Being a Gardener in Kyoto

Ueyakato Zoen // Murin-an // Secret Garden // Keihanna Memorial Park // Nanzen-ji

Hello! I’ve been very quiet on the blog/instagram front recently- hopefully you haven’t missed my updates too much – for three main reasons:

  1. I’m deep in the denial stage of mourning about the fact that I have to leave Japan in just over a week (NOOOOoooooooooooooOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
  2. Last week I was on holiday with my Amazing A ❤
  3. I spent the week before that working for a really prestigious gardening company in Kyoto!

It’s the third point that I’m going to tell you about now, and this is going to be a long post so will definitely make up for my silence over the last few weeks. Oh, by the way, no one is to mention point 1, at all, ever, OK? Let’s all pretend that I can stay in Japan forever, please. Just so I can put off facing reality for a little bit longer…


Ueyakato Zoen (website here) is a large, prestigious and completely amazing landscaping company in Kyoto. It was an absolute honour to spend four days working with them and  this was one of the most special weeks I’ve had in Japan.

[For the gardeners back in the UK who are confused by the concept of a prestigious or amazing landscaping firm… Be rest assured that ‘landscaping company’ in Japan does NOT mean what it means in the UK. No shoddy block-work or wonky fences here! In Japan, the maintenance of most of the visitor gardens (including all the famous ones and the temples and shrines) is done by external private companies, not by in-house gardeners. I as far as I know, it is very unusual for a gardener to be directly and permanently employed by the garden that they work at, even if they work there all the time. For example, all the staff at Kiseki no Hoshi work for a private gardening company called Hanshin, which is contracted by Hyogo Prefecture. This is the standard way, and the gardeners at the landscaping firms are really skilled and well-trained, unlike a lot of the private landscaping companies in the UK. Of course I’m sure there are bad landscaping companies and rubbish gardeners in Japan too, but good or bad, almost everyone works for a company or has their own company.]

Kato-Zoen is 160 years old: it is a family firm in its third generation. There are around 70 staff members undertaking garden design and creation projects, as well as regular maintenance. The company does all sorts of things from very small to very large, and currently (I think) are looking after around 50 gardens in the Kyoto area. These include some really famous tourist attractions like Murin-an, Nanzen-ji and Shosei-en. So yes, that means that (briefly) I was a gardener at some of the most famous gardens in Japan!!!!!!

Apart from the the opportunity to work in really incredible gardens and learn from master craftsmen (more below), this week was a really valuable opportunity to find out what the life of a Kyoto gardener is like. Well, I can tell you that there are some BIG differences from the life of an NT gardener! For starters, the gardeners at Kato-Zoen work much harder than we do and I think this is quite standard across the industry. Never again will I be able to listen to NT staff complain about how they are tired out & busy they are. Or not without laughing at them, anyway. The daily schedule, Monday- Saturday is as follows:

07.00ish Arrive to prepare for the day. 07.30 Morning meeting. 07.45ish Drive to the garden that you’re working in, to arrive about 08.00 (unless it’s far away, in which case you will have already set off much earlier). 10.00 & 15.00 15 minute break. 12.00 lunch. 17.00ish Pack up and head back to headquarters to tidy away. After that’s done and any paperwork is completed, then you probably head home 18.00-18.30, except on Wednesday evenings when there is often a study session until 20.00. Day off on Sunday.

It sounds super long and tiring, but I liked the long days. I didn’t even mind getting up at 05.00. I was surprised! Who knew?!

Our first day was spent working at lovely Murin-an, which is a small strolling pond garden. It is a young garden by Japanese standards: it was built at the end of the 19th century by retired politician Yamagata Aritomo to accompany his new villa.

The very first thing we did was learn how to sweep the moss and paths, using a traditional bamboo brush and mi (like a dust pan). I was so nervous about walking on the moss! But of course it was fine: our wonderful sensei, Oka-san, showed me how to walk without making marks or damaging it and I was wearing my jika-tabi which are perfectly designed for gentle footfall. IMG_20160329_092337822In fact, it feels incredible to walk on the moss wearing jika-tabi, so soft and luxurious! We spent the day tidying leaves, weeding and clearing and asking LOTS of questions. In the afternoon, we were honoured to receive an explanatory lecture about the history and maintenance of Murin-an from the President of Kato-Zoen, Tomoki Kato. Before this lecture, I had noticed that the garden seemed quite different in style and atmosphere to other traditional gardens, despite containg all the classic features (water, toro, tea house, pines, moss, being very small etc). I felt that it had a more relaxed, countryside or rural feeling than normal, because of the incredibly wide shallow stream, the longer grass and some other features. Kato-san’s teaching helped to me to understand this better (and made me feel smug for noticing some of the features on my own!).

Murin-an is quite unique in its design because it moves beyond the concept of shakkei (borrowed landscape) to something I suppose you could call borrowed garden. Rather than designing a garden and then incorporating a view of nice landscape into it, this design attempts to extend the garden into the view. Does that make sense?! Probably not: this is hard to describe without being able to point at things. Essentially, everything in the garden is designed in relation to the view of Higashiyama (the mountain which you can see), in order to make the garden part of the mountain. It is so effective that you immediately forget that you’re in the middle of Kyoto- it feels like you are in an alpine meadow, part way up the mountain, in the middle of nowhere. I’m afraid that this is a terribly un-technical explanation: you’ll just have to go there and look!

