read in a book the initial incentive used by the city was aimed at students. In exchange for bringing in house recyclables, they were offered either stationary or lunch coupons. When the roads were open only for pedestrian traffic, shop owners were against the city ordinance. When business picked up from foot traffic, they hailed the ordinance.

According to history, Jaime Lerner, a Curitiba native and student civil engineer, won the city master plan contest in 1964, in which he was deeply involved. Upon his graduation, he lead the Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba (IPPUC), the official organization to promote city master plans, including zoning, traffic controls, road management, public services,…, etc. Lerner served as Mayor for three terms before being elected to State Governor of Parana. Lerner was succeeded by a number of Japanese Nisei Brazilians who served as mayor, as well as IPPUC director, like Lerner, including Cassio Taniguchi. Their continuous and cumulative endeavors for the past 40 years made Curitiba a vanguard of modern city urbanization.

Lerner was honored as a keynote speaker at the world’s architect UIA Conference in Chicago in 1992. What made the mayor/governor and his followers achieve so much success? I believe their fresh foresight, relentless entrepreneurship and follow-through as a team were the reasons and I salute them.

While in Curitba, I visited, as a plant lover, most of the urban and suburban parks, Jardim Botanico (Botanical Garden, 240 square kilometers), Opera de Arame (Wire Opera House built on two former quarries, 235 square kilometers), Parque Tangua, Bosque Alemano, the German woods and Parque Tingui, the Ukranian Immigration memorial and of course, Praca do Japao. This is why I missed visiting the 24 hour street downtown.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Visit to Curitiba Part I



So goes my favorite song, “Garota de Ipanema”. It’s a whisper to a passing girl by a shy and naïve garoto on the beach. The Bossa Nova born in Rio de Janeiro set New York on fire in the ‘60s until the Beatles took over later. I arrived in NY in 1961, one year after the Brazilian capital moved from Rio to Brazilia.

After 50 years of geopolitical power deprivation, Rio de Janeiro was crowned to host the world’s lst Olympiad del Sur. In 2016, thousands of Olympic visitors and athletes will invade breathtaking Rio of much urban diversity, with beaches, mountains, skyscrapers, and the omnipresent favelas all woven into the fabric of dream landscapes. Most likely everyone will not fail to trek and see the splendor of Iguacu Falls in Parana. What wonderful news!

I missed seeing Rio de Janeiro following a friend's advice to skip it on my solo trip in 2001. I had no intention to visit the favelas, but was warned nevertheless that they are outside the control of the police and neither tour company nor the city police can guarantee safety when entering favelas. It was a hard choice not to include Rio on my itinerary. Thus the last travel week after Buenos Aires and Iguacu was split into Sao Paulo and Curitiba equally. Curitiba was highly recommended by the same friend who had spent years in Sao Paulo.

Curitiba, "Pine Nut Land", however, was a happy surprise, thanks to the excellent advice from my friend. I was awarded with the winning choice. Kitakyushu, the city where I live, and Curitiba, have one thing in common. Both cities were recognized for the “UN Local Government Honors” in the “Earth Summit”, of the UN Conference on Environment & Development held in RJ in 1992. Yes, remember that? That's the Summit where a Canadian Japanese teenager Severn Suzuki delivered a legendary speech that embarrassed all grownups.

Kitakyushu had spearheaded and succeeded in regaining the beauty of water and set to help Asian nations with its anti-pollution control technology through training and exchange of engineers. Curitiba enjoyed international recognition for its excellent urban planning, now followed by cities like Bogota, Seoul, Portland, San Jose, Obihiro and others. I’ll write about my Curitiba visit next time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Taste of Summer

Banana Yoshimoto coined the phrase, “watermelon, the synonym of summer as the summer without watermelon is improbable” in her novel Thrush. Many are the number of Haikus I found which dealt with watermelons. Listed below are five of my translations, randomly picked.

