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Rooftop Gardens – New Agriculture in Tokyo

[From May Issue 2010]

 

Japan’s capital city of Tokyo is crowded with a population of approximately 13 million people, and a city-center crammed full of tall buildings. However, even within such a dense environment, the number of people promoting rooftop agriculture is increasing.

Ginza is widely known as one of Tokyo’s upscale areas, full of luxurious boutiques and expensive restaurants. In 2006, a Ginza business executive, and community project leader, TANAKA Atsuo, started keeping honeybees on a local rooftop. “After hearing that you could keep honeybees in urban areas, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could gather honey in Ginza, so I started. The bees gather nectar from trees in parks more than one kilometer away, as well as from trees lining the streets,” says Tanaka.

Tanaka thought that using the harvested honey could help better promote the area, so, he founded the “Ginza Mitsubachi (honeybee) Project.” “There are many wonderful chefs, bartenders and other food artisans in Ginza, so we’ve asked them to make food and confectionery items with our honey. We thought it could become the talk of the town and attract more shoppers, further enriching Ginza,” he says.

Tanaka’s idea soon became a great success. The word about Ginza’s honeybees spread instantly and TV networks and newspapers started reporting on the area’s newest venture. Chefs soon also visited Tanaka’s bees and were very impressed by their dedicated work, as well as by the difference in taste among honeys collected from various kinds of flowers. With that in mind, the chefs started creating many, delicious, honey-based dishes that tasted so good, and that were so well-received, that a honey shortage almost ensued.

Rooftop agriculture soon spread to other buildings around Ginza, with even the century-old Matsuya Department Store creating their own garden in 2007 where they started growing flowers and vegetables from which nectar could be gathered. They also invited people involved in environmental activities to an event where they served curry with summer vegetables that were grown on their rooftop.

“During the summer, we had to water the plants many times a day. Some of them were even eaten by birds,” explains Matsuya PR staff member OOKI Yukio about the problems they had to overcome. “But the customers were pleased, and they kept telling us that they were looking forward to seeing the vegetables grow. Also, when we saw the honeybees coming, we felt like we were contributing to nature and so we started thinking more about the environment,” he added.

Also in 2007, The Japanese Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Company started gardening on its Ginza head office building rooftop, growing rice from which they make sake. “None of our employees had any agricultural experience, so when we faced problems, we had to think and study, and solve them one by one. When the weather was bad, the rice plants became ill. Since we didn’t use any pesticide, they got attacked by harmful insects. We were surprised by the fact that any insect would fly to the rooftop of such a high building in Ginza. But, we were emotionally moved when the plants finally bore rice,” says ODA Asami, Senior section chief of the Tokyo branch office.

“By growing rice we’ve widened our circle of friends,” says Oda, adding that “at harvest time, our employees’ families come along. When we make sake, we also invite people from outside the company as well.”

“Through the Honeybee Project, community interest is growing,” says Tanaka. “When I’m taking care of the honeybees, I can see people taking care of their vegetables on the roof of the next building. Just by waving to one another, we become closer. The social bonds of people in the area have strengthened. On top of that, we started to think more about agriculture and the environment.”

The non-profit Oedo Agricultural Research Society (OARS) is also trying to spread the concept of “roof planting” (rooftop plant growing). Their aim is to create gardens all around Tokyo using light, well-nourished soil specially developed for rooftop agriculture. To help, they advise people interested in starting gardens by holding workshops and teaching agricultural skills.

One example of OARS’ success can be seen atop the Kitasenju Station Building in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, where only 10cm of topsoil could be laid. In spite of that, through advanced planning and careful soil care, they successfully harvested various kinds of vegetables, including turnips and cabbage. In 2009, they took up the challenge of growing watermelons and succeeded in producing more than ten.

OARS also cooperates with other organizations, such as the Akihabara-based, Licolita NPO, who are themselves growing “Akiba-mai” (Akihabara Rice). This project has “maid-uniform-wearing girls, growing rice in buckets in Akihabara.” Now in their second year, they are also trying to grow strawberries and herbs.

“Licolita is an organization that aims to connect ‘lico’ (self-interest) with ‘lita’ (altruism). So, to do something with “maids” connects to the concern with agriculture and food issues. We hope that young people will learn more about agriculture through Akiba-mai,” says OARS member MUKUNOKI Ayumi.

“People living in cities will be able to better distinguish between good and bad vegetables. As a result, they will better appreciate farmers who grow good ones,” says TAKASHIO Kenji, OARS Chief Administrative Officer. “Now, many people have worries about food because of the widespread use of agricultural chemicals. Knowing that, we really hope that people living in cities will learn and think more about agriculture.”

Ginza Honeybee Project
Matsuya
Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Company
Oedo Agricultural Research Society

Text: SAZAKI Ryo


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