Forget Chanel, Cartier and H&M, the buzz on Ginza — long Tokyo’s most glitzy shopping and entertainment district — is now all about . . . honeybees.
That’s because more than 300,000 Western and Japanese honeybees are being kept there on the roof of the 11-story Pulp & Paper Building by members of the Ginza Honey Bee Project. Every morning, the bees take to the air from their wooden hives and disperse throughout the neighborhood in search of flowers from which they collect pollen and sugary nectar — returning later with the pollen collected in “baskets” on their hind legs and the nectar, from which they make honey, stored in a specialized extra stomach.
This year already, the group has collected more than 760 kg of honey, so making a solid contribution to its production in a country where the shortage of bees and beekeepers is a serious concern, according to Atsuo Tanaka, co-founder of the three-year-old project.
While honey-making may not spring to mind as a prime feature of this central Tokyo area renowned for its posh clubs, brand-name fashion shops and gourmet eateries, Ginza is in fact a bee-friendly area, Tanaka said as he and two other project members tended to their productive insects one recent morning.
On that occasion, 51-year-old Tanaka — clad in a protective white, whole-body suit and a straw hat with a face-covering net — checked each of the honeycomb frames in the hives and took out ones that contained honey. After gently sweeping the little bees off the frames, he and his colleagues put them in a container resembling an oil drum, where the honey was separated from the beeswax combs. After turning the handle on the separator several times, and opening the tap at the bottom of the drum — eureka! a stream of the sweet and sticky, amber-colored liquid flowed out.
Methodical and attentive, Tanaka could easily be mistaken for a veteran beekeeper, but he is not. As his perfectly polished black leather shoes peeking out from the suit suggest, his full-time job is in business, as an executive with a company in the Pulp & Paper Building that rents out its conference rooms for events.
Indeed, Tanaka had no previous contact with the beekeeping world until three years ago, when he met Seita Fujiwara, 52, a third-generation beekeeper from Iwate Prefecture. At that time, impressed by rows of tulip trees around the Imperial Palace moat — members of the magnolia family that are rich sources of top-quality nectar — Fujiwara was looking for a place to keep bees in Tokyo. When he saw Tanaka’s rooftop space, he realized it was too small for professional beekeeping, but suggested that Tanaka could install a few hives there as part of a citizens project.
Three eye-opening and eventful years later, Tanaka today is not only a sophisticated beekeeper and honey-producer, but an ardent “bee rights” advocate who treats his small charges with affection and respect.
“Feel this,” Tanaka said, pulling out a honeycomb frame with hundreds of bees busily crawling all over it. As I gingerly pushed the back of my right hand against the fluttering wings of the small creatures, as instructed by Tanaka, I felt the heat coming off the bees.
“You can feel their life force, can’t you?” he said softly, adding that it was the warm and fluffy — even cute — nature of the honeybees, which, unlike hornets, seldom sting people, that got him interested. Though initially reluctant and scared by anything with a sting, Tanaka said he changed his mind when he went with Fujiwara to a Tokyo University of Agriculture lab in Setagaya Ward, where bees are kept for research. He was touched by the warmth the bees generated, he said, and felt as if he were touching a cat.
In the years since then, Tanaka’s view of bees, and the environment they live in, has completely changed. Through honeybees, which are extremely sensitive to environmental changes and susceptible to mites and pesticides, he said he has learned a great deal about nature. Now, for instance, he knows year-round just which seasonal plants and flowers are in bloom around Ginza, as the taste and smell of honey changes with the kind of nectar bees bring back to the hive. And it turns out that Ginza is an urban paradise for honeybees, he said.
“What really blew my mind was that, while honeybees are having difficulty surviving in the countryside (due to the prevalence of deadly mites there), Ginza is a surprisingly suitable environment,” he said.
Surprisingly suitable? Even when Tokyo’s air is polluted with exhaust fumes?
In fact, it’s not fumes but pesticides, said Iwate beekeeper Fujiwara, that is now the leading threat to honeybees. Also, as a bee’s life span is only about a month, he explained, whatever toxins they might get from the air don’t accumulate to any great extent in their bodies.
“Honeybees only fly in the sky for a week to 10 days,” Fujiwara said. “They spend the rest of their lives cleaning their hives.”
The fact that the population of Ginza’s bees keeps growing shows that they are healthier than bees in the countryside, where they have been dying in huge numbers in recent years, Fujiwara added. He suspects this is due to heavy use of pesticides in rice and vegetable farming in rural areas.
Tanaka, for his part, says Ginza’s advantages include its absence of bears, which attack beehives for their honey, and its proximity to the Imperial Palace, in and around which many different plants, flowers and trees provide bees with bountiful supplies of nectar — including cherry blossoms in spring and tulip trees’ greenish-yellow flowers in early summer. Moreover, horse chestnut trees along Ginza’s shopping streets, and the Japanese pagoda trees now flowering white in Yurakucho, also feed the bees well, he said.
Two jars of Ginza honey, which Tanaka let me taste, had distinctively different flavors. One, from Western honeybees, had a strong smell and tasted of Somei-Yoshino cherry blossom and was treacly thick. The other, made by Japanese bees, was much more watery, with a sweet-and-sour taste.
Because its supply is limited, Ginza honey is not widely available for sale in jars, but Tanaka has come up with a savvy way to market it through the area’s top patisseries and bars so it can be used to create new sweets and cocktails only available in Ginza.
Various sweets containing the honey are available at the landmark Matsuya department store, including a spongecake roll made from rice powder provided by a farmer in Niigata Prefecture. The rice is also ecologically grown with hardly any pesticide, but is not fit for sale as rice itself because its grains are chipped with stinkbug bites, Tanaka said. At Bar 5517 in Ginza, meanwhile, a number of original cocktails using the honey are served during the peak supply season from April to June inclusive.
Recently, though, the scope of the group’s activities has grown from just keeping bees to lobbying for support from the area’s other building owners and convincing them to start planting nectar-rich flowers on their rooftops. Earlier this year, one organization to take up Tanaka’s challenge was Ginza Blossom, a wedding- and party-venue building only a few blocks from the Pulp & Paper Building, where volunteers planted grasses and flowers to help feed the bees. Through the group’s activities, too, he has met many environmentally minded activists and farmers, with whom he aims to promote ecological farming and undertake joint projects.
Tanaka, who says beekeeping in Ginza is not a money-making business, but a grassroots community-building effort, said he feels he has been naturally guided by the bees.
“A typical bee’s life lasts only 30 days,” he said. “The amount of honey one bee can produce in its lifetime is only half a spoonful. It teaches us how precious their lives are.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more ‘edible landscape’ around us?” Tanaka added, saying he now dreams of making wider swaths of central Tokyo greener with bee-friendly plants and flowers.
“Wouldn’t it be great if, one day, the top Tokyo souvenir product becomes honey, instead of the banana cake (currently marketed as a Tokyo gift)?”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5