Inside the strange and beautiful world of miniature ‘space colonies’

Japan terranium 7
Kyoto, Japan CNN  — 

Aki Murase may live in the shadow of the Hira Mountains just north of Kyoto, but he’d happily spend the day indoors picking through his huge record collection or tinkering with the innards of a broken television.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Murase has dedicated himself to creating terrariums – Lilliputian ecospheres encased in glass vestibules. The 37-year-old calls his creations “Space Colonies,” a nod to the gigantic outer space settlements envisioned by American physicist Gerard O’Neill.

At Murase’s home atelier, nearly two dozen terrariums of various sizes hang from the ceiling. Inside each glass orb he has curated a miniaturized and manicured landscape.

Given the use of solitary, diminutive trees, links to the Japanese art of bonsai are unmistakable. But Murase, who is self-taught, prefers to work outside the confines of the bonsai tradition.

Recycling and replanting are central to Murase’s creation process (and are the roots of his studio’s name, Re:Planter). Indeed, you’re likely to find circuit boards and TV wires woven into a bed of moss or wrapped around the branches of a miniature momiji, a Japanese maple tree.

From indoor gardens to terrariums

Murase’s grandfather was an amateur bonsai enthusiast, so the seeds of his passion were planted at a young age.

“I first made what’s called an ‘aqua-terrarium’ when I was in junior high school,” he explained in his studio. “It was a popular hobby that many of the kids were into at the time. I really loved growing water plants inside a glass tank using LED lights, and letting my little turtles swim in there.”

"Murase's pieces are modern-day 'tsuboniwa' -- those mini-gardens you find inside Kyoto traditional townhouses," said art collector and author Alex Kerr.

But Murase’s route into full-time terrarium gardening was a circuitous one. Having spent a year living Australia, he moved to Kyoto – a city often regarded as the cradle and keeper of Japanese culture. Once there, Murase apprenticed as a furniture maker, setting himself up to be a carpenter.

But, a few years later, he made a U-turn and opened Ruins, a cafe in the city center. It was here that Murase began tinkering with plant life again. In keeping with the establishment’s name, he decorated Ruins with his creations, which included discarded TVs with plants growing through them. He would also give new life to old metal canisters by refashioning them as plant pots.

Murase takes inspiration -- as well as materials -- from unlikely places. His studio is home to several TV monitors with plants sprouting through the screens.

Customers and friends encouraged him to continue developing his indoor garden, which eventually led to terrariums. But Murase faced a significant obstacle in his initial designs: sunlight, or lack thereof.

“Traditional homes in Kyoto are very long and narrow, and let very little sunlight in,” he said. “It’s not exactly a favorable environment for growing anything.”

To get around the problem, Murase turned to the type of LED lights that he had used during his adolescent experiments with aqua-terrariums.

Recycle and replant

For the past six years, Murase has been making terrariums full-time. In keeping with his philosophy of replanting and recycling, his plants come from a wide variety of sources. He receives donations from friends, scours the mountain forests beyond his studio and looks in unlikely places – like hardware stores – for damaged or forgotten plants.

In one of Murase's more unconventional creations, a fern grows out of a discarded circuit board.

During our visit, he pulled out a bonsai tree given to him for free by a plant nursery. Although it looked withered and dead, Murase was certain that he could coax it back to life and make it the centerpiece of a terrarium.

“I’m not trying to make the perfect bonsai or landscape,” he said. “Instead I want old trees and plants to come to life again in my artwork.”

Perhaps his move to Kyoto was provenance – Murase’s terrariums share traits with a type of traditional garden which originated in the city, according to Japanese art collector, Alex Kerr.

“Murase’s pieces are modern-day tsuboniwa, those mini-gardens you find inside Kyoto traditional townhouses,” he said in an email interview.

As gardens go, Murase’s terrariums are relatively low maintenance. But they do need to be unhung, watered and cleaned on a regular basis. Selling for 50,000 yen ($460) or 100,000 yen ($919) – for small and large sizes respectively – each terrarium comes with a set of gardening tools and detailed instructions for maintenance.

At Re:Planter, Murase's home and atelier, nearly two dozen terrariums of various sizes hang from the ceiling. Inside each glass orb he has curated a miniaturized and manicured landscape.

Murase says that his terrariums are especially popular among those living in Japan’s cities, where space is at a premium and outdoor gardens are a luxury. His creations can also be found in cafes, restaurants and schools across the country.

Kerr, who has one of the terrariums hanging in the kitchen of his Kyoto home, says that he checks on his own space colony first thing every morning.

“It’s a meditation,” Kerr said. “Glowing iridescent green inside a glass ball, a Murase globe is a seed of life – a small but intense reminder of the mystery of nature outside.”