"Summer lassitude! Bananas and watermelons are so tasty"

"Tapped and patted watermelon head that replied with ok sounds "

"'Monopoly', the fridge complaining of space occupied by watermelon"

"Watermelon “split”! Strange my arms and limbs benumbed and frozen"

"Watermelon “split” is a summer feat with shouts of joys and chuckles"

Yes, watermelon is the king of summer fruits, though some people might object that it is a veggie and not a fruit. No other fruit is like the subtly crunchy, throat quenching watermelon. It is originally from southern Africa. In Egypt, the cultivation was as early as the 2nd millennium BC, as evidenced by wall paintings and the discovery of numerous watermelon seeds recovered from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Greeks and Romans had it 2000 years ago. In the 11th century, it went to China through Turkey and the Silk Road. Moorish invaders introduced it to Europe. In the 17th century, European immigrants carried it to North America.

Here are a few assumptions about watermelon in Japan:
1) Watermelon seeds were found in the prehistoric Yayoi remains in the Okayama area.
2) Chinese Rev. Yinyuan (1592-1673) brought it from China.
3) In 1579, the Portuguese brought it to Nagasaki, together with pumpkins.

Is watermelon good for health? “What an insult!,” a watermelon would protest if it could speak. A Japanese agronomist, Yasusada Miyazaki (1623-1697), who served the Fukuoka Clan, wrote almost 300 years ago in his Compendium of Agriculture that the watermelon not only can beat the summer heat and curb thirst but cures various kinds of illness, including diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Let me list the virtues, in view of the calories, vitamins, antioxidants, diuretic features of watermelons.

1. Slows down aging
2. Prevents heart attack and stroke
3. Reduces the risk of cancer
4. Boosts energy production

It is definitely a summer delight for everyone, young and old, family get-togethers or outdoor group events; with minimal costs.

After a quick search on Google, I found the world's first Watermelon Museum (4,000 square meter building on 22,000 square meter property) built in China in 2008. It's in sourthern suburban Beijing just inside the Beijing boundary, called Daxing District, reachable in an hour by a minivan tour. I read the visitors' reports that the museum exhibits include 900 illustrated panels, 140 watermelon displays, and a collection of 200 seed samples. After an hour tour of the museum, they were taken to nearby fields to choose a watermelon of their choice, then to a nearby restaurant that features watermelon dishes.
Watermelon Museum in China

Friday, August 6, 2010

Den-emon Itoh, a Chikuho Hero

Iizuka, Tagawa, and Nogata are the three major cities inside Chikuho, which once thrived as coal mining zones with heaps of slag. They produced a number of coal tycoon families, including Aso, Kaijima, Yaskawa, Itoh, etc.

The Onga River runs through Chikuho. It once carried coal-filled barges out to Kitakyushu, a blue collar town with giant steel mills, and fed the entire town. With the shutdown of the coal mines in the ‘60s, the cities of Chikuho were thrust into a pitiful plight for survival.

Iizuka aggressively wooed the information technology industry, inviting research and educational institutions; developed 50 hectare (370 acres) of leisure and recreational parks; and promoted local sightseeing. One of them was a traditional theatrical venture. The traditional wooden theater, Kaho Theater, built in 1921 had mats rather than seats to sit in - perhaps the last of its kind found in Japan. This theater was underwater when Onga River flooded a few years ago. They refurbished it all with help from citizen volunteers. Iizuka is trying to maintain it for continuous shows.

Another heavily promoted local attraction was the palatial home of coal tycoon Den-emon Itoh (see the photo above). The history of this home is mixed with romance and scandal. The site is 7,570 square meters in size (2,300 tsubo, or about 2 acres) and the building itself has an area of 1,020 square meters (300 tsubo or 11,000 square feet).

The highlights of the tour are the three western rooms of the house: a drawing room, a study, and a dining room. The drawing room boasts a Victorian and Art Nouveau style usually seen in the opulent mansions of the Meiji / Taisho era, and has a mantle fireplace made of Italian marble. There are wide crossbeams on the ceiling, diamond-design stained glass in the upper windows, and a chandelier. Built-in benches nestle in one corner - a novel concept at the time. The dining room is of modest size, accommodating a dozen guests at most, and overlooks a garden and atrium.

