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PLL heads to Yokohama

EDIT: this blog is being updated daily whilst we are in Japan. Scroll to the bottom for the latest post.

PLL Jules and Mary (who is currently a very very part timer at PLL - her 'real' job is with Learning through Landscapes) have arrived in Yokohama, at the start of a two week stay, encompassing research into Japanese school grounds, and attending the ISGA conference and leadership retreat. Here's Mary's Yokohama diary:


Exhausted after our flight, train, another train and walk to our hotel. Beds comfortable, and Jules managed to remember the location of a restaurant she visited on her last trip to Yokohama so we ate well; chopsticks are a bit like riding a bike - you never lose the skill once you've learned it.


We start our visits to schools on Monday, so today was a chance to get our bearings and see one of two of the sights of Yokohama. We’re calling my guide book the "2am guide book" as thanks to jet lag, that was when I was looking through it this morning. Hopefully the body clock will improve tonight - however, what it did do was let me find a few things for us to visit today.

First stop the Landmark Tower in Yokohama harbour, where Japan's fastest lift whizzes you up to floor 69 (750m per minute, fact fans!) for spectacular views of the city and beyond. From there we just about saw Mount Fiji, but sadly cloud obscured our view of the peak, so we didn’t quite see it in all its glory. We could see an interesting schoolyard, though, triangular, with a huge 'green wall' and a swimming pool and other sports facilities on its roof.

Next we headed through busy parks and over old train bridges (now pedestrianised) to the Red Brick Warehouse where there happened to be a gathering of vintage cars including a DeLorean, an E-type Jag and some rather lovely Morris Minors amongst others. This was also a good place for a little pre-work retail therapy and a street food style lunch.

​​The park around the Warehouses was full of families enjoying the 20• weather, and eyeing up a huge cruise ship, so I stole a moment to sketch people (trying to avoid adding the ship).

We then walked to China Town where we visited a small but beautiful temple - and what should we notice out the back but a school and its grounds. The schoolyard was almost entirely taken up with sports markings but we did notice some watering cans and plants growing in bins! There were some pretty wall murals too but, as yet, we don’t know if this is typical of grounds here - we shall learn more in a couple of days' time...


Our second full day in Japan and we feel like experts at getting around on the train - or at least we did until we accidentally caught the express rather than the local train, which zipped past our station. But we casually hopped off and found the right train to get us back to our home station... #nottouristsatall

Today we went our separate ways in the morning - Jules stayed back at the hotel catching up with some PLL work and I headed downtown to take in a bit of culture at the Yokohama Museum of Art. There was an amazing exhibition of print work by Tesuro Komai as well as other work much of which was inspired by Monet.

One of the best surprises of the day was when I turned around a corner in the museum and looked out of a window to see below, an amazing art activity going on with small children and their parents. The floor was covered in water coloured by swirls of paint, and children were painting on the walls and windows, walking barefoot, and generally having a thoroughly good time being physically arty! I just wanted to jump down and join in, but as I didn’t have the obligatory child to take with me, I had to just sit outside and do some sketching of my own.

As ever there was a gift shop on the way out and I failed to resist the temptation of some small purchases - well it is Christmas coming up after all.

Jules and I met up for lunch then slowly (there were shops to visit after all) made our way back to our hotel for a final plotting session ready for our first day of research visits. After a bit of a panic that we had lost a bar of chocolate - it is traditional to offer gifts to hosts in Japan, and we've gone slightly crazy with Montezuma's chocolate bars and old-fashioned advent calendars - we think we have everything ready. We have questionnaires for schools, the aforementioned gifts and information about an online survey we are using to gather as much information from as wide a range of educators as we can.

At 8pm this evening in Japan, it will be 11am in the UK so we will be marking the two minute silence - some things must never be forgotten.


Today was our first school visit and I have to say it was an absolute privilege to be able to tour two such great schools with dedicated staff and very happy children.

Our guides and translators for the day were Dr. Ko Senda, who is organising the conference later in the week, and Ryuta Otsubo who is a specialist in risk. They ensured we made the most of our visits by helping us talk with head teachers, classroom teachers and parents and making sure we were in the right place at the right time. Ko has planned today and tomorrow’s visits for us and, going by today, he has done a good job.

The first school we visited was Iijima Elementary School. The Headteacher, Mr Onoue, was the inspiration behind what they are doing there. Ko has known him since he was a classroom teacher - so Mr Onoue has been making a difference to children’s time at school for many years. Now that he is a headteacher, his philosophy of ensuring children have contact with nature every day can be seen throughout his school.

Most of the children in the school don’t have gardens at home, so the school believes it is vital that they have access to nature at school.

