Tokyo Seeds

A group of international designers explore new directions for Tokyo's iconic JR Yamanote line

Tokyo may be a dizzying sprawl of a megalopolis but there is perhaps one useful tool that helps make sense of its geography and hold it all together — the iconic green JR Yamanote train line that loops around the city in a circle. The train line threads together a string of key neighbourhoods, from the retail neon of Shibuya to the cultural landmarks of Ueno, stopping at 29 stations which collectively offer a microcosm of contemporary life in Tokyo. Its operator JR East recently tapped into the symbolic status of the circular JR Yamanote train line with the launch of Tokyo Seeds — its first ‘Designers in Residence’ programme.

For the programme, eight multi-disciplinary designers were invited to Tokyo from around the world — United States, Argentina, Indonesia, Egypt and Singapore among them — with expertise and specialisations ranging from graphics and branding to strategy. The creatives spent several days travelling the entire loop by train as well as bicycle before splitting into groups to explore on foot the various neighbourhoods that surround the line. And after dark, their city explorations continued with accommodation ranging from capsule hotels to homestays.

The journey exposed the designers not only to the diverse geography and communities that can be found across the capital, but also tapped into the cultural layers of a city famed for fusing the traditional with the cutting-edge. Thus, they visited classically contrasting sites such as the historic Meiji Jingu shrine, Harajuku’s Kawaii Monster Cafe, artisan coffee shop Blue Bottle in Shinagawa, art supply hub Pigment at Warehouse Terrada and local sento baths.

Participants then presented to JR a series of creative proposals that highlight the train line’s traditional values even as it heads into the future, stretching far beyond its everyday function for transportation and retail.

Among them was Xinying, a Singapore-based designer who proposed a project called Yamanote House, which aims to connect the train line’s diverse communities, bringing together people, stories and their shared experiences. ‘My role in the programme feels less like a traditional graphic designer, where we receive official design briefs from the client and then propose a design solution,’ reflects Xinying. ‘It felt more like a hybrid of both a graphic designer and design researcher where we go out to experience, research and understand the context of the project before crafting our own brief.’

One defining quality of the Tokyo Seeds project was its abstract nature, with it very much evolving in an organic way from the moment the designers arrived, outcome undefined. Participant Wing Lau, a Sydney-based designer, highlighted how the undefined nature of the initial briefing gave way to an abundance of inspiring creative experiences. ‘The question “Can design change the world?” is an on-going debate — but someone has to take action to start shaking things up amongst us,’ says Lau, who proposed a sound-and-music based project called PLAYAMANOTE. ‘I believe all eight of us have planted some seeds with JR East.’

Text / Danielle Demetriou
Images / Junichi Takahashi