The Japanese Gardener Who Hunts Exotic Plants the World-Over

Seijun Nishihata helms the Sora Botanical Garden project, a company that offers horticultural consultation to architects, designers, governments, and private companies.

Shinshoji Museum, Kohtei Seijun Nishihata Sora Botanical Garden project
The Kohtei pavilion at the Shinshoji Museum in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture. Seijun Nishihata designed the landscape elements surrounding the elevated building. Courtesy Sora Botanical Garden project

Seijun Nishihata is Japan’s most celebrated master gardener and landscape expert. Seijun, who calls himself a “plant hunter,” helms the Sora Botanical Garden project, a company that offers horticultural consultation to a wide range of individuals across architecture, design, horticulture, governments, and private companies. Sora houses over 3,000 rare and local plants, and it represents a new, niche botanical industry that Seijun and his team created all on their own. Here, Seijun talks with Metropolis contributor Jenna Matecki about his work to reconnect people with nature in the era of climate change.

Jenna Matecki: You were born into the family behind the 150-year-old Hanau Plant Company [a storied Japanese wholesaler of flowers and plants]. But you made your career as a “plant hunter” exploring the world and acquiring rare, exotic plants. What compelled you to apply your knowledge and focus your attention on creating architectural experiences and spaces for the public?

Seijun Nishihata: I worked for over 10 years as a special plant wholesaler for professionals from across Japan such as florists or flower artists, garden designers, and Ikebana masters. I realized that they do a very good job when they design their projects, but they do not understand plants very well.

It’s important for designs to support and respect plant life. This requires an understanding of where plants grow, where they come from, what kinds of personalities they have, how they need to be treated, and so on. Designs without nature are incomplete—there’s too much lost and the spaces suffer for it. As such, we must apply more of a philosophy of working with nature in all that we do.

Before founding the Sora Botanical Garden project [in 2012] I had traveled all over Japan and the world. I visited many nurseries and botanists, and explored and studied places where rare plants grow naturally. I imported and exported more than 250 tons of plants from around the world yearly. I grew, traded, hunted, and delivered plants myself. I even climbed up the trees myself. I still do this kind of work, including climbing trees, today.

I founded Sora to apply and share all of the plant experience and knowledge that I gained from those years. I now collaborate with architects, interior designers, developers, governments, and so on in this capacity to promote the philosophy of working with nature.

JM: How would you describe the architecture community in Japan and how it views nature and landscape? What are some examples of innovative approaches?

SN: I believe the architecture community in Japan has greatly improved its relationship with nature. People now apply more flexibility to their work and concern for nature than they used to.

I think the perfect example of this is a project that I produced with a group of Japanese developers called Yoyogi Village. Yoyogi Village is a commercial shopping complex in the center of downtown Tokyo. Usually when Japanese developers work on a development like this, they hire a famous architect or interior designer, and then try to bring as many shops to the site as possible in order to drive traffic. Instead the team and developers at Yoyogi Village took a risk and divided the amount of available commercial space for the site in half and used the rest of it for a garden that we designed.

This is a very rare case and quite a bet—but the idea of using a garden in tandem with commerce to attract people to the site ended up making Yoyogi Village a famous destination in Tokyo. Japanese media and journalists came to us after and showed us examples of other sites and developers imitating the concept across the country.

Osaki Park City Seijun Nishihata Sora Botanical Garden project
Osaki Park City. Courtesy the Sora Botanical Garden project

Osaki Park City is another good example. It was the largest redevelopment project in the city of Tokyo in 2015. My team and I produced all the landscape concepts and plans for it. Master Architect Nihon-Sekkei, Jun Mitsui & Associates Inc. Architects, Pelli Clarke Architects Japan, Inc. and our client Mitsui Fudosan Co., Ltd. were very flexible and respected our ideas for implementing a different kind of landscape for the site.

A small but good example from Osaki Park City is how we treated the roadside trees in the plans. Usually when governments, developers, and planners choose trees, they choose identical species, and plant them along the road at equidistant intervals. Instead, we chose to use a variety of different kinds of trees (twisted trees, very old trees, unique trees) and we planted them at different intervals. This kind of natural variability brings a lot to a streetscape, and we hope that we’ll see more of this kind of natural approach in the landscapes and public spaces of generations to come.

JM: How do you balance the scale and texture of your living materials to work in harmony with a building’s form, function, and context? What purpose do planting plans have apart from aesthetics?

SN: It is very important to first understand and respond to what the architects and clients desire and how they’re thinking about the project. Then we all work together to select suitable living materials to achieve that vision.

