Jens Jensen makes almost anything he needs for his weekend life from scratch, from a doorknob to a window frame to a small wooden hut.
Such a do-it-yourself lifestyle is fairly common in his home country, Denmark, where people try to make things that last for a long time, he says.
Jensen, 34, who works at the Danish Embassy in Tokyo, is trying to introduce into Japan his compatriots’ popular way of spending the weekends by renting a hut and a vegetable garden in the countryside where families and friends can enjoy planting, harvesting and cooking vegetables.
With cooperation from friends and acquaintances, he built in 2008 a model “kolonihave” — a garden complete with a resting hut — in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture after renting an idled mikan (mandarin orange) farm overlooking the sea. He says he has since spent most of his weekends there.
In Danish, kolonihave means garden community.
There are lots of idled or abandoned farms in Japan, and such a lifestyle will also serve to revitalize that land, he said. The owner of the mikan farm, to whom he had been introduced by a mutual acquaintance, allows him to use the farmland for free.
“I want to make a model case for such an operation. It could be applied to the countryside anywhere in Japan. Farm owners will let out the farms for free, and they can also make a profit by managing the vegetable garden when the users cannot take care of the gardens,” he said.
“(A kolonihave) is common in Denmark. It’s (the tradition) been in existence for over 100 years. People rent a kolonihave for half a year during the summer (usually from May to September), and commute to work from there,” he said.
He stressed that it is different from a second house for the rich. A kolonihave, he said, is “something for anybody.”
Having a kolonihave in the suburbs has the effect of drawing people from cities to the countryside, Jensen said. “When 20 to 30 of these huts and gardens come together, they make up a community,” he said.
Last year, he cofounded an NPO called Japan Kolonihave Organization for the purpose of spreading this kind of lifestyle in Japan. Members of the group, including people both in and outside of Odawara, come along and enjoy planting vegetables, herbs or fruit at the garden over the weekends.
His model kolonihave is not connected to electric or gas supplies, and visitors need to bring their own gas stoves to cook on.
“I enjoy this basic kind of lifestyle that is the opposite of a convenient life in the city,” he said. “It’s very important that you have the time and possibilities to do some things outside of your (real) work, because it creates a different network. It’s a good way of meeting new people and getting new contacts.”
During his daily work, Jensen is in charge of press relations and culture at the Danish Embassy. In addition to that, he puts a lot of his free time and energy into various activities to promote Danish culture, including design, food, and home carpentry.
He has produced a Danish-style cafe inside Tokyo Station, where he also developed the menu and created the interior.
He has also had several books published on the Danish lifestyle, including ways of making a kolonihave and introducing the DIY culture, explaining how he renovated his own apartment in Tokyo.
He says he plans to write two more books in the future: one on Danish cooking, and the other essays on his thoughts on Japan — how he feels some things are wrong, and could be changed in Japan.
He noted that although he likes Japan — where he has lived for about a decade — very much, there are some things about Japan that he finds “a little strange.”
Two biggest things, he says, are “nuclear power and education.”
“Principally, I’m really against nuclear power. The risks we put on our children and their children are too great — especially after the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident,” he said.
He pointed out that it is not fair to burden children with all those problems, adding that even if the power companies are saying that nuclear power is cheap and safe, “it’s probably not that cheap when you count all the costs of cleaning up after Fukushima.”
He said education is another area that needs to be changed completely. He pointed out that in Japan, people study hard to get into university, but once they have entered, they spend most of their time doing extracurricular activities.
He pointed out that what they study is often not related to the jobs they get after graduation, which “makes it difficult for people to attain a certain ability in their jobs. They have to start out from scratch when they enter a company.”
In Denmark, he said children get to play a lot when they’re young, and when they enter university, they really start to study hard. “Usually, your work is related to what you study at university,” he added.
Born and raised in Jutland — located over 200 km west of Copenhagen — Jensen went on to study Japanese and linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Intrigued by Japanese architecture, aesthetics and the tea ceremony, he came to study at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies for a year — as part of the second year program at SOAS.
After coming back to Japan in 2002, he worked in various positions, one of them being project manager for an architect.
Jensen was hired by the Danish Embassy in 2007, and his first job there was commercial officer, helping Danish companies promote their products.
He met his future wife, Mariko, when he first came to Japan as part of an exchange program in 1997. They reunited in London, where Mariko studied textiles at the same time as when he was studying at SOAS.
Now, they live in Meguro Ward in Tokyo with their two children.
Jensen said he feels at ease living and working in Japan, because Japanese people appreciate it when a foreigner speaks Japanese and makes an effort to understand the culture.
“That means that they would listen to you. Most Japanese people are interested in what foreigners think about Japan,” he said. “It makes it fun to live here, because there are so many possibilities and also, there are so many people. If I decide to write a book about renovating my home, if 1 percent think it’s interesting, then I can talk about it. If I build a kolonihave in Denmark, no one would think it’s interesting. But because it’s Japan, and I’m a foreigner who can speak Japanese, people think it’s interesting,” he said.
Next on his to-do list is renovating a 35-year-old wooden house in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, that he bought recently. He will do most of the renovations himself, but also get some help from his wife.
Jensen said the house will be rebuilt in a combination of Danish and Japanese styles — wooden floors, like in a Western home, and a tatami room. His family plans to move in to their new residence “in a few years,” he added.