As the airport shuttle bus drove along a raised highway towards the centre of Tokyo, I remember thinking how grey the city looked. It wasn’t a dark, gloomy grey but the pale colour of clean concrete illuminated by a strong, almost subtropical sun.
Later, inside the hotel, the colour palette became more nuanced. Yet, with matt-beige floors and polished wood paneling, it remained muted. In our room the neutral tones continued – with one addition: green. A wide ledge outside the window was planted with a naturalistic arrangement of conifers and foliage plants. The plants had been placed and pruned with great care to create a layer of green across the entire window. Yet it didn’t look contrived. From the 7th floor of a high rise building in one of the largest conurbations on the planet we had a view of a forest.
As we emerged into the street the next day my first impression of the cityscape was confirmed. Most of it was drained of colour. Bright reds, blues and yellows were confined to shopping and entertainment areas. But, as in our hotel room, among all the beige and brown and grey, green vegetation stood out.
Most plants grew as if they were part of the surrounding architecture. Apart from a few street trees, plantings were strictly confined to narrow, and sometimes very narrow, strips along the outer edges of buildings. It looked like a giant sheet of concrete had been laid over the natural landscape and then linear incisions had been made. From these slits rose thin layers of nature and enveloped parts of buildings. This brilliantly space-saving method had maximum visual impact, like the 50 cm deep forest outside our hotel room. And it allowed very different interpretations. I became quite obsessed with photographing the countless peculiar variations we came across in Tokyo and other Japanese cities.
One extreme example were rows of single stems of Japanese horsetail (Equisetum japonicum) squeezed between pavement and facade. It was hard to imagine a more restrained planting. Less botanically-minded people might not even realise these were living plants at all.
However, we also found the other extreme, plants that were an impressive manifestation of life. Some grew with such vigour, they seemed to be exploding from their narrow beds, ready to swallow entire buildings. Surprisingly, such displays didn’t appear to indicate neglect. It felt more like the owners welcomed the wild.
Particularly bizarre were houses which seemed to have trees growing out of them. These buildings were so oddly shaped, it looked as if they had been constructed around existing trees although feasibility suggested the opposite. Either way, the effect was strangely brutalist and defiant.
Before our trip to Japan I had not expected urban streets to hold particular horticultural interest. After we arrived I was immediately fascinated by the interplay of tight control and wild exuberance. The view from our hotel room in Tokyo demonstrated the perfect balance of both.
A friend deserves huge credit for suggesting we book this hotel. At the time it was still being built and we did not realise that this was going to be a particularly fitting place to start our tour of the gardens of Japan.
This is the first of a two-part photo essay on urban planting in Japan (second part to follow soon).
The article is part of an ongoing series about gardens in Japan.