Living materials actually talk a lot—they aren’t just ornamental. I look at the landscape plan as a kind of conversation, with each of these materials working together to create a message for the people who experience the space. Spaces are understood, not just seen.

JM: Oftentimes your materials include very large, rare plants imported from around the world—bottle trees from Australia and palo-borracho trees from South America to name a couple. With architects being encouraged to embrace and celebrate local materials, culture, and sustainability, why do you go through such a massive undertaking to ship such large organisms from so far away, and then support their living conditions in a completely different climate and space in Japan?

SN: When I select and import a plant I strive to not just bring the plant but also the message of where that plant comes from—the reality of what it’s experiencing in its natural habitat, and what we can do to support that kind of plant life going forward. Yet, it is disheartening sometimes.

For example, for a palo-borracho tree I once imported, I learned that there was massive deforestation happening in the area where it was from. Millions of trees were being killed in order to clear space for massive wheat fields. I struggled knowing that yes, this wheat would feed people, and maybe even make it to my plate in Japan, but deforestation can’t be the answer. It’s hard to know what the answer is in those instances. Every day we see habitat loss happening all around the world.

People cannot imagine just how much we are all supported by trees and nature. For example, one average Japanese person consumes more than 110 big trees (“big trees” meaning that they’re over 20 meters, or 66 feet, high) in their lifetime. Trees and plants are consumed as paper, clothing, furniture, and more, every single day. We simply cannot live without trees and plants.

Therefore, I believe that one giant palo-borracho tree brought to Japan has the power to speak this message in a way that I alone cannot, and inspire people to think about, care for, and come up with better ways to support our natural world while we’re also in it.

Kohtei Pavilion at Shinshoji Museum Seijun Nishihata Sora Botanical Garden project
The landscape at the Kohtei Pavilion at the Shinshoji Museum Courtesy Sora Botanical Project

JM: Your collaboration with artist Kohei Nawa and architects Yoshitaka Lee and Yuichi Kodai of studio Sandwich to design the Kohtei pavilion and gardens at the Shinsho-ji Museum paid special attention to balancing the flow of many visitors through the museum grounds while also creating a space for contemplation and serenity. Can you talk about the choices you made and the philosophies you put into practice in order to achieve this balance?

SN: The temple was established to pray for the victims of accidents at sea.

We first chose a rock garden in order to express and represent the ocean floor in the next world. It was based on a traditional zen garden. Next, the temple is also located in a region that’s a famous destination for tourists when the maple trees change in autumn. We decided to plant special kinds of cherry blossom trees that bloom twice a year in spring and autumn as well. During these times of year now the landscape looks heavenly with all the autumn leaves and cherry blossoms.

We intentionally created this space as not just a place for tourists, but also for the spirits of the victims. We kept them in mind.

JM: In 2012 you filled a giant vase with the boughs of over 47 different cherry trees from across Japan as a memorial to the victims of the earthquake and made them all bloom at the same time. You also recently constructed an installation in the center of downtown Tokyo that recreated, at scale, Mt. Fuji using mounds of recycled compost. How do you all approach the ideation and execution of these grand statements?

SN: Good ideas always come down suddenly, from somewhere. I’m a stoic man, and when I work with plants I always do my best. Maybe the plant gods give us hints?

JM: Which future projects are you most excited about? What should we look forward to this fall and winter, and at the Tokyo Olympics in a couple years?

SN: I’m working on a project now called The Greatest Christmas Tree in the World in Kobe, Japan.

The idea is this: I’m going to transport the largest organic Christmas tree in the world to Kobe. It’s an Asunaro tree (thujopsis dolabrata), which is much bigger than the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City. It’s a tree that’s native to Japan and the species can grow up to 40 meters (131 feet) in height. The tree that we’ve chosen is 150 years old and it’ll travel over 1,000 kilometers across the sea. If we succeed in bringing it to Kobe and “planting” it, we’ll break five Guinness World Records.

There are a lot of symbolic reasons for why we are doing this. This year is the 150th anniversary of the port of Kobe. Kobe is traditionally the most famous city in Japan for holiday lights and illumination. Kobe also experienced a devastating earthquake in 1995 and after 22 years the city continues to show so much resilience. In the last few years we in Japan have experienced many natural disasters such as the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Kumamoto earthquake, and so on. We have been tested by nature these years.

As such, the tree will serve as a symbol of revival and prosperity. After all, in Japanese shinto animism the most primitive and holy ritual that one can do is to erect a big tree. I’d love for everyone to be able to experience this.

As for the Tokyo Olympic games there are so many projects that we’re working on until then, but we’re excited.

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