At first it may appear that the streets of Tokyo, that grey urban jungle, may be a unique home to nature. Yet nature is present in Tokyo in almost every corner – in quite unique ways. It is not found in the parks (Tokyo only offers 5 sqm of park for each citizen, compared to New York’s 25sqm). In Tokyo, nature is introduced by the citizens themselves, in small and large pots placed in front of buildings, in walkways, alleys, balconies, forming a rhythmic composition of asphalt and green.
Japanese photographer Yasuyuki Takagi has captured these scenes while walking through various residential areas of Tokyo. His book “Ueki”, originally published by French Publisher iKi Editions in 2015, quickly sold out and will now be made available again in the form of a new publication by Japanese publisher Libro Arte.
Photographing the relationship between humans and the natural world has been a theme I have explored for the past 25 years or so. As a city boy, the deep natural world was always attractive and yet somewhat foreign to me. That all changed during the six months I lived in Brazil and my experiences there with the land and the peoples brought me to the Amazon Forest. I was mesmerized by the fragrant, lush forests and the unbelievable density of the nature. It made sense to me then that all the human problems on the planet are mostly caused from some sort of power struggles involving land ownership, deforestation, and the expansion of humans.
In New York City, where I lived for 22 years, my interest was primarily focused on abandoned lots and community gardens. Places where boxes of land gave some greenery in an urban jungle. These types of green spaces really existed in the most organic forms. Weeds eventually claimed the empty lots, encapsulating even the occasional rusted car. Community gardens, cared for by the benevolence of neighbors, gave city dwellers some reprieve from the concrete.
In Tokyo, where I grew up and spent most of my youth, and where I live today, there is a persistence of concrete growth, but nature tries; there are street gardens or spaces where potted plants line small alleys, buildings and homes. The “human made” nature that individuals and communities care for and nourish are often in places of demolition due to modern developments and thus, with these developments, we are moving away from a more traditional ways of life.
Japanese people have a long history of rituals and relationships with nature, which are expressed through art; such as carefully tended gardens, flower arrangements (ikebana), poetry, paintings and bonsai. The seasonal viewing of nature remains popular even to this day. Much literature has been produced throughout history about these topics, though most of these arts are practiced by a very small portion of the population and very few new gardens are made today.
During the Edo Period, when peace was established between Feudal Lords, Japan came together and the country united. Samurai Lords found other ways to spend their time and enjoy life. Potted plants were one outlet that emerged out of this time and people shared seasonal plants among each other. The potted plants in front of homes still creates a sense of aesthetic and connection to community. Plant life essentially connects people.
If you imagine 100 years or more from now, when people look back at our time and see how we connected with nature, it is probably the bohemian street gardens more so than ikebana or bonsai. Community, group driven natural environments, that hold nature and humans together in a shared experience. Even this is threatened to some communities now as expensive real estate development replaces these fixtures of urban life. I believe that this way of sharing nature deserves to have its own history book before this too vanishes. I call this book UEKI.
― Statement from Yasuyuki Takagi