From the isolated Socotra Islands off Yemen in the Arabian Sea to the dry forests of Argentina, Seijun Nishihata has traveled to 33 countries over the past 13 years to track down unique plant species for clients all over the world.
Calling himself a “plant hunter,” Nishihata, 34, has explored jungles, climbed mountains and scaled cliffs to find rare flowers and trees not usually distributed through existing markets in Japan.
In a sense, Nishihata is on a mission to break down the norms of an industry satisfied with limits. Instead, he wants people to learn about the unique plants that have moved him.
“I haven’t met anyone in Japan who does the same work that I do,” Nishihata told The Japan Times during a recent interview in Yoyogi Village in Tokyo. The entertainment complex has a unique garden studded with more than 100 species of plants Nishihata collected from dozens of countries.
“I feel like I’m swimming alone in a vast sea,” he said.
Nishihata represents the fifth generation of Hanau Co., a 150-year-old plant and flower wholesaler in Hyogo Prefecture that supplies ikebana masters and temples, including the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto.
Nishihata’s offerings, however, are far more wide-ranging than usual plant suppliers. He travels to 10 or 15 countries every year and imports about 200 tons of trees and flowers, which can range from a Spanish olive tree hundreds of years old to the obscure Mexican grass tree Dasylirion quadrangularum. He also travels across Japan seeking out plants that match the exact need of his flower-arranging clients.
But the process of importing plants is not an easy one, Nishihata said. After finding one he wants, he must track down the owners of the land and negotiate to remove them. He also said Japan’s plant quarantine process is “very strict.”
Some in Japan have warned him about the ecological dangers of importing foreign plants, but Nishihata said many of the species in Japan originated from overseas and that the 200 tons or so of flora he imports every year can’t really compare with Japan’s overall imports and thus represents little threat to the ecosystem.
“And I never take imported plants to a mountain where many indigenous species can be found,” he added.
Nishihata said he hopes his efforts will trigger public interest in plants, and, eventually, environmental issues.
Saying that since about 99 percent of plant and flower transactions are carried out via existing markets, he concentrates on sourcing something that cannot be purchased with a mere mouse click.
In 2012, he opened an office in Tokyo called the Sora Botanical Garden to coordinate his consulting and wholesaling efforts. He works on around 30 to 40 projects each year.
Nishihata said one of the most difficult — but ultimately fulfilling — projects he worked on was a large composite “sakura” he built in Tokyo in 2012 by combining cherry tree boughs collected from all 47 prefectures, from snowy Hokkaido to subtropical Okinawa.
By delicately controlling their temperatures to manipulate the flowering times, he was able to get all of the cherry blossoms on the separate boughs to bloom simultaneously in March that year.
His latest project is an online botanical garden (plant-hunter.net/jp/) that launched on Wednesday. The virtual garden, designed with NHK Enterprises and Bascule Inc., lets people vicariously enjoy the Nishihata family’s botanical farm in Hyogo, which boasts 3,000 rare plants from all over the world.
“I’m obsessed with plants,” he said. “Plants are so powerful that they can transcend nationalities or language barriers . . . I want to increase (the ranks of) plant enthusiasts.”
Nishihata also wants to shake up the horticulture industry, which he believes earns little respect in Japan.
“It’s a low-paying job. People in the horticulture industry are ranked low in Japan. But if you go to Britain, it’s different,” he said. “I want to change that . . . Even if everyone else (in the industry) is OK with that, I don’t want to accept it.”
Although Nishihata’s life is now ruled by plants and he is deeply fascinated by them, he said he had no interest in them at all until he was 21, when he encountered Nepenthes rajah, the world’s largest pitcher plant, while climbing 4,095-meter Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, Malaysia.
As a young man enjoying life as a student, Nishihata backpacked around many countries. After arriving in Borneo, he learned in a phone conservation with his father about a local pitcher plant that could only be found on the peak and a few other places on the island.
Excited by his dad’s explanation, he climbed the mountain and found the flower.
“It was shocking. It was huge and dark red. The sort of grotesqueness attracted me even more,” Nishihata recalled. “It completely changed my perception of plants. I was left thinking ‘There is much more to plants then I thought.’ ”
After returning to Hyogo, he got a job at Hanau and embarked on his horticultural career there.
After years of tough on-the-job training together with other experienced professionals, climbing trees and cutting their branches, Nishihata said he can now identify what will bloom just by looking at the shapes and patterns of their branches.
“I really believe now is the time for plants,” he said. In an age of digitization and automation, people need greenery to balance their lives, he said.
“I guess my job is to collect and show interesting plants to people. And if that moves people, and changes the way they view plants, I believe that’s something meaningful, and truly important.”