Cherry Blossoms Flower in Tokyo Winter Aided by Used Cooking Oil

Organizers of an elaborate mid-winter light display running until January along the Meguro River in downtown Tokyo, a popular destination for the viewing of cherry blossoms in spring, are going off-grid as a way to limit harm to the environment.

Biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil collected from residents and restaurants in parts of the surrounding neighborhood is being used to power more than 420,000 LED lights along the river. In a nod to the blossoms that appear in late March, the lights are a pale pink.

The novel approach — organizers say it’s the first of its kind in Tokyo — is an offshoot of concerns left in the wake of the Fukushima disaster more than five years ago about energy usage and nationwide efforts to use electricity more efficiently. While LEDs are more efficient and last longer than conventional bulbs, they’re also used in many more places, meaning they risk taxing electricity supplies regardless of how well they use energy.

“We want to propose something that puts LED beyond being just beautiful, something as a step to the future,” said Hajime Narita, secretary-general of the committee in charge of organizing the event, which is supported by the Shinagawa ward office and local businesses. “This isn’t meant to draw visitors with an expectation they’ll spend money here. This is for the community by the community to help them build their identity by seeing the return of the blossoms.”

In 2010, the display’s first year, organizers purchased clean energy under Japan’s green certificate system. The group also considered installing devices to convert visitors’ steps into electricity, but the technology wasn’t ready, Narita said.

Fukushima Shock

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit in March 2011, Japan embarked on a nationwide drive to save energy. Lights were dimmed and events were scaled down.

“We thought we should find a new solution” rather than calling off the program or reducing the size, Narita said.

After research, organizers turned to used cooking oil.

The event, now into its seventh year, has added lights and extended the length over which the illumination is strung. For this year’s event, which will run through early January, 2,200 liters of used oil has been collected.

“Used oil is something you have to pay to throw away but this means the energy source is right there,” Narita said.

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