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An excerpt from Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto

by Timber Press on April 11, 2017

in Gardening

Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Kyoto. Photo from np&djjewell Flickr, edited.

I am the person you spot up in the tree, dirt smeared across my face. “Is that a large bird up there?” you may wonder.

I am the person you spot up in the tree, dirt smeared across my face. “Is that a large bird up there?” you may wonder. My pruning shears busily clip away as I try to bring out the natural beauty in the tree in my playful, sometimes assertive, sometimes delicate way. The tree, shears, and I are dancing partners under the sun. We’ve been together for decades.

Passersby might step right over my pile, despite the rake I have lain across the sidewalk as a deterrent. Sometimes, without asking, they’ll pick up a branch for their dog and walk on, hoping not to bother me. Or maybe I’ll catch their eye as they walk right under a branch I’m sawing that is about to drop. People are curious about a female pruner high up in the tree, wielding sharp tools. Just as I covet the stylish outfits worn by the women who walk beneath my tree, I believe others want to be like a kid again, up in the tree with me.

This kind of interaction would never take place in Japan, where, starting late in the year 1999, I worked for three long seasons, watching the gardens explode with summer growth, morph overnight into radiant fall colors, and molt their leaves after the first bitter cold days of winter. Owing to their devotion and skills, traditional gardeners are treated like brain surgeons by the Japanese public. Clients and people walking by give them plenty of space, never talking to them unless summoned, so as not to break their concentration or pace. When addressing a gardener in Japan, people first apologize for interrupting, and then speak in reverent tones to the craftsman they know has trained like a star athlete, with much physical effort and years of sacrifice, in order to create over centuries some of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

But I don’t mind if someone asks me a question while I’m up in a tree. I’m naturally friendly, having been born in the heart of the Midwest and raised from a young age in a sleepy California beach town. At the age of nearly thirty-five I went to Japan in pursuit of a gardening apprenticeship. I had to ask permission in person to join the company, to show I was serious, the way others have approached landscaping companies for centuries.

I didn’t always feel daring. I’m an unusual adventurer: more worried than eager, unable to pick up new languages easily, and often getting lost. I’m willing to challenge myself, but my emotions, both anxiety and joy, always play a large role. Still I never let any flaws in my character keep me from going after a dream. My struggles were a gift. They taught me determination, and sometimes humor. In Kyoto I learned to work in silence, to run fast between projects, and to take breaks three times a day, with green tea and snacks. I grew to appreciate how hard I tried rather than how much I succeeded. I discovered a way to feel proud even when I came home dirty and exhausted.

In Kyoto I discovered that 90 percent of the private home gardens of Japan are native; the Kyoto private homes, monasteries, and imperial gardens I worked in were some of the most natural looking gardens I’d ever seen. The miniaturized and overly sheared Japanese gardens I’d expected were surprisingly absent. Most of the gardens were designed and pruned to look so sincere that visitors might think they’d stepped into a piece of forest left behind in the city. One of my coworkers, who once fell asleep in a pine tree, said to me, “Leslie, tell your friends back home that Japanese gardens are as natural as possible.”

I tend to work with serious focus. So I prefer answering inquires when sitting in a garden with a lovely table full of tea and cake nearby. A garden desires to be enjoyed. I love to teach others about my craft, and I enjoy pruning in the garden one day and writing in a café the next. Spending time in nature allows me to ruminate over my writing and ideas. The gardens inspire me and offer a paid workout. The feminine weeping red pine in one of my sixty-year old gardens, or the two girls I always see walking by with their two well-fed boxers in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff, give me an idea for my next chapter.

When I returned from my Japan apprenticeship, I built up my pruning business so I could buy a home and have access to healthcare, two things every long-term hard worker should be able to afford. I joined volunteer pruning projects at nonprofit gardens with the Merritt College Pruning Club to teach others my craft. I continued to learn from classes, conferences, lectures, sketching, and almost thirty years of hands-on garden work.

The way to become a master craftsman in Japan is to practice one’s craft and to teach. One garden craftsman told me that as a hobby he studied ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. When I asked him how long he’d been doing this, he said, “Oh, not very long, only fifteen years. I’m just an amateur.” It requires many years of hands-on experience to fully understand a craft. Japanese craftspeople take their work seriously. I begin my story at one of the first Kyoto gardens I worked in, where the garden craftsmen of Japan began to teach me not only about pride, but about how to find heart in the garden.

“This garden is not very old,” my coworker softly whispered to me. “Only three hundred and fifty years.” After driving for a while through the streets of Kyoto, we made a sharp left onto an almost hidden drive and entered the garden through a back gate. Our truck became enveloped by a lush woodland landscape. I found out later that, centuries before, the property had belonged to a wealthy Kyoto merchant. A formal restaurant now overlooks the wild, forested scene. Central to the landscape was a wide stream, an ancient canal once used to bring rice and goods on barges into Kyoto.

