A Dutch Japanese friendship built to last

The Japanese Pavilion at Floriade stood in front of high trees resembling a mountain’s slope. A traditional Japanese garden surrounded it.

In a generous gesture and unwavering support for urban farming, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture has donated the award-winning Satoyama Japanese pavilion, which graced the now-closed world horticultural Expo 2022 Floriade to Oosterwold – a new district of Floriade’s host city Almere, where a massive and revolutionary urban farming project is taking shape.

Jan Albert Blaauw, working for Oosterwold’s fledgling urban farming cooperative Oosterwold (www.coopoosterwold.nl), beams as he walks towards the Japanese pavilion a few days after Floriade’s closing ceremony on 9 October. Pointing at the construction and the ingenious joinery of the building used to attach the wooden parts without a single nail or metal screw, he enthuses, “It’s an amazing and beautiful building, and we’re extremely grateful to the Japanese government for gifting it to us.”

Jan Albert Blaauw, working for Oosterwold’s fledgling urban farming cooperative, in front of a map giving a bird’s eye view of the 43km2 Oosterwold development.

Satoyama Inspiration

The pavilion was installed in the winter of 2021 on Floriade’s grounds, not far from the Expo park’s Weerwater entrance. It was called Satoyama, which translates as Sato, where people live, and Yama, which means mountain. The pavilion was created to showcase the finest Japanese cut flowers, and outside the garden displayed features of the Japanese countryside. The Japanese pavilion architect, Tokyo-born Ms Yukiko Nezu, explains the design, “The pavilion at Floriade stood in front of high trees that symbolise the slope of a mountain. A traditional Japanese garden surrounded it. The Japanese way of living in the countryside used to be very sustainable, relying on its own ecosystem. Farmers sourced building materials from the direct surroundings and developed design techniques depending on the availability of materials. Life was centred around nature, leading to a need to recycle where possible and achieve zero waste. The areas where these activities of life take place are called satoyama. The pavilion is made of classical natural materials, including a wooden frame structure, thatch roof, stucco façade and paper walls.”

Floriade’s theme continues

Japan’s building donation to Oosterwold makes Blaauw feel humble, mainly because other community-led projects had also shown interest in the grand structure, with some even bidding. He notes, “Eventually, the Japanese decided to give it away. Such a generous gesture! From what I know, the Ministry of Japan was looking for a permanent location through which the Floriade’s Growing Green Cities theme would continue to flourish.”

Now that the keys have been officially handed over, and the Japanese team has made an official visit to Oosterwold to witness the development with their own eyes, the 300m2 structure has been dismantled from the Expo Park. It will be stored over winter and rebuilt at a prominent location on the Oosterwold urban farm. Attention to site location makes sense as Blaauw explains that the pavilion will find a new life as his cooperative’s fresh produce distribution hub, knowledge centre, community space and possibly a shop.

The size of Paris’ city centre

Blaauw explains that Oosterwold spans 43km² – about the size of the city centre in Paris. “In 2016, I was among Oosterwold’s first settlers, building a new future on what was once a vast expanse of arable land. Back then, people were lured in by low land prices, between €27- €30 per m², which has since gone up to €100 per m². On the other hand, building in Oosterwold also comes with expectations towards social responsibility and co-financing towards streets, energy provision and sewage systems with your neighbours.”

Oosterwold development is ideally in line with the ‘Almere makes it possible’ tagline. The city government presented its plans for Oosterwold more than a decade ago. Blaauw explains, “Oosterwold is unique in that it allows residents to build their neighbourhoods with minimal planning restrictions. So, all is possible if you want to live in a tree hut, a spaceship or a castle-styled home or paint your house pink or orange. However, one of the few planning restrictions that are sacrosanct is that only 12 per cent of your plot is built up, and half of your property must be dedicated to urban farming.”

A bit of everything

Blaauw admits that enforcing such restrictions is challenging but strongly believes in the landowner’s community spirit, which he says in Oosterwold is incredibly strong. “Hipsters, fashionable young middle class, world changers, nature lovers, Oosterwold is a bit of everything. People often say you need professionals to take urban farming off the ground. But you would be amazed about the amount of horticultural knowledge already present among the Oostwolders.”

To avoid problems when people start ploughing their plots haphazardly, Blaauw and his co-workers launched Kitchen Garden Planner. This online inventory management system helps the cooperative to answer essential questions about who grows what, where, and when. The online planner also gives insights into when to expect the harvest of specific crops to align production with demand and generate revenues for the cooperative’s members.

Oosterwold’s garden at Floriade.

Producing and selling

Blaauw adds, “A variety of supermarkets have shown good interest in our product, as well as Hoofddorp-based Farm Kitchen, which provides food to corporate canteen services for a variety of enterprises. The aim is to introduce a biological cropping system. This will require patience and perseverance as everyone who gets their hands dirty in a kitchen garden knows how much havoc snails and other pests and diseases can wreak on your crops. In the end, we stick to what is possible and learn. If snails eat away more than 90 per cent of your cauliflower, you automatically switch to more resilient crops such as zucchini, peas, or beans.”

The cooperative aims to bundle knowledge and unburden urban farmers. “It’s about cooperation and collaboration,” notes Blaauw. “Almere hosts the European branch of Yanmar, a manufacturer of marine diesel engines and smaller farm machinery. So, they offer help to prepare and work the heavy clay soil. The cooperative purchases compost and young plants from reputable suppliers such as Jongerius, who are always ready to book a greenhouse section to produce the starting material biologically.”

Blaauw notes that Oosterwold’s harvest is biological but is not eco-certified. “For this, you will need 800 euros per plot to earn eco-certification, which is not profitable now. But maybe we can investigate this in the future.”

At its core, the Japanese Satoyama pavilion in its new location will help bring food production into Almere’s ecosystem so its residents can grow their food where they are, condensing the miles food travels across the world fresher and reducing the impact on the environment.

Dutch Japanese friendship

Blaauw is no stranger to Japan and its culture. He previously served as a corporate communication manager for the Japanese sweetened probiotic milk firm Yakult. He visited the country on various occasions. He concludes by thanking Japan for the gifting of this pavilion. “When the building’s keys were in my possession, a member of the Japanese delegation rang me up to ask permission to pick up her handbag, which she had left inside the building. Of course, this was no problem because even if the building is now ours, it will continue to be intrinsically linked to Japan, and for us, that friendship is a huge honour.”

This article was first published in the January 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

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