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Brian Minter: Restoration of Hokkaido is a tale worth telling

Vancouver Sun logo Vancouver Sun 2021-12-23 Brian Minter
The restoration of a significant part of Hokkaido, Japan's northern most island, is the subject of Dan Pearson's new book, Tokachi Millenium Forest. © Provided by Vancouver Sun The restoration of a significant part of Hokkaido, Japan's northern most island, is the subject of Dan Pearson's new book, Tokachi Millenium Forest.

The story of how a significant area of Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, was restored is a fascinating one that deserves greater recognition.

Dan Pearson, a British landscape architect, has written a book, The Tokachi Millennium Forest, which beautifully describes the whole process of restoration and reconnection with people.

According to Pearson, Hokkaido, in its early history, was a wild island that was settled in the early 1800s by Japanese pioneers who cleared much of the land to grow larch trees for their valuable wood.

Mitsushige Hayashi, a newspaper owner, had a strong desire to restore a huge section of this area back to its native habitat, while at the same time making it accessible for visitors to enjoy.

During a virtual presentation hosted by the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Pearson detailed, from the beginning of his connection to this venture, the process of reclamation and the contributions of the many talented folks involved in the project.

I spoke to Pearson in Summerset, England, and he explained to me how he became involved. He gives great credit for this reclamation to Hayashi, who he describes as visionary in his thinking.

Because Hayashi was working with natural restoration, he knew his project needed some different eyes. The traditional Japanese garden approach would not work here. He was open to all possibilities, and Fumiako Takano, the head landscape architect, who trained in the U.S., was also an outside-the-box thinker. This western influence provided Hayashi with a broader vision, and he understood that far more was needed than just creating an ecological park. Takano, working in collaboration with Dan Pearson, designed the masterplan.

Pearson, who specializes in a naturalized landscape style, was approached to work on this project. To ensure good compatibility, Pearson spent a few days with the decision-makers at this expansive 240 hectare setting and was ultimately given 18 sites to plan and design.

It took him one year to study, learn and develop a deep appreciation of the cultural significance of this project. From the imposing mountains in the background, the forest extending from their base and open fields fronting the forest, it was a daunting task. Situated in the Northern Hemisphere at 43.06 degrees latitude and covered in snow during the winter, Hokkaido had essentially three seasons in which the work could take place. It took Pearson another year of planning and designing before presenting his plans for acceptance.

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One of the first tasks was to clear the forest floor of the massive growths of Sasa veitchii, a compact, invasive bamboo, to allow the native grasses, wildflowers and other species to revive, and many more native trees were planted back into the forest. From prehistoric volcanic eruptions and the movement of the earth, there were numerous large stones in the forest, which was significant because stones are so symbolic in Japanese culture. These stones were carefully exposed so they could be better appreciated. In time, this restored natural forest flourished and became quite enchanting.

The empty fields, that in earlier days had been striped of vegetation and planted with larch trees, needed to feature something unique.

According to Pearson, “It was like a football pitch out of sync with its surround.”

He developed the idea of creating berms and swales, with both convex and concave shapes. It was absolutely brilliant because, as a result, something surprising happened — there was a significant change in the acoustics. The sounds, although subtle, resonated differently in the varying wind patterns to create a pleasant, magical effect.

He created curving paths which strategically led visitors from the car park throughout the grounds in such a way that they could experience the most meaningful mountain and forest vistas. These pathways were lined with combinations of native and species trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses. Pearson also introduced drifts of specific perennials, like astilbes, rudbeckias and echinaceas, for the most heightened impact from spring through fall.

 The restoration of a significant part of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island, is the subject of Dan Pearson’s new book, Tokachi Millenium Forest. Photo: Kiichi Noro.  © Kiichi Noro The restoration of a significant part of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island, is the subject of Dan Pearson’s new book, Tokachi Millenium Forest. Photo: Kiichi Noro. 

Also planted in dramatic, large-scale groupings were eupatoriums, rodgersias and many other select perennials for their enhanced naturalizing effect.

Near the car park and restaurant, colourful beds of annuals, roses, dahlias and vegetables, like gourds and pumpkins, provided bright colours which were highly connective to the public.

Midori Shintani, a very special horticulturist, was the head gardener, but she was also so much more. Pearson had a great deal of respect for this amazing lady who watched over the project throughout the year, keeping the “points of place”, like colour, intact and thriving. Shintani not only worked collaboratively with Pearson on the restoration, but she was also very involved with the writing of the book, Tokachi Millennium Forest.

The goal of this project was to restore nature in such a way that it connects to people on a much higher level. I asked Pearson how he thought the long-term future of this project would play out.

“On a macro scale, it has changed already. After 20 years, the new forest trees have grown four to five metres. You can also see the land, especially the grass fields, healing themselves,” said Pearson.

This endeavour is a highly relevant lesson for the world. It requires folks with great vision to help restore nature in a way that resonates with people. Hayashi, Takano and Pearson proved instrumental in bringing all the necessary elements together. Shintani and her watchful eyes keep it thriving. These special people and the many folks who worked tirelessly to make it happen, have shown the way. We all need to follow their lead when the opportunity arises to restore nature.


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