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Urban Farming Takes Root in Tokyo

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Asia Life

Urban Farming Takes Root in Tokyo

DIY gardening is on the rise in Tokyo, reflected in the city’s changing landscape and on its dinner plates.

Tucked away in an oasis of calm in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward, Yoshi’s apartment is like many others in urban Japan, save for one key difference. If you crack the window in his living room you’ll find a good-sized ledge with a number of pots where the 31-year-old white collar worker tends to his growing “mini-farm”.

“This is my little garden,” he told The Diplomat, pointing to different pots from which tomatoes and other low maintenance greens can be seen sprouting. “I really like the idea of growing some of my own food, even if it’s just a small part of what I eat.”

While Yoshi’s crops may be modest, he is part of a global trend: an increasing number of urbanites are developing a green thumb. The movement – urban farming or DIY gardening – operates on the belief that localizing our food production is a good idea indeed.

As National Geographic points out, a number of pressing issues have put food production at the forefront, from the population explosion and environmental toll taken by agriculture to the use of energy (transportation linked with distribution) and habitat loss. As an added bonus, it makes cities greener to boot. Tokyo is no exception.

While fruits and vegetables can be seen growing on city dwellers’ balconies from Singapore to Seoul, this trend has gained momentum in disaster-prone Japan, spurred on most significantly by the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.

“Fukushima absolutely triggered a greater interest in urban gardening,” Justin Potts of Umari, a Tokyo-based group that organizes agricultural and business projects, told The Diplomat. “The reason for this is understandable. People want to know where their food comes from.”

Still, panic does not enter the equation for most Tokyoites. In the popular imagination the megalopolis calls to mind Blade Runner-esque cityscapes – neon, maze-like networks of alleys, chaotic jumbles of electrical wires, and an overwhelming presence of concrete and glass. But take a closer look and you’ll see many signs of organic life in Japan’s capital.

In an article on the Tokyo Fruit Layers project, Tokyo-based DIY gardening evangelist Chris Berthelsen, along with Jess Mantell and Jared Braiterman, tells us not get lost in the concrete jungle. “Look closer,” the article reads. “Plants come out to chew at the borders. The persistence of nature reveals Tokyo as livable and humanscaled, hands-on and delicious – a surprisingly productive fruit basket.” Other benefits are explained here.

Tokyo DIY Gardening -- 1Potts seconds this view. “At a lot of old homes around Japan you see that many people have some great little gardens,” he said. “A few pots of this and that: people are looking once again at the value of growing their own food and knowing fully where it all comes from.”

According to the essay coauthored by Berthelsen, Mantell and Braiterman, Tokyo imports more than 60 percent of its food, “but informal local edibles maintain a vital force in city life.” This includes more popular types of produce in Japan – peaches, pears, blueberries, persimmons, yuzu – as well as more exotic varieties, from bayberries to mountain cherries.

“Tokyo’s informal urban agriculture transcends functionality, utility and technique,” the artist suggests. “Its landscape is more humane than that. This city has vast potential for being a center of fruit production, and understanding its fruit layers can help make urban life more social, resilient and delicious.”

There remains one question: can urbanites who have never stepped foot in a field truly take on the role of farmer?

Potts makes an important point. “You can’t live on a few tomatoes on the porch,” he said. “But bringing the source of the food closer to the dinner table – there are new ways of doing that. And it largely involves connecting it to a larger community.”

As Potts suggests, the quest to tap Tokyo’s full agricultural potential cannot be achieved by the city’s residents alone. Outside expertise from Japan’s bountiful heartland have become increasingly involved, as we will explore tomorrow.