Japanese Approaches to an Eco-Life

A Breezy Style of Green Urban Living


The Kaze no Mori “collective housing” project in Tokyo offers residents the luxury of living next to a lush Japanese garden, providing cool summer breezes to reduce air-conditioning use and refreshing views year-round. Its combination of modern conveniences and traditional ingenuity is a model for environmentally friendly urban design.

Keen to Stay Green

Living in a vast, modern city like Tokyo often means being cut off from both nature and a sense of community. This lack of greenery and contact with one’s neighbors can exact a toll on the minds of harried Tokyoites. In the Ōta district of Tokyo, however, there is a “collective housing” project called Kaze no Mori (Forest of Breezes) that offers practical solutions to this modern dilemma and a template for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Vegetables and flowers are grown in a rooftop area adjacent to the solar panels. Enough electricity is generated by the panels to power the pump several hours per day to circulate the water in the pond; any excess electricity is then sold.

Step through the entrance to Kaze no Mori and you encounter a wooded area through which a stream flows into a small pond. Tadpoles appear in the pond in early summer, allowing onlookers to track their steady development into frogs. The garden sustains a diverse range of living creatures, including the frogs and geckos that feed on the insects there. This natural oasis creates a resort-like setting for residents, who can awaken to the musical chirping of warblers, bulbuls, and other songbirds.

One aspect of collective housing—or “cohousing” as it is often called in Europe or North America—is that residents are involved, from the planning stage, in creating layouts for the internal and external spaces that best suit their needs and preferences. In the case of Kaze no Mori the residents were in accord with the desire of the site’s landowner to preserve the green space for future generations. The owner, who died three years after the project was completed, had consulted with the company TeamNet Inc. to devise a way to ensure that the plants and trees on his land would remain even after he was gone. Together with Han Architecture Design, the company came up with a collective housing design in harmony with the natural environment.

Eight of the households in the apartment, together with the landowner, formed a building design association aimed at safeguarding the site’s precious green space. Over a period of nearly two years, the association set about designing each of the individual units and the common-use space. The result was a project completed in 2006 that features a three-story, one-basement apartment building made of reinforced concrete, built on around 350m2 of the total 760m2 site.

Preserving the green space at the collective housing site has practical benefits. In the summer, for instance, the shade from the trees keeps the area cooler, allowing residents to save money and reduce their carbon footprint by cutting back on the use of air-conditioning. Moreover, water drawn from the well flows from the stream into the pond, where it can also be used to water plants. Overlooking the garden is a separate gathering place where residents can assemble.

Breezes Make It OK Without AC

View looking in on the Satōs’ apartment from the north terrace. Large windows on the north and south of the residence allow breezes to flow past the kitchen. Carved wooden panels from the property owner’s old house were reused in the light fixtures—one example of the merging of modern and traditional elements.

We visited Satō Sachiko and her husband Ryōichi, who live on the third floor of Kaze no Mori. Sachiko says that they chose this collective housing project because it offered a lifestyle and amenities that matched the ideal they had in mind. Specifically, they had been looking for a reasonably priced place to live where they could enjoy a close-up view of a Japanese garden and have the freedom to choose an interior layout that best suited their preferences.

The wisteria tree planted when residents first moved in now stretches up to the third floor, providing a curtain of greenery.

Above all the couple was very particular about the apartment layout. Instead of small rooms partitioned by walls, they wanted one large room with spacious entranceways and windows; they also wanted to avoid built-in cupboards reaching the ceiling, thus preserving the space presented at the top of the living area. They made special efforts to achieve their long-held concept of a breezy, open living space. The design of the building itself is quite modern, but it retains useful aspects of traditional Japanese dwellings allowing better air circulation and providing plenty of natural light.

The green curtain provided by the trees outside blocks the strong summer sunshine while allowing cool breezes to pass in between the leaves. Ryōichi and Sachiko only had to use their air conditioning a total of 10 days or so in the summer of 2011 despite the unseasonably hot weather. Meanwhile, during the winter months, sunlight pours through the bare branches to warm the building. The structure’s walls also have external insulation to keep out the cold, even in the traditionally chilly first-floor units.

Herbs grown on the terrace decorate the dining table.

The thing Sachiko likes best about her apartment is that she can cook in the kitchen while looking across the dining area to the plants and flowers on the terrace. “In my old apartment my only view while cooking was of the walls around me. So it’s a dream come true to be able to see these plants and flowers. It’s mentally soothing. The plants bloom toward the south, so the flowers on our northern terrace seem to be reaching for the inside of our apartment.”

What Urbanites Can Do for the Environment

One task for residents of Kaze no Mori in the years to come is to preserve their living environment in an affordable way. It is no simple matter to reach a consensus among residents on how to use the limited funds available to deal with such issues as building maintenance or garden pruning.

One thing that is quite difficult, as Satō Ryōichi points out, is to preserve green spaces in the city. “It seems to me that developers these days have very little awareness about the importance of the natural environment. Preserving and maintaining green spaces does not make much economic sense for them, so they prefer to just chop down tall trees. Large plots of land are also subdivided into smaller ones, or turned into small parking lots. There is no question that safeguarding greenery in a big city like Tokyo is hard—but it’s important. This is not something that a single individual can accomplish. It only becomes possible when people create collective housing like Kaze no Mori.”

Ryōichi and his wife Sachiko, along with the other Kaze no Mori residents, are doing their part to preserve a precious green space, while savoring the beauty it affords them in the course of everyday city living.

On fine days Satō Ryōichi and his wife Sachiko enjoy the bliss of meals on the terrace.


(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Ōtaki Kaku.)

Lifestyles environment ecology housing collective housing residential eco-friendly Kaze no Mori