A lift takes you to the Otemachi Bokujyo (“Otemachi Farm”) on the 13th floor of a gleaming skyscraper. You step out into natural light streaming in from floor-to-ceiling windows. Tiny plywood picket fences in the 1,000 sq m space separate the animals from visitors.
Across Japan, city dwellers have been developing quite the green thumb. Urban “citizen farms”, as they are called, grew in size by 36 per cent over 10 years, from totalling 641ha in 2005 to 877ha in 2015, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
While much of this land has traditionally been greenhouses or fields located in city suburbs, there has been a push towards integrating the old-school farming concept into the urban landscape – both for commercial and community engagement purposes – by companies across industries from real estate to transport.
The MAFF in 2015 introduced laws to promote and regulate urban agriculture, citing objectives such as food security, landscape greenery and the provision of opportunities for urbanites to engage in agricultural activities.
The Tokyo Metro is growing vegetables at a facility underneath an elevated train track near the Nishi-kasai Station in eastern Tokyo, which taps hydroponics technology, with 400 plants across 11 varieties such as basil and lettuce.
Over in the glitzy Ginza shopping district, the 114-year-old stationery store Itoya reopened in 2015 after renovation with a hydroponic farm on its 11th floor. The vegetables are served at the 12-storey building’s cafe.
Real estate developer Mori Building grows rice in a paddy field in a rooftop garden atop a theatre at its Roppongi Hills property in the heart of one of Tokyo’s prime nightlife hot spots. Through community events, children and their parents can get first-hand experience of planting rice seedlings in spring and, later on, of harvesting the rice and threshing the plants.
Japanese telco engineering giant NTT Facilities, too, grows sweet potatoes on its office rooftop. It then transfers the ripened crops, with soil, into bags that are taken to be “harvested” by residents living at elderly facilities, as well as others in the neighbourhood. The sweet potato leaves covering the entire rooftop surface have a cooling effect during summer due to evaporating water, as much as 27 deg C lower than the area uncovered.
The huge interest in urban farms comes amid the twin threats of rural depopulation towards urban cities and an ageing demographic. MAFF statistics show there were 1.51 million farmers across Japan last year, which is a 40 per cent decline from 20 years ago.
Yet even as rural farming is in decline, going by the newfangled farms and agricultural activities sprouting in the high-rises and empty spaces of highly urban Tokyo, it seems that the old ways of the land are getting a new lease of life – city-style.