Homesteading, Tokyo Style

April 4, 2010

Like most large cities Tokyo has a sizeable population of homeless people. Tokyo also has a large population of people who are referred to as homeless but who are really just choosing to live differently. I don’t want to romanticise or trivialize the lives of the homeless here.  I’ve already seen plenty of people in Tokyo that are living really rough on the streets. The people I’m talking about here are not missing out, they’re opting out.

Riverside hut, Tokyo

The structure pictured above is part of a homesteaders village on the tree covered levee of the Tamagawa river, Inashiro, Tokyo. In the immediate vicinity of this hut there were about five other dwellings and numerous others were nestled in the dense shrubby areas along the levee.

The occupants of these structures grow food, harvest fuel from the surrounding woodland and earn what money they need by recycling the waste of the city around them. Mostly they collect, crush and sell aluminium cans.

Village on the Tamagawa river

Their presence here seems to be tolerated by the authorities. There are signs posted on trees asking people, politely, not to prune the acacias too heavily. Another sign at a vegetable garden advises the gardeners that it is state land and therefore they shouldn’t really be gardening there. Its no secret who the gardeners are or who’s taking small limbs from the acacia’s – the villagers  are not exactly hiding their woodpiles. Talk about reclaiming the commons!

(For more on Japanese “homeless” architecture see the Zero Yen House project by Japanese architect Kyohei Sakaguchi.)

Homesteaders garden, Tokyo

Homesteaders garden, Tokyo

The tap water in Tokyo is really awful. It tastes so bad you can’t even cook with it. But there are still fresh springs flowing in parts of the city where clean, good tasting water is abundant and free. In coming to Tokyo I can’t say I was expecting to see people gathering water for household use from springs. But every day locals come to the spring on bicycles loaded with containers and carry away water for the family. The spring is overseen by Benzaiten, goddess of all things that flow (water, music, poetry, learning…) Benzaiten sits at the spring as a reminder of the good fortune in clean cool water and of the need to make sure it continues to flow. Situated above the spring on the “mountainside” is a large shinto shrine. The placing of religious objects in sites of crucial environmental importance is an age old strategy in Japan. The deep forest is where the gods reside.

Nobu collecting water at spring, Tokyo

Benzaiten watches over spring, Tokyo

With so many gardens located throughout the city it is maybe not surprising that there is an abundance of wild vegetables to be found. Brassicas have self-sown their way across the city. Bamboo stands provide delicious bamboo shoots in the spring. Another spring favourite is tsukushi (equisetum, or horsetail genus) which can be found in abundance at this time of year. It is also very delicious. Japan has a very strong food culture and the practice of foraging persists even amongst city dwellers. The intense interest in and appreciation of food has kept seasonal eating popular here. Sure you can still buy tomatoes in the middle of winter but everyone knows there is a time for bamboo shoots and at the right time of the year fresh bamboo shoots appear in the stores and on menus. People anticipate the coming season for the delicious foods that will become available again.

Brassicas flowering in canal, Tokyo

Oba-san foraging tsukushi, Tokyo



4 Responses to “Homesteading, Tokyo Style”

  1. David Haines Says:

    Hello Dion,

    Really enjoying the blog.I love Japan and was always amazed by the productive gardens, in small unlikely plots. Some Japanese friends where trying to convince us to share in a ridiculously cheap rural house that was selling for only 12 k Australian, about an hour out of Tokyo.

    We now have two bee hives which are proving to be a fascinating addition and we are eating from the garden every day. Blue heritage potatoes are the most prolific and hardy stock we have ever seen.

  2. pj Says:

    as america controls the flow of oil to japan, there is also the opting out of support for us imperialism by living these modes. it would be interesting to know how long these folk (on the tamagawa river) have been there and what sort of transition was made in terms of things like extended family and friends, and the psychological transformations by spending day after day attending to the essential things of life – water fuel, food – rather than the reified things specific to industrial settlements and technocultures.

  3. Matt Minoprio Says:

    Hi Mate,
    Very intesting blogs, it is amazing that most people will pay for poor quality (toxic) water/ products/ services (especially when they are made convienient to access) when there are free high quality options just down the road/ over the fence/ in the bushes!!! Also a very interesting contrast with New Zealand.


  4. […] Homesteading, Tokyo Style, posted back in April, I mentioned the Japanese practice of protecting sensitive environments by […]

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