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Tokyo’s Creative Greenness Revealed

Hand Made Tokyo, a small book documenting a unique interactive gardening workshop held last summer, may forever change readers perceptions of the city. As it puzzles together photographs, academic texts, personal observations, blog posts and articles (full disclosure: two of my articles are included.) it records the evening’s event and reveals in the process the city’s tremendously diverse greener side of parks, canals, community gardens, bike paths, roof gardens, farms, forests, and personal gardens of all shapes and sizes.


Authors Jared Braiterman and Chris Berthelsen, both keen observers of the city, organized the workshop in an effort to delve deeper into what they saw as a unique phenomenon for a city the size and scope of Tokyo. “What surprises me still are Tokyo residents’ ingenuity and passion for cultivating plants and community in a crowded, over-built city,” writes Braiterman. And they hope others will like it enough to, at the very least, start exploring the urban nature around them, and at most,  add a few pots and plants of their own to the mix.

“I’m interested in what we’re documenting here because I think it’s important for our generation and children to see people can just do stuff and make stuff without having it done for them. We’re in danger of forgetting that. If we document this then we can give people a book to show what other people are just doing,” said Berthelsen.

Readers can see for themselves the new and sometimes even three-dimensional portrait of the city painted that summer night and get a hint of the energy and vibrancy the topic generated. Photos of the workshop show a roomful of people laughing as they jostle for position around a massive table covered in white paper (soon to be the  Tokyo DIY GardeningMap) to note a favorite place, an idea for new green spaces, or to talk about shared knowledge or experiences. Pictures of the map fly the viewer in and out of this new city to illustrate the range of places and spaces in all their assorted colors and textures.

Yet, Hand Made Tokyo captures not just the excitement of a gathering, but much of what might be some of the city’s finest characteristics: the overall safety of its streets; the creative greenness its citizens spontaneously implement; and the community cooperation required to maintain both. As the authors point out, in many cities the world over similar configurations of pots and plants left outside would be vandalized or stolen. Tokyo residents manage to respectfully negotiate a neighbor’s container garden spilling over doorsteps and onto sidewalks and occasionally even into parking spaces. The result is a city of millions that is also wonderfully organic as well as pedestrian, bicycle, and even animal friendly.

Hand Made Tokyo and the public and private and spontaneous gardens it tours readers through are as much about community as about flowers and food. Plant choices and arrangement reflect the individual nature of the owner, and also offer an opportunity to share a story, a recipe, or learn something new or simply exchange greetings over the fence. For Berthelsen and Braiterman both, setting a plant outside changes the outer world into something more intimate: “a busy street feels more like a small village.” It may sound fantastical, but if the workshop served as a microcosm of such interaction it is a very real phenomenon. Strangers meet and find, literally as well as figuratively, common ground. Perhaps Japan has long practiced something the rest of the world needs to learn: the power of greenery to unite and make place inhabitable in a way that wide roads and buildings alone cannot.

One doesn’t need to be a gardener to get caught up in the joy on these pages. The potential for urban  and community development via gardening and greenery is exciting. Turning a page means discovering a new path, a new idea, a new place. By the end the reader looks up to find themselves living in a different world, one much greener than before, one full of life. The beginning quote: “If you squeezed this city, juice would come pouring out.” that seemed nonsensical at first now sounds quite probable.

While Japan may see such things as commonplace, it could be argued that this kind of thinking around green space large and small, public and private could well be harnessed for the future. “While gardens once served primarily for relaxation and entertainment, their role today could be even more profound, given global urbanization and climate change.” It could be the saving grace of  a country currently in crisis in a world and time that requires green solutions for a sustainable future. Tapping into this traditional penchant for spontaneous and planned urban nature, the ability to create and cooperate around gardening could move Tohoku from devastation to the cutting edge of sustainable technology. And it could take the rest of the country and the world with it. Hand Made Tokyo is perhaps an inspirational resource for just such an adventure.

For more inspiration, check out the following:

Tokyo DIY Gardening – An interactive website full of ideas, observations, workshops, and more.
Tokyo Green Space – Jared Braiterman’s blog about his wanderings and observations in the city.
A Small Lab – Chris Berthelsen’s website recounting his projects, ideas, wanderings and observations in the city. 

Hand Made Tokyo: Document of the Tokyo Mapping Workshop at 3331 Arts CYD
by Jared Braiterman and Chris Berthelsen, 2011

Download or email Chris Berthelsen for a hard copy

Other Links:

Tokyo Green Space: http://tokyogreenspace.com/

A Small Lab: http://a-small-lab.com/

Tokyo DIY Gardening:  http://tokyo-diy-gardening.org/

Hand Made Tokyo download:  http://tokyo-diy-gardening.org/hand-made-tokyo/

Tokyo DIY Gardening Map: http://tokyo-diy-gardening.org/tokyo-diy-gardening-workshop-map/

Chris Berthelsen Email chris(@)a-small-lab.com

Photos provided by Chris Berthelsen

Joan Bailey
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Joan Lambert Bailey lives, eats, writes, and farms in Tokyo. Follow her random adventures getting dirty, eating good food, and visiting farmers markets at Japan Farmers Markets.
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