Two gently sloping embankments rose up from the stream, blanketed in ferns, azaleas, and nandinas in endless overlapping shades of green. Birds called from every direction. Insects buzzed and circled us like young playmates. Even the still turtles seemed to be tracking our movement with their eyes. A few stone lanterns dotted the landscape, but the flowing water held my attention. A building sat atop a hill, where diners watched the activity through large windows.

The youngest worker in our garden crew looked at me with a worried expression as he tentatively handed me a pair of karikomi, Japanese hedge shears with long handles and narrow blades. I wondered if he thought I might throw the tool back. I tried to smile reassuringly as I thanked him softly in Japanese. I later learned that he’d been gardening for only seven months. I’d been studying horticulture and running a landscape pruning and design business for more than seven years. Nevertheless, he would eventually become my boss. Japanese craftsmen’s hierarchy is determined by time in the company, not by experience. I had arrived just a few months after the shy teenager had joined our crew. This kind of hierarchy sometimes seems absurd to Westerners, but it produces efficient work teams with no competition between members because positions are set. With the possibility of having one’s rank lowered by switching companies, hierarchy ensures that apprentices commit to the company that trains them.

I paid careful attention to the young gardener’s energetic technique that day while we worked together on some overgrown azalea hedges. His karikomi sang out like a bird’s melodic tune. Mine cried like a lost crow—sporadic, loud, and ineffective. Karikomi blades fit loosely like an old pair of scissors. To get a clean cut, I had to apply constant pressure to the handles so the blades would press together and cut properly. I worked clumsily and was frustratingly slow. I wondered if the tool had been designed this way on purpose, to strengthen the female gardener’s arms, or perhaps her focus. My muscles began to ache. After a few hours of wondering if my arms might give out, I realized that if I relaxed, the blades pressed together more effectively. I’m—swish—working with—swish—gardeners in Japan—swish. Or am I dreaming? I felt both eager to show the men my enthusiasm and already worn out from excitement.

At lunch, I walked over to examine a pine that an advanced worker had been styling. The styled black pine is one of the more mesmerizing trees in the natural Japanese garden landscape. Like all plants in a Japanese garden, the pine is styled to mimic its mature, wild form in nature. Usually the lower branches stretch wide and the top small like a mountain form, and each branch is staggered right and left, front and back searching for optimum light. Of course, there can always be exceptions to this generality, just like in nature. On this particular tree, the branches had been considerably thinned, and quite a few needles removed by hand. In fact, it looked to me as though he’d pruned the dickens out of it! I was used to pruning Japanese pines gently back home in California, where, outside their native environment, they grow with less vigor. Nevertheless, this pine looked more exquisitely styled than any I’d ever seen. Bright green needles contrasted with brown fissured bark on a timeworn trunk. Branches twisted and hung low at the ends so gracefully that it looked like only rain, sunshine, and snow had ever touched them, although I knew better. This tree had been carefully styled by craftsmen twice a year for hundreds of years.

I stroked my fingers along a few of the pine needles. They felt cool. I crushed a cluster with my fist and smelled the fresh sap. I pressed the palm of my hand against some upturned needles. Yow! The needle tips were sharp! These were all signs of a healthy pine. I took notes in my journal like mad, thrilled to see advanced pruning up close, standing in a Japanese garden in Kyoto. I wrote a bit more than necessary. I wanted the crew leader to see that I was serious.

After finishing my third group of azaleas, I ran over to our boss. “Tsugi wa?” (What next?) I asked cleverly, using one of the few Japanese phrases I knew. The boss commanded, “Matsu” (pine). I hesitated a few seconds, confused. Did he say pine? Pines tend to hold court in a Japanese garden. They are beautiful when pruned properly, yet sensitive and fussy. A poor pruner could easily weaken a centuries-old styled pine, or even kill it. Pine pruning is such a complicated technique, it requires years to learn. I never expected to be asked to prune a pine in Japan.

The boss repeated his command, giving me detailed instructions as he gesticulated near a pine tree that had already been worked on, and toward one that looked bushy. I couldn’t understand his specific words. He spoke to me in rapid Japanese, and I’d only studied Japanese in night school for a few years. But I felt I understood his instructions precisely: “Work on that pine, only pull needles, copy the other intermediate worker, and then a senior pruner will follow up with thinning cuts.” I wondered later how I could understand the boss’s instructions. Maybe, as the youngest of four sisters, I’m skilled at watching others to guess what lies ahead. Or perhaps it was because the boss demonstrated with his hands. Most likely, I suspected, I’d done pruning long enough to predict what needed to be done. I took a deep breath. I knew I could prune a pine, but I wasn’t sure I could prune one in Japan, with the elite Japanese craftsman watching.

