Exploring private gardens in Tokyo

When I first came to Japan, I had very little money and always tried to save some by walking long distances within the city. This was when I found all these different garden styles which I didn’t see during my work as a gardener in Japan.

Private gardens can’t usually be visited except when the owner participates in projects like “The Open Garden” which can be found, for example, in Koganei city. However, most of these gardens look very European.

So.. how do typical private gardens in Japan look like?

I found a lot of different types and would like to classify three:
– The modern garden with the traditional Japanese touch
– The Showa garden
– The garden for the busy family

The first type is often found in richer areas like Daikanyama or Yoyogi Uehara where people built their homes and gardens. Usually, a garden designer is planning the exterior and garden and a maintenance company is taking care of it later. In our case, we are doing all these works by ourselves.
Modern gardens can have a lawn area, some flower beds, but also stone terraces or using water elements. They can be in a wa-modern (Japanese modern) style or even satoyama style with a lot of native trees.

The Showa garden is what I, while working in a typical garden maintenance company, usually saw and what you might also be able to find on strolls through the city: houses in more or less traditional Japanese style (tiered roofs), surrounded by a wall and some trees popping out above it.
This is also the garden-style I want to explore here with you!

There are several questions like: why do they use these ugly walls? What treasures lie behind these walls? Are these walls really ugly? 😉

Fencing off the own property has a very long history in almost every country. It can be done by fences, hedges or walls to show people where to stop when approaching one’s home.

In Japan, bamboo fences (竹垣 takegaki) and dirt-walls (土塀 dobei) were commonly used, however, to guard off a whole property, walls were preferred. Bamboo fences were then used within the property to separate different areas.

High and thick walls granted a better guard against enemies in a fight and fire and could be found around castles, temples and rich people’s huge residences in not as peaceful times. From here they became popular among the common people and with the invention of concrete and concrete-block-walls they became a usual sight in the cities and the countryside up until today.

Around the Showa gardens, high walls are used (in case of a strong earthquake go away from these walls, they will fall over!) to surround the whole property. These walls are so high that no one can look over them into the gardens. These days, however, people prefer lower walls (cost, security).

Usually, there is a way to sneak into these properties anyhow. First is the gate, if not a massive wooden gate, second the design-element blocks, which often have holes in eyesight. You often find me in front of one of these holes to see if the garden behind is interesting.

But how do these gardens look like?
The style here is often the same, only the elements and plants differ slightly. A lot of families spent money on their gardens and planted a pine tree with one long branch covering the gate (門かぶりの松 mon kaburi no matsu). If the family didn’t want to spend too much, you will find a Podocarpus instead.
Then there is the approach to the house and a place to park the car. Usually on the other side (left) lies the garden with a small veranda in front of the house and a small lawn area. Between the lawn and the wall are bushes and trees and maybe some seasonal perennials or bulbs, but not in the way like a European flower garden. Often the family inherited rocks or a lantern and a water basin, which are placed somewhere in the garden, usually on the line between the lawn and the plantings.

For a German-gardener’s eyes, it takes some time to get used to this garden style. It is completely different from a flower garden with all the bare dirt-ground and also different from what is usually seen as a Japanese garden. However, these gardens are somehow my REAL Japanese gardens, because they are the gardens of the common people, although this also changes now.

More and more of these old houses are torn down, demolished and sold to investment companies. Then the property is either parted so that two one-family-homes or an apartment building can be built.
The apartment buildings get a usual exterior with a lot of “boring” Satsuki (Japanese azaleas), one of the cheapest evergreen bushes you can get here.
The one-family-homes get a mini-garden if they are lucky. These are guarded by fences and some low trees or conifers, have a lawn in front of the small veranda and gravel around the sides of the house.
They are built to give the smallest amount of green and privacy and being very very low maintenance because no one wants to spend precious time and money anymore on gardens.

I hope you enjoyed this small look through the keyhole of typical private gardens in Tokyo!

We will read us soon when I talk about the Slippery Slope to Concrete!

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