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Flowers in Japan

July 23, 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007 — Oh my gosh, it’s been 9 months since I’ve made the time to write an entry in my journal. The cause of my delay can be attributed to time spent changing baby diapers, taking stroller walks through the neighborhood, obsessing over Japanese preschool, obsessing over Kindergarten, obsessing over 4th grade teachers, planning summer activities, overcoming emotional ups and downs, and just the general details of life that somehow persuade you to postpone the things you love to do the most, like writing.

I’ve had a thousand experiences over these past months. I’ve done things that have changed my life, altered my perspective, broadened my world view and have made me laugh out loud. I have no clue how I can recount all these memories to share them with you, but I’m planning to give it a go. Some things just beg to be told about, and perhaps I’ll just start where ever I can start. And, it may be a bit of a let down for me to begin with an entry about “Flowers in Japan,” but, truth be told, this is one of about 5 entries I’d started months ago and never finished writing. So, I’m gonna return from my writing hiatus with the anticlimactic, but still, somewhat interesting (at least to me) description of flowers in Japan.

It was surprising to me to discover that flowers are constantly in bloom here in the Tokyo suburbs. I think the climate here is somewhat tropical, and it’s conducive to growing large, lush, incredible flowers throughout the year. I was surprised to see, too, that many, many people keep small gardens around their homes. The vast majority of houses in my area have no yard at all, but those that have any amount of yard area usually fill the few, small, square feet with a tightly packed variety of flowers, shrubs, sculptured topiaries, and even fruits and vegetables.

Also there are many little flower shops to be found in and around the winding, narrow streets, as well as a generous number of garden stores selling plants of all kinds in great number. It’s not unusual at all to be driving down a very narrow road, winding through houses and shops and to stumble upon a little flower store in the middle of the neighborhood. Through mere observation, it seems that planting and growing things is a hugely popular hobby taken up by many people here in Japan.

Perhaps it is one of the ways that people maintain ties to their farming upbringing amidst the constant development of the land and the construction of more and more new buildings. Just two generations ago, most people in this area where I live, outside Tokyo, were farmers. In fact, one highly developed street we use is affectionately called “Chicken Farm Road.” It took me many months to discover why people kept calling Highway 507, “Chicken Farm Road.” Most people I asked just said that’s the name they were told by someone else. Finally, a long-time resident put my curiosity to rest. Just a few years ago, this road was nothing but chicken farms, one after another. Today, it bears little resemblance to any kind of chicken farm, except for possibly the one remnant of evidence — a small, funny-looking car that sits parked on the roadside with a chicken and egg painted on the side.

My Japanese friend also told me about her own connection to farming. Her grandparents had been full-time farmers. Her parents had carried on the work of farming, however, they each had two jobs. During the day they were teachers but after work they were farmers. Now, in her generation, husbands work one office-job for the same amount of time her parents worked two, and farming, for most people has been reduced to what can be grown on their front porch.

There are those dedicated cultivators I have seen, however, who have found an interesting way to continue their love of farming. One of the first curiosities I noticed when we moved here was the number of vegetable and fruit gardens tucked away in tiny lots on back roads, between two tall apartment buildings or behind a car repair garage. To describe them is sort of difficult because their placement is so uniquely Japanese. But, to understand them is to get a glimpse of the culture of the people here, so I’ll do my best to convey their uniqueness.

Try to picture this — as I drive the trip from my housing area to the main post of Camp Zama (approximately a 7 kilometer and 10 to 30 minute drive depending on traffic,) I usually pass about 5 or 6 vegetable garden areas — more if I wind down the extraordinarily narrow back roads I could take. But, following the most direct path, I might look to the left to see a Hot Spar convenience store — or “Combini,” as the Japanese say — then a Soba noodle shop, then an open-air produce market, a row of several tightly packed houses and then a garden growing all sorts of beautiful foods, followed by a wooden fence with a car junk yard right next to it. These gardens are perfectly rectangular parcels of land with impeccably neat rows of ninjin (carrots), daikon (white root vegetable), nasu (small eggplant), negi (onion), and other delightful things like flowers, soybeans and sunflowers. And, they are carved out in these unexpected places, next to a high school, just beyond a car lot, or adjacent to a parking area. A person with American sensibilities would never expect to see a garden in any of the places they can be found here. But space is a rare commodity here, and apparently, if there’s an inch to build or grow something, you can bet it’ll be used.

The gardens usually are divided into neatly kept sections, and I’m not sure whether they are owned and farmed by one person, or if a group of people can buy a space of their own to plant. However, the gardens are meticulously kept. Frequently, as I drive by and stop at a red light, I’m lucky enough to watch a farmer working the ground for a short while. Donning a large, round, straw hat; long, baggy pants; rubber boots and gloves, the farmer — male or female — can be seen squatting low as he or she pulls weeds, plants seeds, and cares for tender sprouts. It’s a wonderful visual reminder of the hard work and effort that goes into producing the foods we so easily purchase at the grocery store or market. And, between you and me, the hats are so cute!

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