Tokyo’s Potted Gardens: Sidewalks for the Soul

A city can be haunted by its design decisions. In Tokyo, you won’t find street names but you will find winding thoroughfares that hide a labyrinthine network of backroads and a baffling system that maps blocks of buildings according to the years in which they were built.

When you’re lost in the neon haze of Shibuya or stumble into a cupboard-sized jazz bar manned by a one-armed proprietor whose expression clashes with the painstaking way he serves your whiskey, it’s clear that the 15th century warlords who designed Tokyo weren’t just trying to confuse invaders, they were creating a metaphor for the city itself.

But like all great cities, Tokyo is more than a sum of its parts. Take the Yamonote line two stops from Shibuya’s love hotels and pachinko parlours and get off at Meguro, where students cycle alongside a canal lined with cherry trees that swing from blazing orange to blush pink depending on the season and potted gardens overflow with crocuses, morning glory, aloe and wisteria as they spill out over front stoops and into sidewalks and streets.

Whether it’s a collection of succulents marking out an izakaya’s invisible entrance, shrubs carefully arranged by convenience store clerks who don’t distinguish between service and kindness or a series of curbside pots placed by a local hoping to offer pedestrians a colourburst antidote to the sea of grey, Tokyo’s potted gardens aren’t just the product of a culture in which respect is religion and beauty is survival. They’re signposts to a city that believes confusion and connection go hand in hand.