After staying in a carefully-designed, newly-built hotel in Tokyo we moved into rather different accommodation in Kyoto. For two weeks my Englishman and I lived on the ground floor of a creaking old wooden house in one of the narrow streets that fill the middle of Kyoto. The entire area turned out to be a wild mix of two story residential buildings of various architectural styles interspersed with craft workshops and the odd exclusive restaurant hidden behind traditional slatted window screens. This was not what the local tourist office promoted as the ‘well preserved traditional Kyoto’. This was where people lived.
Life there was quiet, even by Japanese standards. Everything seemed miniaturised, streets, houses, even vehicles were selected to fit the tiny garages on the ground floors of the buildings. The mode of transportation was walking or cycling and if a car came by it did so slowly and with electric quiet. The middle of Kyoto – a city of almost 1.5 million – felt like a village.
This crammed grid of houses left no space for gardens. But there were plants – in pots. They stood in front of nearly every house, usually in groups by the front door. Some houses were almost surrounded by a collection of containers, all tightly packed with plants. A wide variety of species was grown: anything from petunia and pelargonium to agapanthus, jasmine, fig and even acer trees of considerable size.
Most plants in theses improvised front gardens were healthy and clearly well-looked after. By contrast, the pots were often a mismatched jumble of broken edges and faded plastic. I wondered why. Vandalism did not seem to exist in Japanese society. Maybe it was an appreciation of imperfection and transience, the wabi-sabi approach to aesthetics which was so difficult to understand with a background in western culture. Or the gardeners here simply weren’t interested in the pots beyond the fact that they enabled them to garden in the street. I liked the idea that plants were all that mattered.
When we had stayed in Tokyo at the beginning of our trip, I had not noticed any container plants in the streets. Now, returning from Kyoto my view was sharpened and I spotted them – but in unexpected locations. There were small gaps inbetween the tall and narrow buildings here, probably designed to prevent earthquake damage. These spaces were dark and anything but ideal for plants. But in a society where everyone takes extreme care not to inconvenience anybody else, these spaces seemed to have the advantage that one or two plants could be squeezed in without being in the way of pedestrians. All over Tokyo similar gaps were filled with plants. They stood next to vending machines and air conditioners, under traffic barriers and around parking meters.
However, a few gardeners were more daring. They arranged plant containers in the middle of pavements – with at least one brightly coloured traffic cone to alert passers-by. Not far from our hotel I noticed an arrangement of plants that was even bolder. Someone had filled every bit of space around the glitzy curved glass entrance of an office building with plants in various containers. At some point, the space had apparently become insufficient because similar plant pots also covered a neighbouring traffic island.
While pot plants had felt like a romantic addition to the village-like centre of Kyoto, putting them into the streets of Tokyo seemed like an act of rebellion, a bit like graffiti. Individuals were making their mark in anonymous public spaces, but with plants instead of spray paint.