Recently I ventured around Tokyo in search of a relatively new style of garden. I wanted to explore the differences that have taken place between the creation of traditional Japanese gardens and contemporary ones. The Japanese have a reputation for being creative, not least in the garden – so what surprises do these new gardens hold?
The type of garden I have been exploring is the roof top garden, ‘okujo niwa’. Tokyo with its flat skyscraper roofs and balconies has plenty of room for these, and they can be found dotted round the city. Recreation and environmental benefits are the focus behind them, which perhaps differs a little from the Buddhist-inspired traditional gardens. All of the gardens I visited feature space for sitting, viewing and enjoying… Some had cafes, but unfortunately no teahouses with matcha (powerful powdered green tea) and a traditional sweet. You can follow my tour here.
These gardens, like the traditional ones of earlier eras, are addressing a major issue of our time: the need for green space within a city for mental and physical wellbeing, as a magnet for wildlife that needs a habitat or passing place with food and water, as well as acting as a microclimate balancer. Our cities with their generally grey, dark colouring absorb heat making them hotter than the surrounding areas of countryside. Plants with their incredible light capturing, carbon dioxide inhaling, oxygen and water giving abilities help to counteract this heat, cooling the air around us. This makes the city a less polluted, more comfortable and fresh place to live.
Tokyo has a great many gardens that can be seen from a bird’s eye (or Google map) view of the city. However, if you are deep within its concrete maze and unable to see these, it is great to be able to look up and see a border of green – or two!
One of the best of these is the Meguro Sky Garden – whose path winds above the oval arc of Ohashi junction. This path is reminiscent of the pond-strolling gardens of the Edo era, however the pond has been replaced with flower gardens, haymaking lawns and a vegetable farm! Ingenious. To my delight, it also included a composting area. The links to traditional gardens run deeper here than simply a winding path, however. They include several details and inspirations from the past.
Having reached the 9th floor, into the shy morning sunshine, a vista of green and straw yellow speckled land rolls on a gentle slope down towards the craggy towers of the skyline. Up here, the air feels fresher, slightly scented with the malting leaves of mid-winter. The city’s skyscrapers do not feel so imposing on this level. Like any good garden, there is a compelling feeling to stroll, unwind, breathe deeply and delight in the details. I was not alone.
Descending into bushy evergreens and elegantly fingered branches of bare brown, something to the right catches the eye. Shattered reflections of pale sky among spikes of green-yellow stalks… A paddy field! Reaching up a soft slope on an adjoining building, this clever feat of engineering serves to surprise and enchant. Could this form part of an integral local network of future food supply?
Sliding on down slope, muted winter hues of green-brown leaves hunch close to the ground. Beneath a small set of stairs sits a cool grey stone lantern, distantly reminiscent of the old ‘roji’ holloways, which were lit in the evening for safe passage to the ancient-looking teahouses. It is suggestive of the gardens night opening hours, until 9 pm. Further down, a beautifully shaped traditional Japanese pine in a large ocean-blue pot sits gracefully. A wooden-framed pagoda sits elegantly, awaiting guests. Trees line both edges of the roof, some forming hedges, others free standing blossoms, already unfolding in the unusual spring-like warmth. Long wavy, humped lawns of recently cut grass stretch downwards. Such ‘humps’ are resonant of the man-made mountains of past traditional gardens. Bundled in drooping groups, the last cut of grasses leaned languidly against these miniature mountains.
Sophisticatedly reinforced young trees streak the central section beyond, the bamboo buttresses echoing traditional management methods. Upon the sinuous branches of these trees hang the dried, organically curved shells of elaborately decorated seed-heads. Different plant varieties produce many beautiful forms – this is winter’s gift to the careful observer. Although subdued in colour, they do not disappoint in shape and character.
At the base of this slope lays a farm adjacent the composting bins. Sitting quietly in this season, it is possible to imagine the bright fruits of its soil come summer. Another open pagoda sits opposite behind a large oblong flowerpot, creating a picturesque frame of the garden reaching up-slope.
Down below the curving roof of the junction, a corner of stones rests in silent meditation – a token of respect to Japan’s rich history of Zen Buddhism and the understated karesansui garden
Other gardens can be found clustered around Shinjuku and Tokyo station, as well as in Harajuku, Ebisu, Yurakucho and Kichioji. Ginza also hosts a rooftop beehive! The former gardens also incorporate space for strolling, sitting and generally relaxing. They are primarily recreational, consisting mainly of evergreens and grassy lawns. These lawns are a hint at the modern influence of the West, which has had influence since the Second World War. They often even incorporate play areas for families.
That of Nihonbashi Takashimaya near Tokyo station also contains two topiary bushes of playful bears – what would the o-karikomi master Kobori Enshu of the 16th century think?! However, some also incorporate information about the wildlife that benefits from these new habitats, and most have signposts of the names of plants. Happily, this shows the environmental and educational consideration behind the designs.
Aside from these lovely rooftop gardens, green walls can also be found in Tokyo. One great example is outside and within an office building. This is at the Pasona Urban farm near Tokyo station. You can visit on weekdays, at normal office hours. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the chance to do so, but I think it would be an inspirational experience and definitely something to build on throughout the city.
It seems Tokyo is getting ever greener and I hope that this will continue to spread with the seeds of the existing gardens through out the city, upon roofs and walls alike. Those with references to traditional gardens hold a powerful cultural importance. They remind us that although in the past, the innate values of such gardens still hold potency in our fast-paced modern world – if not more than ever before. I hope that these roof gardens are a stimulus for other cities in Japan and globally that have not yet initiated them, both with businesses and homeowners alike. Can you also join this garden movement?
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