Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hokkaido's Everyday Gardens

Friends who are in the early stages of planning a visit have been asking after Hokkaido. We've had wonderful adventures there, and I'm reposting a few things I wrote elsewhere about those trips to tempt them. This post originally appeared on greenz in September, 2010, but this one about vegetable bike-touring might be another favorite.

This summer shortly after hiking and camping in Daisetsuzan National Park we spent some time biking about the streets of two nearby towns: Asahikawa and Higashikawa. There I found the kinds of gardens that fill the balconies and sidewalks of Tokyo, but with one difference: vegetables.

While Asahikawa is a primary hub for those wanting to explore Daisetsuzan and the nearby area, tourists invariably pass through Higashikawa as they head off to hike, camp, or simply enjoy mountain views from the comfort of a rotenburo. Renowned for its ramen as well as a burgeoning organic food movement, Higashikawa may also boast gardens large and small full of edibles deftly planted alongside ornamentals.

Front yards and streetscapes, though, of both cities brimmed with flowers of all shapes, sizes, and colors as well as watermelon, sweet corn, and tomatoes tempted us to trespass for just a wee bite again and again. One sidewalk garden made up entirely of containers boasted magnificent heads of cabbage that any farmer would be proud to call her own.

A favorite discovery were the tiny gardens behind a single story apartment building. Thick with lilies, tomatoes, squash, morning glories, iris, shiso, and phlox to name just a few, these postage stamp gardens overflowed with life and bounty. Inspiring green spaces, without a doubt, and not just in the mountains!

Joan Lambert Bailey writes about her adventures at Popcorn Homestead andEveryday Gardens. Check out her other greenz posts, too!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Osaka's Winter Gardens

Over the New Year we headed down to Osaka to visit some good friends and do a little exploring. We'd gone last year for a few days before WWOOFing, so we didn't feel like we had much time in the city. This visit, though, we imposed on the good will of our friends for nearly five days (a jar of marmalade, some oregano from the garden with a few of our house salads thrown were given in exchange), and spent a great deal of time urban hiking.

Let's just say that I was utterly blown away. Osaka is full, full, FULL of everyday gardens. I daresay, and Tokyo Green Space may take umbrage with this, it may be greener than the nation's capital. I've never seen such a steady array of plants - potted, free range, and free range pots of edibles as well as ornamentals - anywhere, and that may also include Yanaka. One area's wide streets with low houses (usually no more than two stories) on either side were fronted by more plants than it seems should be legal. I don't know much about Osaka's history aside from the decimation of World War II, but there must be something afoot.

Such proliferation makes me think that Tokyo is not the only hub of such greenery. After all, I've spotted this sort of activity in Hokkaido, too. Clearly, it is somehow set in Japanese culture to just grow these things, to have them as a part of life regardless of the size of the space around a home or apartment. This doesn't include the array of bonsai 'forrests' - rows and rows of potted bonsai in front of a home or on a balcony - I've seen everywhere in Japan, either. While these are spectacular, they don't draw me in in quite the same way as the general mishmash of pots full of flowers, herbs, and the occasional vegetable do. There is something charismatic and charming to me about it all, and I'm simply in love. Such gardens have been, other than our neighborhood farms, my favorite surprise of all since arriving here.

Working in mostly chronological order, I'll start with the urban hike we took after visiting a small farmer's market sponsored by a local non-profit. As usual, we ventured off into the maze of streets with our iPhone as guide. We knew roughly where we were headed and the amount of time available before dinner. Turns out we walked roughly 12 kilometers that day with one longish break to warm up with coffee and a hot bowl of soup at a cafe. It was fantastic.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hida Takayama's Winter Gardening

A recent trip to Hida Takayama, a mountain village famous as a snowy and inaccessible refuge for those slinking away from a lost battle or other troubles, was a real pleasure. Still as snowy but more accessible thanks to a highway hugging the sides of a steep river valley and the occasional train, it is now a bit more famous as a place to wander narrow streets of a remarkably well-preserved Edo Era downtown while sampling local delights such as traditional pickles, sake, miso, soba, and Hida beef. Our two and a half days there proved not to be quite enough, and so we'll be heading back again in warmer weather for a bit more exploring.

A little quiet in the wake of the New Year, the daily markets were still on and there were no lack of things to do and see. As we wandered along nibbling and admiring the architecture and local crafts, we met any number of snowmen. A recent storm must have been of just the right consistency, and while it doused pots of ornamental kale, bonsai, and pansies, it also inspired a little sculpting.

Of varying heights, girths, and styles, they didn't quite line the streets, but they definitely were a presence. Unlike their American counterparts, the tops of the tallest snowmen came only to about my waist, while the shortest stood only a hand or two high on a tabletop. Eyes made of bottlecaps or mikan, topped with viney garlands or a matching snow bowler, or ears made of icicles (to mark the new year of the rabbit) each one had its own character. Some were clearly done by children, and others clearly had the refined hand of an adult or a child prodigy. Either way, they were magnificent companions during our stay.

Remarkable, too, was the fact that they were all undamaged unless they stood in a sunny location. One tiny one on a busy street of shops stood perfectly rounded with cotton ball arms and nary a bit of damage despite very heavy foot traffic. One on the grounds of a major tourist site stood near the busy entrance quite possibly giving the security guard some much needed companionship.

I'm not sure what it says about my culture that I'm shocked and/or impressed by their longevity and pristine state. Perhaps it's better to notice what it says about Japanese culture and try to absorb that lesson instead. It was a pleasure to have met them, and to know they can stay until Mother Nature decides they have to go.