Tokachi Millennium Forest

Following World War II, Japan went through a period of huge redevelopment and change in traditional ways with the expansion of electrical, gas, water and sewage services, the building of railways and expressways and the consequent move away from the traditional firewood and charcoal to the use of fossil fuels. The satoyama forests, that area between agricultural land and the higher mountains, which had been managed for generations in a sustainable way to provide firewood and charcoal was abandoned either to nature or to afforestation. Urbanisation and industrialisation lead to further environmental destruction, waste and pollution especially in the late 60s into the 70s before it was realised that an important environment was being lost and restoration and conservation projects began in an attempt to reverse this regretted process.

Thirty years ago, a Japanese media entrepreneur, Mitsushige Hayashi, bought 400 hectares of land in the Tokachi region of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago with the aim of offsetting the carbon footprint of his national newspaper business, Tokachi Mainichi. With sustainability in mind and hopes of safeguarding this area for the future his vision was to create a garden which would last 1,000 years. The early work on the project aimed at remediation of the land following years of intensive afforestation – Japanese Cedar and Japanese Cypress grown for use in the construction business – and the development of a visitors centre and walking trails. Invasive bamboo was tackled and substituted with suitable native plants; visitors came and enjoyed the visitor centre with its views across open ground to the mountains but most were reluctant to venture further, discouraged, it would seem, by the very openness which would appear to have given them access to the further reaches of the project. There was a need to entice them further, to make this area more attractive and Dan Pearson was called upon to undertake the task. This book recounts his work along with the head gardener of Tokachi Millennium Forest, Midori Shintani.

The site of Tokachi Millennium Forest

There is a long and established history of gardening in Japan with long respected rules. Japanese gardens and gardening tradition have always interpreted and represented nature but, at the same time have kept nature at arm’s length. Nature is invited into Japanese gardens but only in a very managed way. The Japanese appreciate and enjoy the observation of the detail of garden design and of nature and its representation but are less inclined to actually engage with nature and naturalistic planting in their gardens is not part of their tradition. Here was the crux of the problem facing Dan Pearson, a need to introduce Japanese visitors to the Tokachi Millennium Forest to wilder areas in a very gentle way, to entice them to go further, to meet the forest in a safe and intimate setting to make them more comfortable in nature.

As I read this book I wondered/questioned why a western designer was even considered for such a project set in a location which climatically is radically different to that within his previous design experience and in a country with a gardening tradition radically at odds with his own. I believe Mitsushige Hayashi realised that it would only be through a return to natural ways, to a naturalistic approach to the design, an approach which reflected the traditional and sustainable use of the land, that the long life he proposed for the project could be achieved and Dan Pearson has been the leading light of naturalistic design and planting for many years. It was a bold and brave decision by the Mitsushige Hayashi which has been justified by Dan Pearson’s creation.

The narrative recalls his many and regular visits to acquaint himself with the country, its climate, the local flora, growing conditions and all other aspects which needed to be considered. He took great encouragement from a Mr. Izumi who had developed a twenty acre woodland garden which he managed on his own and discussed with him that fine line between land management and horticulture for this was the central question at the Tokachi Millennium Forest – to what degree do you garden such a place? He outlines his plans and their development while Midori Shantani reports on the progress of the work, problems encountered and solved. Theirs are different voices, a visionary and a hands-on gardener, and they compliment each other perfectly.

The Earth Garden was the first area Dan Pearson planned to bridge that “barrier” which seemed to inhibit visitors from going out into the landscape. In effect, he created an area of lowland hills which bridged the gap between the lowlands and the imposing mountains in the distance. This entailed a monumental amount of earth moving to create rolling wave landforms where visitors found environments which were intimate in context and which encouraged them to wander and explore. It has proven a great success.

The Earth Garden showing the undulating waves of “lower hills” created by enormous earth-moving work.

The greater project was the development of The Meadow Garden, a planting of perennial material designed to perform in the manner of natural meadow, plants coexisting in harmony, some flowering early in the year, others in mid-season and yet others again later. The selection of plants was inspired by native plant communities found in the forest augmented by non-native material. In all nineteen plant mixes were planned with 8 – 10 plants in each. As might be expected some failed while others succeeded too well so that over time adjustments have been made and, with the passing of years, the designer’s balance has been achieved – though the hand of the gardener must remain ever present to maintain and fine tune the process. The design has had the great fortune to have the guiding hand of head gardener, Midori Shintani, and it the admirable co-operation between designer and gardener which has ensured the success of this project. The designer’s role is the creation of a vision for a place while the gardener’s role is vital to the day-to-day realisation of that role.

Naturalistic planting was new to Japan but was also close to and reflected the old ways of knowing where food was to be found in the forest and of managing the forest in a sustainable manner. It may have seemed odd to have a European designer for a Japanese project but it was a collaboration which may indeed last 1,000 years.

[Tokachi Millennium Forest, Pioneering a New Way of Gardening with Nature, Dan Pearson with Midori Shintani, Filbert Press, 2022, Hardback, 287 pages, £40, ISBN: 978-1-9997345-4-1]

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