The pine I began to work on was so tall, I had to stand up on my tiptoes to reach it. I thought maybe I’d gotten the assignment because, except for the boss, I was the tallest person on my crew. I stood at five foot three. Then I figured out the more likely explanation: the pine grew far enough back in the garden that it was practically hidden from the restaurant’s view. If I screwed up, no one would see. I’d been given a test. I told myself, Leslie, work as fast as you can. Poised before my pine, I began at the top, pulling the needles carefully and slowly from their base—not tearing them, which would later cause stubs and make the pine look brown and sickly. I pulled more needles per branch at the top of the pine than at the bottom because the lower branches looked weak. After finishing, I again ran back to the boss and asked, “Tsugi wa?” I feigned nonchalance, trying not to reveal that my heart was pounding faster than my shears could cut.

He looked at the pine from top to bottom, evaluating my work. I followed his eyes. A bit messy, I realized. Then I saw some gummy dead needles stuck on a lower branch. Damn, how did I miss those? He said nothing. He led me to another pine, less hidden. Again, I worked quickly and ran back. The boss then escorted me past some tall bushes, over a stone bridge, across the wide stream, and up a sunlit embankment, to the smallest pine I’d seen yet, just under four feet tall. I looked up to see hundreds of welldressed dining patrons enjoying lunch, watching me through the restaurant’s immense windows, just ten feet away. Oh, shit. They sat on floor cushions in front of low tables, attended by waitresses wearing beautifully patterned kimonos. The diners appeared to be enjoying their view of the water and the gardeners. My boss grunted and mimed some actions with his muscular hands in an incomprehensible yet understandable way. Again, I plucked the needles swiftly and tried to forget the luncheon guests, who by this time might have noticed the Caucasian girl pruning a pine in one of Kyoto’s historic Japanese gardens.

After about twenty minutes, the boss came back to review my work. When I’m nervous, I tend to overprune. I’d already realized that the pine didn’t look as good as any of the other styled pines. I just couldn’t say why. One of my pruning mentors once told me, “Your pine looks like a plucked chicken.” I’d become too intent on solving every problem on the tree at once, instead of solving the issues slowly, over years, as I had been taught. My boss voiced a Japanese version of “hmmph” and led me to another tree. The rest of the day, I did more pruning, clipping, and raking.

In the early afternoon, the dining guests took a stroll around the garden, and I became quite a novelty, by then a thirty-five-year-old American woman wearing traditional Japanese gardening cloth boots. Beautifully coiffed women with shiny black hair, finely tailored business skirts, and matching scarves softly inquired, “Where are you from? Is your work hard?” Many offered encouraging words, saying “Gambatte!” (Don’t give up!) That meant so much to me on my first day.

The crew remained silent most of the day, except for the boss’s pointed commands. Meanwhile, the ducks quacked overhead and various creatures flew in and out of the river. A crane landed noisily on a shallow stone. A koi harassed a napping turtle with a tail splash. Insects hovered over a thrashing waterfall. Around dusk the garden sounds softened, except for our jikatabi, the traditional Japanese shoes, padding softly over stones and moss. A dozen or so lanterns lit up around the garden as if by magic.

The humidity that had been steadily rising all afternoon and the dark clouds that had been gathering gave way. At first small drops plopped all over the streambed. Then it poured, thrashing the water into a roar. After thirty minutes of soaking rain, I might as well have jumped into the canal. The boss called me over to him and handed me a rain jacket. He pointed to a shed roof that he apparently wanted me to stand under, urging me to quit for the day. I put the coat over my wet uniform but ignored the shed and kept hauling debris. The youngest worker had also forgotten his rain gear. He looked doused, but no one stopped him. I wasn’t going to be the first to quit, and definitely not the first girl to quit. Then the boss spotted me and repeated, rather loudly, for me to get under the shed overhang. So I sulked underneath, shivering, watching the other workers run past. Just before the men got into the truck to leave, they pulled dry clothes out of their duffle bags to change into. Oh. We finished at six in the evening. I felt chilled but satisfied. I had survived my first day in Kyoto’s temperamental weather, alongside the crew of dedicated, traditional Japanese craftsmen.


Leslie Buck is a garden designer and aesthetic pruner who specializes in natural design in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has over two decades of gardening experience, and a fine art degree from U.C. Berkeley and the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts in France. In 2000, Leslie studied with Uetoh Zoen, one of the oldest and most highly acclaimed landscape companies in Japan. Leslie has worked, taught, and volunteered in hundreds of private landscapes and as well as dozens of public gardens including the Portland Japanese Garden, Hakone Japanese Garden, Tassajara Zen Center, and Merritt College.


“Buck has as good an eye for cultural dissonance as she does for pines that need pruning. . . . This is an absorbing read about the formative interplay of humans, cultures, and gardens.” —Publishers Weekly starred review

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