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Tokyo’s DIY Gardening Scene: Crops and Community

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Asia Life

Tokyo’s DIY Gardening Scene: Crops and Community

Tokyo’s inner city gardeners are becoming agriculturally savvy with help from Japan’s heartland.

Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills is a deceptively versatile complex. Just when it would seem that its list of functions was maxed out – offices, luxury apartments, restaurants, shops, cafes, a hotel, cinemas, bars, a world class museum – it turns out that the rooftop of its centerpiece Mori Tower (named after its founder Minoru Mori) adds yet one more entry to the list: gardening. More specifically, rice planting.

Last week, the Mori Tower held its annual rice planting event, attended by members of the press and highlighting yet again the urban gardening trend that is gaining momentum in Japan, as explored here yesterday. Atop Mori Tower, kids played with frogs and newts, while adults waded through a mock rice paddy putting seeds in their proper places. While the act of planting was the focus of the day, the activity underscored one very important element when it comes to gardening: community.

“The key is to not only putting soil down somewhere, but also developing a community around the process,” Justin Potts of Umari, a Tokyo-based event organizer that often bridges the gap between Japan’s local food cultures and the country’s urban centers told The Diplomat. “That’s what really drives this urban farming connection.”

Alongside actually planting and harvesting crops – in downtown Tokyo no less – Potts added that there are a number of initiatives aimed at “introducing homemade fermented foods and giving farmers and sake brewers a space to share the fruits of their labor with people living in Tokyo.”

Such events hold a special resonance for the Japanese, noted Potts: “Farming is not only communal, it’s also generational. In Japan, farming is deeply ingrained in the culture. It’s more than a product.”

Alongside farming in itself, the acts of food preparation associated with Japan – pickling, making jam, foraging and brewing liquor – also remain points of pride among many elder Japanese.

At last weekend’s rice planting event, the geographical guest of honor was Niigata city, whose well-known seasonal food culture was celebrated amid the beats pounded out by visiting taiko drummers.

Flickr (4098)“Right after we planted rice, we had a large event with farmers who shared their homemade sake,” Potts said, “bringing Niigata agriculture to Tokyo as part of a community centered around local Niigata culture and food – from a very different part of Japan.”

Indeed, the differences are striking. In Tokyo, it’s commonplace to spend $1 or more for one banana or one apple. After all, this is the home of the $25 apple.

“In Tokyo people spend so much on food and rent,” Potts said. “Even at a local grocery store, seasonality, distribution costs, and more drive up prices on different items throughout the year. It all adds up to exorbitant prices.”

By contrast, he continued, “rather than go to a supermarket, some people in the countryside more or less swap food within the community on a kind of bartering system.”

In the city, guerilla forms of gardening could be the precursor to full-blown food production. Helping Tokyoites bridge the gap from the windowsill to the field, networking visionaries like Potts are gradually strengthening rural-urban ties around the nation.

For those who still inhabit the concrete jungle, there is even a trend of moving into luxurious communal apartment complexes, complete with garden plots. Farmers from Niigata actually come regularly to one apartment complex where they help aspiring growers learn the trade. And the traffic goes both ways.

“The residents of these urban farming apartments visit the farmers in their home towns too,” Potts said. “This really cements ties. Organic is commonplace now. So this movement is more about developing a community that people are excited about. It’s about more than a product or a consumable.”

He added, “Japan is really good at building something that looks ‘neat.’ But sometimes it needs a bit of help to make it viable. This is now happening. With the growth of these agricultural partnerships, a legitimate urban agricultural community is taking shape in Tokyo today.”