We saw steep banks alongside the playground with rustic wooden steps build into them and terraces of small paddy fields - all of which were created by pupils during their lessons. These lessons are dual purpose: to learn about natural processor and to explore their cultural heritage. These slopes could certainly be seen as risky yet the school believes the benefits far outweigh the risks; yes, there are occasional accidents, but these are expected and accepted as part of the learning process. The school benefits from a wonderful volunteer who works with pupils to grow an amazing variety of vegetables and flowers, and also helped to create (and now maintain) a series of ponds - one of which contained an eel - NOT Jules’s favourite sight of the day.

Iijima Kindergarten was just glorious. Once Ko retrieved his lunch (which he left at the elementary school) we started our tour around the site. Built on a ‘mountain’, the natural slopes of the site were fully exploited. We heard how children starting kindergarten aged three could be quite scared of the challenging environment but supported by staff, and by watching the older pupils (the kindergarten age range is 3-5years) they soon want to try things out for themselves. They run, fall down, learn and try again, according to their teachers and the parents we spoke to also confirmed that accidents are a normal part of life and that is how children learn to manage their bodies.

Children in this space used zip-wires (the littlest with help, the older ones on their own), swing ropes, bamboo climbing poles and walls of tyres for climbing. They hunted out and fed a praying mantis and had games of football. They climb, run, slide, jump, swing and so much more. The activity levels of these children at play times was amazing and they just kept going in PE lessons and at after school football.

We ended the day taking Ko and Ryuta for tea and pancakes - it was then that Ryuta discovered he had left his phone behind at the kindergarten. That was soon retrieved but as we headed to the station to catch the train, Ko found he had left his umbrella in the restaurant. Jules and I managed to lose not a single item all day! And we caught the right trains!

We know these schools are special and that not every school in Japan is like this, but with such a great start to our visits we are very much looking forward to tomorrow - just as long as Ryuta and Ko remember to pick us up in the morning!


We have just returned to our hotel this evening after another lovely day in kindergartens and also supper at a local, and very Japanese restaurant.

We visited three kindergartens today - each with something unique to explore. We’ll write more in our report on return to the UK but some of the things we’ve seen today include; huge piles of leaves to play in, steep slopes to climb, cubby holes and tunnels to hide in, swings and slides large and small, sand and earth to dig in, water sources and rills to carry and to make mud with, innovative storage, play nets and climbing walls to ascend and descend, massed vegetation on many levels, bikes and trikes and so much more.

We saw happy, healthy children and practitioners who joined in - they climbed to the top of towers with the children and helped them only when they really needed help. More often, children watched and learned from each other and gave things a try - practitioners told us that as children get older and more physically capable, it gets easier and they can then teach the next group of children how to master a skill.

We also visited a park where we walked through a bamboo forest - beautiful towering stems, smooth and very strong. Then we finished our day with ramen in a local restaurant that only had eight seats. We queued up and were in the first eight to be served, ordering our meal through a machine that looked like it might dispense cigarettes. We sat at a counter and watched the chefs prepare our meal - soup with noddles, pork, tofu, seaweed and spinach. It was very tasty - and very filling!


This morning, after Jules went for a run along the river path, she and I started planning how we are going to use what we have seen when we return to the UK. We will be reporting back to the next ISGA conference in Scotland in 2020 but we also plan to create resources to advise and inform school grounds designers as well as those who use the grounds daily. So there was lots to consider, in the context of how what we have seen here in Japan so far could be applied to schools and settings in the UK.

Jules has had real problems downloading the photos she has been taking so whilst she continued to struggle with these after lunch (from a lovely bakery we discovered on the backstreets) I headed back out. I’d found a short tourist guide for the area in the hotel so set out to explore a couple of the sites on the guide.

The first was a zen garden on the roof of the local shopping centre. It has been a lovely sunny day so I sat up there for a while and enjoyed the peace and quiet - this is until loud speakers blasted out Muzak and what I assume were adverts for the store below, totally shattering the calming atmosphere on the roof.

My second cultural visit was the Tsurumi Shrine - the oldest in the area and dating back to the seventh century. Another peaceful site with a long history of use by local people.

At this point we met up with another member of

the Leadership Council of the International School Grounds Alliance and, whilst Jules continued to battle with her images, Kerry and I headed off for a smoothie and a walk along the river before all meeting up again for supper in a tempura fast food joint.

Our plan is to visit Tokyo tomorrow - the weather forecast is good - as more of our friends and colleagues from around the world start to arrive for the conference.


Today has been a pure tourist day - but we’ve done a lot (22,908 steps according to Jules' FitBit - 16.2km). We headed into Tokyo and up the iconic Tokyo Tower. The views of the city and beyond were amazing including being able to see Mount Fuji and its mountain range, with no cloud obscuring its top this time.

