Speaking the language of plants: a visit to Yamaguchi-san

Never one to be put off by a potential problem, I quickly agreed a visit to Yamaguchi-san’s plant nursery in the hills of Mizunami, despite me only knowing 10 Japanese words and Yamaguchi none!

I am forever indebted to Shigeto Tsukie for helping to fill my spare (horticultural) time in Japan this week. His kindness and organisational skills have meant I’ve been able to enjoy tours with some of the most renowned plants people in the world, and explore their little slices of plant heaven!

Shigeto arranged everything with Yamaguchi and relayed the detail to me, even telling me which trains to get, and warning me I only had 9 minutes to make the transfer (which meant no stopping for cold milk tea!) Yamaguchi would collect me at Nakatsugawa station. So, I set off, armed with my camera, notepad and iPhone photo of Mr Yamaguchi. However, would be easier for him to recognise me, than the other way around. I was sure I’d be the only beard in sight.

Yamaguchi-san

We met easily and quickly, and he briefed me on the day, in Japanese. I nodded and got excited. It’s funny how you can understand a lot by gesture sometimes, if that makes any sense. My learned Japanese words of おいしい and かなり would see me well today, it would seem. Yamaguchi pushed a map into my lap as we got into his minuscule pickup truck. We would go first to Chikori Garden and then his own nursery, but would also stop at a site where Magnolia stellata grows. This would be a bit of a mythical sight, but alas wouldn’t in flower right now.

We trundled off in the titchy truck. It was surprisingly spritely up (and more so down) hills! This was a real experience, and I was loving every moment. A few times I tapped some phrases into Google Translate and we had no problems understanding each other, as he could speak into the phone and it would translate back to me. We didn’t do this too much, as it’s quite labour intensive, truth be told!

Yes, I did fit into the mini-truck!

But, once we got to Chikori, we started to speak the language of plants!! We met with the owners and had a most fabulous tour. I’ll write about that separately later though, as the amazing plants deserve an article all of their own!

Yamaguchi-san, Mr Plant Geek, Ishimaru-san of Chikori.

Through the combination of Japanese wild flower books, Japanese to Latin plant name books, the Google Translate app and a small notepad for sketching, we spoke about the plants for 2 hours solid, and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company!

We drove on, I squealed a little too loudly when we passed a peanut field, and later reached our destination. We stopped to pick up some lunch on the way to the Magnolia stellata site. It was my favourite- a haul of deliciously unhealthy snacks from the 7 Eleven. As we walked the Magnolia site, Yamaguchi gave me some seeds, but I was too embarrassed to refuse, so they soaked into my trouser pocket, no doubt staining merrily. We had a little walking picnic, spotted the Magnolias and talked plants and wildlife thanks to our little digital translator!

My souvenir from the day

Our final stop that day was Yamaguchi’s nursery, and gosh- what a collection of plants! An overwhelming network of polytunnels and nursery beds weaved down from the house, and each one was filled to the brim, and barely offered a pathway through the delightful mix of unusual plants. I learnt so many new plants, and am fairly sure I gave Yamaguchi a twinkle in his eye each time I identified one myself (didn’t happen much!) A later article will cover the magical plant findings!

I had been wearing a T-shirt for most of the day, as I’d spoken with Shigeto in advance about the tattoo situation. (in case you don’t know, the Japanese people associate tattoos with criminal gangs- yakuza, so they can be a little taken aback when they see tattoos) However, as we were about to go indoors, Yamaguchi gestured for me to put my long-sleeve shirt on, as we were about to meet his wife.

We sat around the kitchen table and Yamaguchi pulled out his photo albums, actually giving me photos of various plants I’d admired around the nursery. We also looked through some plant books and my mind was made up. I wanted to learn more and more about Japanese wildflowers! Like the Japanese people, they are delicate and really do have that special something.

So, all in all, it the perfect day for a plant geek! Plus, when I glanced up behind his working desk and saw the prized photo of Yamaguchi-san with Sir Roy Lancaster, I felt I was sitting with gardening royalty.

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