Den-emon Itoh was born in 1860, during the time of Lord Naosuke Ii, the Chief Minister of the Tokugawa Shogunate who was assassinated 7 years prior to the Meiji Restoration. Den-roku, Den-emon's father was a boatman and fish peddler. While traversing Chikuho, peddling his fish, Denroku may well have spotted traces of gleaming coal that had surfaced from beneath the ground. Later on, his keen eye for glittering coal may have contributed much to the success of his business ventures with his son Den-emon.

Father and son started their coal venture together and had the good fortune to hit the jackpot, a high quality coal lode. Den-emon's business expanded to include machinery, a foundry, a power company and banking operations. At one time Kobukuro Works, the main electric machine plant, had over a thousand employees, plus a vocational school. He also endowed a county girl’s school as a service to the community.

Den-emon lost his father in 1899 and his wife Haruko in 1910. He served as a congressman from 1903 to 1908. His accomplishments include the enactment of the Mining Industry Law, and the completion of flood control and irrigation projects along 60 kilometers of the Onga River. You can observe these works today as you drive along the river banks.

Eventually a marriage proposal came to Den-emon from among the peerage, based on political convenience. The son of Count Yanagiwara wanted to run for the House of Peers, which is now the Upper House. He needed campaign funds, and sought money from Den-emon in exchange for marriage with his sister Akiko, cousin to the Emperor Taisho. Akiko was reputed to be one of the three great beauties from the Taisho days, and had been married to a Viscount's son, but was now divorced and back at the home of the Count. Because her mother was a geisha, Akiko had not been treated with much respect.

Den-emon must have been stunned by the marriage proposal from the peerage and the opportunity to wed the fairest of the fair. To welcome his bride to Chikuho, Den-emon rebuilt his house to accommodate her with every luxury. When Akiko moved in, she was assigned to the newly added 2nd floor suite. Her quarters overlooked an enormous rock garden with an arching stone bridge and a man-made hill topped with a gazebo. The elaborate wedding lasted for three full days. Den-emon was 50 and his bride was 25. The house, now encroached upon by the surrounding neighborhood, probably had quite view of the Onga River back in 1911.

Although Den-emon allowed Akiko to live her own life, she found the Chikuho dialect and traditions unbearable, and she retreated to a fantasy world where she sang plaintive poems that sprang from her unsatisfied heart. However, Den-emon lavishly provided Akiko with a second and a third house, equally gorgeous, in Fukuoka and Oita, and even a fourth home in Tokyo. These residences became literary salons run by Akiko. To top it off, Den-emon helped Akiko publish many of her poems.

One day, Akiko met Ryusuke Miyazaki, a young graduate of Tokyo University, who majored in law. He was a magazine editor who had come to interview her. When Akiko and Ryusuke fell in love, their romance startled the entire country because Akiko declared separation on paper, similar to Ibsen's character Nora in "A Doll's House". This public declaration appears to have been a scheme devised by Ryusuke's friends as a last resort to escape conviction for the crime of adultery. According to Mariko Hayashi, the author of Akiko's biography (see Note 2 below), the declaration was not in Akiko's original handwriting.

Den-emon could have punished Akiko for adultery, but he did not. He calmed his angry followers and let the issue drop. Akiko was not financially well off in her life with Ryusuke, and Den-emon offered help from time to time. People wondered if Den-emon was an unusually generous elder, or simply a cuckold and a damn fool.

The following children's song is said to have been written in reference to Akiko, but the allusion to Akiko is no longer generally recognized today.

"Why tears? The bride born in purple. She is clad in the world's best gold brocade kimono with a silk sash belt."

1. Den-emon's house was opened to the public on April 28, 2007. During the first year, there were reportedly 250,000 visitors.

2. Akiko suffered from cataracts in 1961, and lost her sight in both eyes. Under Ryusuke's tender care, she continued to sing poems until her death in 1967, according to her biography "Byakuren Ren-Ren" (1994) by Mariko Hayashi.