We then walked to the Imperial Palace gardens via a couple of lovely parks including one hosting some kind of chrysanthemum show. We were particularly taken by the ones that looked like fireworks, with clever wire structures holding them up. We also climbed a rather long set of ‘success steps’ to a Buddhist garden with a koi carp pond and garden area at the top. Climbing the steps is meant to bring success; for us the success was getting to the top in one piece!

You can’t actually visit the palace, as the Imperial family still live there, but the moat and extensive gardens are still an impressive landscape with hundreds of really rather funky pine trees - just like you expect Japanese pine trees to be. Lots of tourists about - Japanese and overseas - and lots of selfies being taken (including by us - the other person in our selfie is Kerry, from Perth in Australia).

Then we headed into the city to see what it had to offer. It was busy, but it seems much quieter than other major cities, and there was lots to see from interesting modern architecture to a wide range of high end shops. We found a seven storey shop with masses of great stationery, before we headed back to Tokyo Station for our journey home to Tsurumi.

This evening we’ve been meeting new friends and reacquainting with old,as overseas delegates arrive ready for the start of the conference tomorrow. So far we have several Americans, a Canadian, two Aussies, three Swedes, one Finn, three Germans, one from here in Japan, two from Portugal, and four of us from the UK - but I may have left someone out! It’s always wonderful to meet up again with those we have known for some time but equally exciting to meet new people with a shared passion - spreading the word about the value of school grounds around the globe and sharing what we learn along the way.

Tomorrow we head out on three separate bus tours to visit more schools and kindergartens - I can’t wait. I'm off to Kanagawa and Jules is visiting Tokyo schools, so there will be plenty to share tomorrow.


It’s a short one tonight as it's been a busy day that has only just ended! Jules headed off to visit Tokyo kindergartens this morning and I visited schools and settings in and around Yokohama. There was so much to see and so many happy and active children.

Two of the sites I visited today did most of their best outdoor work off site. Moana Kids Nature Day Nursery is based in town so has no outdoor space; fortunately, part of the city's greenbelt is nearby so children set off every day to spend time in the park and woods. These three year olds walk 2-3km to get to the site - but often it's even further as they take little detours on their way!

We also visited a school which uses fields belonging to local farmers to grow a range of crops such as sweet potatoes and rice, whilst the last visit was to a small kindergarten using its small outdoor space to grow a good range of fruit and vegetables.

The day ended with all the overseas conference delegates experiencing a traditional Japanese meal, including sitting at low tables, on padded benches. We lost count of the number of courses, but it was a lovely way to catch up with old friends whilst experiencing something of the local culture.

It is more traditional conference programme tomorrow...


Today was when the conference presentations and discussions began, but before the main business started, we needed to launch the conference with presentations from the local council and our university hosts, plus the official 'hand over' from our colleagues from Germany who gave a short review of the conference they hosted in Berlin last year.

Two inspirational keynote presentations then followed, from Akemi Myasato and Susan Humphries - each reflecting on their experiences of working with children and the importance of understanding the needs of children. Daily contact with nature was central to both presentations ,and Sue spoke about how our experiences through life make us who we become as adults, thus it is vital that we provide children with memorable and exciting experiences throughout their education.

​Just before we broke for lunch, Sue was surprised with a lifetime achievement award from the ISGA in recognition of the inspirational and innovative work that has influenced the landscapes and practices of schools and settings across the globe.

​From lunch-time onwards the conference split into different groups, with one group visiting local schools, one visiting the Buddhist temple in the grounds of the University, and one visiting the University's own kindergarten, which has elements designed by Dr Ko Senda. The third group also spent time looking at how food is grown in schools around the world.

The day ended with a spectacular conference dinner. Another amazing variety of beautifully prepared dishes - but the thing that surprised us most was Ko dressing in traditional men's attire - he looked amazing, very elegant.

So just one day of the formal conference left - and that means I'm off to make sure I'm ready for my presentation tomorrow.


Today was the last day of the conference today and I’m exhausted... I’ve had a cold coming on for a few days now so I’m having an early night whilst the others hit the town!

There were excellent presentations today and lots of good workshops too. This morning I gave an overview of school grounds in the UK then chaired questions and answers for the other speakers. We had two who came from an educational perspective and two landscape architects but all shared a common theme - it is the child that matters most and their needs have to be considered throughout any changes to the grounds.

At lunchtime a Japanese tea ceremony also took place and delegates were served small sweets, to eat whilst drinking the very bitter green tea, by elegant women in traditional kimono dress.

After lunch I headed outside for a workshop entitled ‘Forest Classroom’ which was led by two Swedish educators who wrote two books I use all the time, especially for secondary schools. So it was good to see some of the activities in action.