We also heard about the restoration work that Kato-zoen had to undertake to recover some of the lost features when they took over the maintenance of the garden. It was fascinating to compare to my heritage hort experience; I was especially interested to hear about how they restored the wild flower lawns (another unusual feature in a japanese garden), since I love meadow ecology! *Nerd Alert*

The second day we worked at a SECRET garden that I can’t tell you about: yes, it is as exciting and mysterious as it sounds. It’s a private garden which isn’t open to the public, so of course they don’t wish details or photos of their house to be blogged about. I do have permission to tell you a little about the work we did and I can say that the house was AMAZING, the garden is beautiful, really big, has some wonderful design features and is immaculately kept by Takeshi-san and his colleagues. We did some sweeping and tidying, some cutting back, some pruning but much  of the day was spent sweeping a stream. Yes! Stream-sweeping is a brilliant technique for cleaning waterways. This garden has a long, shallow, wide stream running through it to a large pond. It has a concrete base covered in pebbles and the water comes from a natural source. As such, a lot of algae builds up on the pebbles: quite contrary to the intended image of a crystal clear mountain stream. So, to keep it clean, they sweep it with bamboo brooms about once a month. I’m afraid that I can’t show you a picture to describe this but trust me- it’s effective, reasonably quick and much more pleasant than waiting until it gets really bad and then shovelling the slime out. I really enjoyed this day and the opportunity to ask lots more questions from our mentors. And of course, I feel lucky to see such a special garden that I would never be able to visit otherwise.

Our third day took us to another garden that I would not otherwise have visited, because it’s not well-known among foreign tourists and is far out of town. Keihanna Memorial Park was built in 1995 to celebrate the science-based industry in the area, as well as the 1200th anniversary of the move of the capital city from Nara to Kyoto. Kato-Zoen assisted with the design and build of the park but it was maintained by Kyoto Prefecture for the first 10 years of its life. It seems like they didn’t do a very good job, or maybe there were some problems, but since Kato-Zoen took over the running of the park, visitor numbers have increased from 200,000 to 600,000. An impressive statistic. (I can imagine Mr Greenwood’s eyes popping at the prospect.)

The park includes a modern Japanese garden with a huge cliff face, an enormous lake & waterfall, a totally mental bridge, exhibition spaces, a large natural woodland and various other gardens and areas. This day was more about observing and learning than practical work, and we heard about all the aspects of running the park. This park seemed unusual to me, since it is run with a similar ethos to NT properties and not much like your typical Japanese garden. Traditional Japanese gardens very rarely have things like benches, gardening volunteers, cafes, kiosks, picnic places, places to relax, activities for visitors, interpretation etc. Mostly they are very serious places for contemplation and reverence. I like this: I think it is the appropriate level of respect for our art… Except when I’m tired and I want to sit on a bench and eat cake. Anyway, Keihanna does all the NT-style things, including a lovely annual activity when children come to plant rice in a small paddy and then get to make mochi with it when it is ready. I want to do that!

One interesting highlight was watching the Kato-zoen gardeners and a group of volunteers taking down a large diseased tree. I took a little video for the Bodnant chainsaw crew to compare with UK techniques…

A very different level of PPE to the UK! A little nerve-wracking, but I think it’s much easier to climb a tree in jika-tabis than chainsaw boots.

On our final day we worked at Nanzen-ji. Yes, that’s right: NANZEN-JI. I am so lacking for adjectives to describe how incredible this is that you should just imagine me jumping up and down and shouting with glee, maybe on a pogo stick or a trampoline for extra emphasis.

Firstly, Takemura-san gave us a short tour and an explanation & history of the incredible aqueduct system which brings water from Lake Biwa, 20km away. Although originally designed for electricity, this aqueduct system feeds the streams of the gardens at Nanzen-ji and others in the neighbourhood (including Murin-an), as well as serving as a canal for freight transport (in the old days) and a MASSIVE emergency water source in case of fire at the Imperial Palace.

We spent most of the day tidying, weeding, managing the moss and pruning in the Naru Taki Garden in the main Hojo Garden of Nanzen-ji. It was both very familiar and very strange to be working outside in a beautiful garden whilst being watched by lots of tourists (normal)- except in Japan (not so ordinary for me). We received some excellent advice from Takemura-san about pruning and garden management AND BEST OF ALL… Takemura-san gave us a lesson on gravel raking for karesansui!!! This was a remember-forever experience, even though the result of our gravel raking was quite terrible 🙂  I now understand the principle and theory of the skill- and how to make my own rake- so I think that I could become much better at it with practice. I really enjoyed it: the obsessive neatness and amount of concentration it requires suits my personality. So maybe we can install a karesanui at Bodnant…?

So, to round off this long and yet totally insufficient description of a wonderful week, I’d like to mention what I learnt about gardening ethos, on top of all the practical skills. At Kato-zoen they reject the concept of garden maintenance and instead speak of fostering, which sounds a bit funny in English but is an exemplary concept. The garden staff of the company are respected as craftsmen/women, and are expected to nurture the gardens to strengthen and continue the vision of the original design: not just keep them ‘tidy’. The knowledge, understanding and respect that all the gardeners have for the places they work and the original design is inspirational because it is applied at every moment, to even the most basic of tasks. This level of precision, thoughtfulness and care is definitely something I will strive for, for the rest of my life. Additionally, I was really impressed/envious of the level of scholarship within the company (the study evening was great!) and how proactive they are in forging international links: sending staff on international exchanges and have linking up with Japanese gardens in the USA.

I could go on for ages longer about great things that I learnt and wonderful people that I met, but shall just finish by saying どうもありがとうございました to everyone at Kato-Zoen, particularly all of our mentors and the amazing Toru-san: you are a top translator! 英国で私を訪ねて来てください!

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