Midori Shintani, gardener at Tokachi Millennium Forest

Midori Shintani interview: head gardener at Tokachi Millennium Forest

The head gardener of Tokachi Millennium Forest did not know her calling at first, but she eventually found her path to a place where she truly belongs. Words Jodie Jones, portrait Charlie Hopkinson

Midori Shintani is, she thinks, the luckiest person in the world. She has been head gardener of the renowned Tokachi Millennium Forest in Hokkaido, northern Japan, since 2008 and has no intention of moving anywhere else.  The brainchild of entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi, the master plan was created by Fumiako Takano in collaboration with Dan Pearson, who also designed the gardens for which he won a prestigious Society of Garden Designers award. These, and the wider forest park, are maintained and managed by Midori.

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“She is essential to our work here,” says Dan. “She is a gift. It was perfect timing, she and the garden coming together.” Midori’s journey to Hokkaido, from her home town in mainland Japan, was not straightforward, however. She was born in 1972 in Fukui province and grew up in the countryside where, as a little girl, she loved to go out with her two older brothers and hunt for frogs. “I was quite wild, in that country way,” she says. “But I also learned the tea ceremony, ikebana [flower arranging] and calligraphy. And my mother encouraged me to experience different cultures, to speak different languages.”

My job is not simply to create a beautiful garden. We must also present a lifestyle that visitors will want to recreate at home

At the age of ten, Midori asked to go to a boarding school because, she says, “I just felt I had to”. She was not born with a vocation to garden but she was born with a strong need to find a path and pursue it. However, she fell very ill as a teenager and spent a lot of time in hospital. “My father noticed how much I loved reading landscape architecture books in bed and suggested I study horticulture at university.” Unwittingly, he had set Midori on the path to Hokkaido.

“I enjoyed the course but I still did not know what I should become. For 11 years I struggled to choose my path. I worked at a designer’s office, a rose specialist and an art gallery. At some point I started thinking about being a gardener. But I needed a place to learn and I didn’t care how far away that was.”

This was the late 1990s, when the English garden style was hugely popular in Japan. “But I was not ready to go to England. I would have been overwhelmed by the deep gardening culture. I needed to become a professional first. Then I remembered reading about Rosendal’s Gardens in Sweden.”

She signed up for language school to secure a visa, jumped on a plane and walked into Rosendal to ask for work. “I was 30 years old, I couldn’t speak Swedish and the garden was closed for the winter but I knew it was the place for me.” She had to apply five times before they overlooked the language barrier and finally offered her a position. “It was a wonderful experience. The Swedish have an interesting attitude to nature, shaped by an extreme climate that keeps man in his place.”

In 2004, she returned to Japan feeling she had more to learn. “First I joined a landscaping company. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done – my foreman was strict – but it was good for me. After two years there, I spent a year working in a plant nursery. Ideally I would have stayed three years in each job but I was in my thirties so I needed to get the experience more quickly.” At the same time, Midori began to look around for a garden to ‘belong’ to.

She first read about the Millennium Forest in a small news story. “There was little information but I wanted to be part of it.” Within a month, she started work as head gardener. “This garden is a bridge between humans and nature. We use minimum tools, minimum management, but maximum vision. We have a mission to introduce a new garden movement. The potential is exciting.”

The task is also immense. “My job is not simply to create a beautiful garden. We must also present a lifestyle that visitors will want to recreate at home.” Though she works long hours through spring and summer, the winters in Hokkaido are too harsh to garden outside so Midori travels during these frozen months. For the past few years, her travels have included a sabbatical in the UK at Great Dixter, working alongside head gardener Fergus Garrett. “I have learned so much from Fergus about how to create a warm place that will educate and inspire people. It is all about sharing my specific vision. My past, present and future have come together since I arrived here. I will work here until someone arrives who I can hand the garden on to. And then I would like to retire  here. This really is the place where I can fully be myself.”

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Useful information Read more out about the Tokachi Millennium Forest to discover how designer Dan Pearson creates his naturalistic plantings in the Forest’s Meadow Garden and read our review of Dan Pearson and Midori Shintani’s subsequent book, Tokachi Millennium Forest.