​The day was finished by the conference closing ceremony where we gave a short plug for the Scottish conference that will take place in two years time. You can register your interest already at ISGA2020.wordpress.combut you won’t be able to book for about another 12 months. It will be great! We were handed over the ISGA banner and the day was completed by short presentations from Ko and his father.

We then headed off to the station and over to our new hotel - where our luggage was waiting for us having travelled here this morning. A quick supper and its off to bed for me. The leadership council retreat starts tomorrow.


Today was the first day of the ISGA retreat. This is when the leadership council of the ISGA get together to consider what we have achieved over the previous year and plan for the year, or years, ahead before we meet again.

We welcomed new members and caught up with old friends, people who have joined us at different stages in the journey to support and celebrate the value of school grounds around the globe.

We looked at themes we want to focus on and new to the discussion was school grounds and climate change and school grounds and their role within a community - something that specifically came out of this conference. As a Leadership Council group, we also visited one of the kindergartens Jules and I were lucky enough to see at the start of our visit and everyone was as exicted about the setting as we had been the week before.

When discussions were over for the day we headed out for an amazing, and elaborate meal - I think we counted eight courses - that was in a traditional form presented in a modern manner. Far too much was eaten, and possibly drunk (whisky was flowing this time to mark the next conference in Scotland, as well as the local sake). We retired to bed with just one day left of meetings to go.


Today, day two of the retreat, was the last day of the formal part of our trip to Japan. We started with breakfast at Kohuku kindergarten, which was one of our initial 'research' settings in our first week here (seems a loooong time ago!). I’ve never had a fruit salad sandwich before and I have to say it was really rather nice, including whipped cream!

Most of the ISGA Leadership Council was visiting Kohuku for the first time, and found it as exhilarating as we had the

previous week. After spending time observing the children making the most of their grounds, we walked back to the 'community house' that is our venue for the retreat meetings. We finished off our working group discussions, which included considering what a curriculum on school grounds should contain, for landscape architecture students. There were dozens of useful thoughts about what should be covered, and we ended up putting everything into one of five themes: child development, education, design, environment/climate and community.

For lunch we strolled down the road for udon noodles (chunky noodles) – again, wonderfully tasty, but so filling! We then returned for the final stage of the retreat. I’d asked everyone to bring a pebble from home and Ko had provided us with a bag of pebbles from Japan. I then added in marker pens, small sheets of coloured card and raffia. In Japan it is customary to give gifts – to friends, to those you meet and to those whose hospitality you enjoy, so the task was to create a gift for someone using the stones and the resources. The finished articles were laid on the community house verandah where we could enjoy our own creativity.

Anders then led us in a song all about Ko – the conference director – before each person chose one of the stone gifts to take home. With additional and very generous gifts from our Japanese hosts (I told you they did gifts) we loaded up the bus to head back to the hotel as a big group, for the last time.

Masses of goodbyes in the hotel lobby, along with many ‘see you in Scotland’s before the group headed off in all directions - to Tokyo, Kyoto, Vietnam, South America...

Julie and I have two nights left in the hotel so just after the emotional goodbyes we joined Carley (LTL CEO) and Sue Humphries for a very delightful high tea – with, as you would expect with the Japanese, stunningly beautiful cakes – no supper needed tonight!


PLL Jules writes: PLL Mary scarpered without writing the final day's blog... so I'm stepping in. What an amazing time we've had - the schools and settings have been phenomenal, the people immensely friendly, the sights breathtaking and the food delicious. Our time here has whizzed by, with every day packed in order to make the most of the opportunity we've been afforded through our connection with the International School Grounds Alliance and the kind grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

On our final full day in Japan, we spent the morning plotting a dissemination strategy for our research materials, and divvying up who's doing what. So far we have around a dozen case studies to write, along with up to 20 themed and illustrated guides to different elements of provision that we've seen. I'm also going to write a series for Nursery World here in the UK, and we will of course upload learning resources here.

Our final afternoon involved visiting Don Quijote, a bizarre combination of a pound shop, TK Maxx, a jumble sale and a Saturday market. Over two floors, the shop sells everything. No, really. Everything. Want a Japanese style musical toilet seat? Manga tea towel? Advent calendar? Macha flavour KitKat? Bike helmet? Origami paper? Steamed bun? Suitcase? Don Quikote is your destination of choice. We bought stack of things we didn't know we needed until we saw them and then recuperated with tea and cake.

Our final evening was equally stunning, consisting as it did of an all you can eat Japanese buffet with fabulous views down to the thriving street 10 storeys below. Tomorrow we head home... and the hard work begins, creating materials and resources that will do justice to the incredibly generous and welcoming schools and settings of Tokyo and Yokohama.

That's all folks! Thanks for sticking with us if you've read this far.


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