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Kengo Kuma


Tokyo, Japan

Which city offers the best quality of life?
Kyoto. There is a certain lifestyle. The basis of this style is a philosophy of respect towards nature.

Is this also your favourite city?

What makes a perfect city?
Its coexistence with nature.

What are your favourite design features in other cities?
A design that connects water and living. A good example is the canal edge detail in Suzhou, China.

What would you eradicate from the built environment?
The unpleasant feeling of concrete and steel.

If you could make one change to the urban fabric, what would it be?
Human scale. Formerly, Japanese cities were built almost entirely of wood and its scale worked as a parameter. I would like to go back to this time.

On a more personal level, what is essential for quality of life?
A good bathtub; in order to enjoy the sense of unity between my body and the bathtub, and also a unity with nature.

Courtly love


At weekends, 31-year-old Yuki Takahashi makes a living as a freelance software designer. During the week, she spends every possible hour at the Tokyo District Court in Kasumigaseki district as a member of a curious Japanese tribe called the “trial observation maniacs”.

Their greatest pleasure is to watch the slowly grinding wheels of Japanese justice. Takahashi’s group – the all-female Kasumikko Club or “Kasumigaseki Girls” – records its observations in minute detail on its blog, which has attracted over a million visitors since its launch.

Among its fascinations has been the trial of Joji Obara, the serial rapist and killer who was acquitted in April of the killing of the British hostess, Lucie Blackman. The Kasumikko members describe themselves as girls “who dress up to go to court in the afternoon, listen to hard-hitting cases and talk about love at the Art Coffee Shop in Kasumigaseki Station”. They’ve already published two books about their hobby, including The Kasumikko Club’s Guide to Trial Observation.

What started out as a casual interest has now become a near full-time occupation. “At first I tried to follow court cases by watching the TV news and just reading the papers,” Takahashi says. “I found I couldn’t get enough information as the media only reports the beginning of the trial and the verdict, and nothing in between. I wanted to know more about the accused, how they became the way they did. There is no way for an ordinary person like me to find out more about them – it’s not like you can ask them. So I decided to go to the court myself.”

The Kasumikko ladies are not alone. Other trial clubs include Keisai House, founded by Yasushi Tomura – an estate agent who leads a group of 10 fellow trial buffs. Then there’s the Kasumigaseki Club, a trial-observers’ group with members of all ages.

Most eccentric of them all is Michiaki Aso, a 32-year-old who goes by the extravagant pen name of Asozan Daifunka, which literally translates as “the great explosion of Mount Aso” – after the largest active volcano in Japan. A seasoned trial observer, he spends so much time watching and writing about trials that he can only hold down a part-time job. His website,, is a helpful primer for novices, explaining how to find the best trials, how to get to court, what to wear and the entire procedure of a criminal trial. “His hobbies are observing trials and new religions,” Mr Aso’s website records. “His appealing points are his beard and his skirt.”

Eastern promises


Across Singapore, apartment blocks are being replaced with taller towers by developers eager for prime plots in this entrepôt of 4.5 million people. Apartment rents have risen 30 per cent since early 2006. Office space is also tight. Prices are rising fast because the government is encouraging white-collar migration to lift the population to 6.5 million. Singapore is offsetting rising prices by promoting better quality of life, on which most Asian cities fare badly – there’s a new botanical garden and more parks are promised.

On the rails

Malaysia & Singapore

It’s been talked about for over a decade, but now plans for a high-speed rail link between Malaysia and Singapore are gathering speed once again.

Rail operator Express Rail Link’s €1.8bn proposal is to extend its current 57km high-speed line between Kuala Lumpur and its international airport another 290km south to Singapore. It has the support of train makers Alstom Transport which built the Eurostar and Korea’s KTX. Alstom Transport is “very interested” in the plan, says company president Philippe Mellier. The scheme has also gone down well with Malaysia’s government.

Singapore’s initial response earlier this year was polite but hardly enthusiastic. A passionate rivalry born of Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 often trumps cooperation. They still wrangle over ownership of the railway and its woebegone but charming terminus in Singapore. Years of talks about replacing the traffic-clogged 80-year-old causeway between the two countries have gone nowhere. However, in May the signals moved from red to amber.

Singapore decided to back Malaysia’s Iskander Development Region in Johor Bahru, gateway to the causeway. The area is three times larger than Singapore and has already been earmarked for fast-track industrialisation.

This, combined with the election on the horizon in the next few years in Malaysia, raises hope for a deal on Express Rail’s proposal that would run through Iskander and will need a new bridge built to reach Singapore.

There would be strong demand for the service. Airlines currently charge around €100 for the 55-minute trip, against at least seven hours by train. Express Rail reckons on a 90-minute journey time and a friendly price.

A green signal for high-speed rail would be more than a victory for convenience and the environment, it would signal a new era in relations.

Green route


With its international image tarnished by the prospect of the country becoming the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, China is now employing some old-fashioned revolutionary fervour in order to boost its environmental credentials.

In July a Green Long March will wend its way across China covering thousands of kilometres in 22 provinces and 500 cities to underline China’s commitment to environmental sustainability. Over 10,000 students and activists will march along 10 routes, planting trees and teaching good green practice. The march will be led by Beijing Forestry University, with 43 universities across China co-operating.

The Long March of 1934 to 1936 was a deeply Red affair, as the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong took 86,000 Communists on a trek across China to escape the Nationalist forces. The retreat remains a focus for intense national pride in China, something the organisers of the Green Long March hope to emulate in targeting the country’s woeful environmental record. Most of the world’s dirtiest cities are in China, while wildlife in rivers like the Yangtze, on the route of the original Long March, is dying out.

The Green Long March will also draw attention to green schemes that are already in place, such as eco-friendly farming in Shanghai. The march will be backed by 11 government ministries and corporate sponsors, including Goldman Sachs.



Tajikistan found itself with a new president recently – even though the same man is still in charge. Emomali Rakhmonov, president of the mountainous post-Soviet republic since 1994, decided in late March that he would henceforth be known as Emomalii Rahmon, excising the Slavic suffix from his surname.

The president formerly known as Rakhmonov also stated that from now on, it would be illegal for any children born in Tajikistan to have Russified surnames ending in -ov or -ev.

He didn’t stop there, however. He also complained that Tajik children were spending too much time using fancy mobile phones, and thus issued a decree banning students from bringing them to school. Travelling to school by car is also out, while having gold teeth is not yet illegal but frowned upon.

“He’s slowly becoming Turkmenbashi,” says one Tajik politician, who – rather wisely – asks not to be named. The president does not take public criticism lightly – most of those who have tried it are either in exile, in prison, or dead.

The late Turkmenbashi – real name Saparmurat Niyazov – led neighbouring Turkmenistan for 21 years before his death last December. His finer policy decisions included banning beards, closing all hospitals outside the capital city and renaming the month of April after his mother. Clearly, with Turkmenbashi now gone, Ra(k)hmon(ov) has decided that there’s a vacancy for a Central Asian leader with headline-catching ideas.

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