At Home in Rural Japan Pt. 3: The Wonder of Japanese Vegetable Gardens

At Home in Rural Japan Pt. 3: The Wonder of Japanese Vegetable Gardens

Connie Nakamura

You cannot travel very far in Japan without seeing some sort of Japanese style cottage garden. Spend any amount of time in Japan and it becomes evident that the cottage garden or kitchen garden is an important part of everyday life.

Well manicured lawns are definitely not something you will see in rural Japan, instead, you’ll see vegetables grown in every conceivable location.

From sagging old Japanese farmhouses to new and more modern looking homes you will rarely see any countryside home without some sort of vegetable plot. Occupying the sunniest spots on the property, they are one of the most important features.

It is amazingly wonderful to wander down country lanes and drink in the absolutely beautiful, peaceful, rural scenery. Homes surrounded by patches of cabbages, beans and peas spiraling up bamboo poles, neat little rows of corn and heavily laden tomato plants supported by bamboo cut from the hedgerows. No sound but the buzz of plump bees lumbering from flower to flower and perhaps a gurgling stream.

Water is in abundance in Japan. Everywhere rivers and streams come running down from the mountains. No matter where you live you are never far from a river, stream or irrigation canal for the rice fields which are handy for watering gardens.

Gardening techniques have been passed down from one generation to the next and cultivation of vegetables is still a big part of life for the average rural family. While most people do not rely solely on their gardens for food nowadays, they still play a major role in the rural family’s daily diet.

In the countryside, vegetable gardens are literally everywhere. Some people grow dozens of vegetables and some only grow a few but most everyone grows something.

No space is wasted either! If there doesn’t happen to be enough sun or space right around the home that’s okay–there will be space somewhere. Even the side of a hill makes a great place to plant a garden.

Besides cultivating vegetables, gardening is also a way that many cultivate friendships. It is a common form of socializing in countryside towns and hamlets. At noon the local gardeners gather together under a tree or by a riverbank to eat bento and share the latest gossip or gardening tips.

It is also common to grow more than one can consume for the purpose of sharing with friends and neighbors.

There are many interesting techniques used to make the most out of the sometimes smaller spaces. There is a wonderful efficiency in using space wisely. The trellis is a common garden feature. Growing vegetables vertically helps to save space and keeps plant s aerated. The abundance of bamboo makes it the perfect material to use in trellis building. Everything from tomatoes, beans and cucumbers may be seen climbing up a bamboo trellis.

You will even see a trellis built to lean right on the house. This provides a support for the vegetables which in turn act as a natural curtain for a window! It is very popular to grow bitter melons that climb up a trellis set up over the kitchen window.

Most gardeners prefer not to use pesticides on their kitchen gardens and other techniques are used to keep pests and weeds at bay. Black plastic is secured over the planting area. Small holes are placed in rows a few centimeters apart to allow the seedlings to grow. The plastic helps to deter weeds. Hay is also used to keep weeds away. You will often see marigolds planted in with the vegetables as companions to keep bugs away. Companion planting is widely used.

Clover is used for green manure and deterring weeds in rice fields. Many rice farmers grow a crop of clover and then plow it under in preparation for rice planting.

Another common gardening technique in Japan is the use of leeks and green onions. Gardeners plant entire fields full of leeks only to plow them all under. This is done to add nitrogen to the soil.

Taking a look around the village and you may spot leeks shooting up between the bean poles or interspersed randomly between other vegetable crops because they deter pests.

Maintaining the garden is done through family cooperation and effort. Many rural households have three generations living under one roof. Grandmother and grandfather tend to the easier chores during the day while their adult children are at work. They also teach age old techniques to the younger folk. The adult children in turn do the heavier garden chores after work and on weekends. Even the children lend a hand with weeding, harvesting and watering. The gardening techniques are passed down between the generations.

It is such a joy to wander the quiet lanes of rural Japan. Ancient farmhouses wearing heavy kawara tile roofs stand amid quaint vegetable gardens and old bonsai pines. An obaachan (grandmother) stands hunched over a row of daikon in her huge garden hat, arm covers and traditional garden apron, her mosquito smoker hung at her side. The peace, tranquility and tranquility of a peaceful life can be seen, felt, and experienced. All still very much an important aspect of being at home in rural Japan.   

For more great information on life in rural Japan, read Part 1 & Part 2.