One Day in Ibaraki

Healing Green

Satoshi Numata is a calm, unassuming man with a very big dream. And as he talks about it, the idealism and hope that carry that dream become somewhat infectious, making it hard not to see this dream quickly and surely becoming a reality.

The dream started when he was very young, as he endured repeated hospitalizations for an ongoing medical condition. “When I would get well enough, my father would take me to a nearby park and let me enjoy the greenery”, he says. Just by being around the plants and animals he felt restored, and soon he came to the conclusion that when he grew up he must have a garden of his own.

But not just any garden, a herb garden. A garden where not only the sight and smell of the plants helped refresh and revive the visitors, but one where the very products of the garden could be used to heal and rejuvenate. Even as he entered the field of design in school he found a way to incorporate classes about foliage and botany, as a part of landscape design, and quickly started building up an encyclopedic knowledge about the properties and growing methods of various herbs. From the soothing qualities of blue mallow to the correct way to pick chamomile flowers, there seems to be no end to the interesting bits of information he has picked up along the way.

Finally, just last January, he put his knowledge to work. Using a plot of land only the size of a basketball court, less than one kilometer from his home in Kamisu, Ibaraki, he began growing lemongrass and mint, among others. Calling his garden operation ‘Midorism’, the plan was to make herbal tea from the fruits of his labor, and slowly grow the enterprise. ‘Midori’ means ‘green’ in Japanese, and combined with the English suffix –ism it gives the impression of a way of life or belief system, which is exactly what Mr. Numata was aiming for. In fact, due to the homophonic nature of the last part of the word, ‘sm’, it sounds like the Japanese pronunciation of the word ‘to live’ (sumu). So to some readers it appears to mean ‘living in green’, a happy coincidence that Mr. Numata does not discourage. Even the soil itself was specially cultivated; since no herbicides or pesticides are used and everything is completely organic, Mr. Numata wanted to provide the best possible growing environment without chemical help. Due to this he turned to cherry tree leaves. Apparently the leaves, once they break down into the soil, invite good microorganisms and insects to feed on them, helping to disperse their many nutrients into the earth and improving growing conditions.

However, things did not initially go as planned. As we all know, the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake occurred in March of last year, and though Kamisu was relatively far from the earthquake itself, its proximity to the coast meant it was not exempt from the subsequent tsunami. When it came the tsunami inundated large parts of the town, including Mr. Numata’s garden, which, for botany enthusiasts, is a very serious problem. Salted ground is very difficult to grow most plants in, including temperamental greenery like herbs, and the ocean had just filled his field with it while simultaneously washing out all the plants that had been growing.

Mr. Numata was undaunted. After some quick internet searches he happened upon information regarding the ice plant; not only would it grow in salted soil, it would remove the salt from the surrounding soil in a roughly 60cm radius. Armed with this knowledge, Mr. Numata went back to his garden and began planting ice plants. As soon as they began to get a little larger, he planted mint and other herbs within the 60cm radius and found that they survived, though others planted outside it died. Through the constant placement and re-placement of the ice plants his garden was soon salt-free and already on its way to producing the herbs he had planned.

Since then he has been working the land all by himself, while still working at his full-time design job, and turning the cultivated herbs into tea. Currently he has 4 different varieties, with different intended effects. Though I have not tried the others, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the Study Blend; a mix of lavender, mint, and lemongrass, this full-bodied and soothing tea helps to calm the nerves and improve concentration, and is a very welcome companion to a good book or study session.

That said, the dream does not stop here. He plans to acquire more land, and slowly increase the operation to multiple hands, but not just to increase the quantity and variety of herbs. Starting this summer he is quitting his design job to work on the garden full time, so that he can began the other phases of his plan. To him, an herb garden provide healing and relaxation in many more ways than just producing tea.

To start with, he plans on rolling out gardening classes on each of the plants he cultivates, allowing students to begin their own gardens with the knowledge needed to succeed. In addition, he will offer cultivation trials for those with no access to or interest in growing their own garden. Mainly aimed at families or groups of friends, he envisions people building bonds while enjoying the soothing nature of gardening work; there would be an opportunity to share in each step along the way, from planting right through to harvest, so that people of all ages could feel the rewards of working with nature.

Finally, he also hopes to bring in counselors and provide a consultation service. His primary concern, and one that seems to underpin each part of his multi-step plan, is the growth of incidence and intensity of depression and other mental illnesses in Japan. Providing a pleasant garden to relax is one strategy, reconnecting with yourself, others, and nature itself through gardening is another; but the crowning aspect is an understanding ear and a knowledgeable advisor. Counselors will not only be able to listen to and advise visitors, but also suggest teas or other herbal remedies that can be used to treat symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Mr. Numata speaks charismatically of how he hopes that herb gardens and gardening will spread throughout Japan, and help to combat the effects of stress and other difficulties. In fact, he is willing to take the chance to make it happen in his own community, though he is not without concern that he might not be able to sustain himself on it. But, as he says, you only get one shot at life, might as well go for your dreams while you can. Just listening to him talk about his dream is enough to inspire me to work harder on my own, so I can only hope he continues to see more and more success from now on.

Official website (Japanese)

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