Books: Cutting Back by Leslie Buck

image cutting back

In Cutting Back, author Leslie Buck chronicles her four-month stay in Kyoto at the turn of the millennium. Unusually, for a woman and a westerner, she was taken on as an apprentice at a big-name Japanese landscape gardening company (Uetoh Zoen).

There is something irresistible about this type of memoir, especially when the writer is trying to lift the veil from some very traditional aspect of Japanese culture. Liza Dalby in Geisha (1983) told the story of her move to Kyoto to train as an apprentice geisha; Kaoru Nonomura in Eat Sleep Sit (1996) described how he left his job as a designer for a year of training at a Zen Buddhist temple. Both books sold well, partly because they offer a glimpse inside cultures that are essentially hidden, but also because as readers we identify so readily with the hapless novice navigating the unknown.

Buck was not really a novice when she arrived: she had run her own landscaping business in California for several years. Yet following Japanese tradition she was automatically junior to the sixteen-year-old apprentice who had joined six months ahead of her. And he, being senior, was at liberty to give her instructions on the job, even though his inexperience meant he was getting things wrong.

Buck is a natural raconteur, and excels in her descriptions of life as the female American employee of a traditional Japanese business. She deftly draws out the humour in her encounters with clients and colleagues, and much of it is self-deprecating, as she herself struggles to meet their exacting standards and keep a grip on her natural exuberance.

Yet she is open about the more difficult aspects of her apprenticeship: the language barrier, the severe winter cold, the strain of being criticised by an unforgiving team leader. The narrative falters slightly when she turns her mind to her boyfriend back in California. The fact that she missed him was part of her story, of course, but so much less interesting than her day to day encounters with the Japanese master gardeners.

There is some discussion of pruning techniques and garden design, but much of this you could find in other sources (Buck references, for instance, Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane). The book is based on the author’s journals and comes across more as a portrait of the people tending to the gardens than the gardens themselves. This means there is plenty to interest the general reader as well as those with a passion for gardening.

I did wonder, though, what happened once she returned to California. Did her Kyoto experience impact her work style or how she ran her business here? How did the boyfriend situation pan out? Overall, a light, warm-hearted read that presents a unique perspective on Japan. Recommended.

Cutting Back
Leslie Buck, 2017.
Timber Press, 280 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).

Cutting Back is available from May 3, 2017. I am grateful to NetGalley and to Timber Press for the chance to review an advance copy of this title.

San Diego visit, part 3: Japanese Friendship Garden


I visited the Japanese Friendship Garden during the late afternoon – a quiet, mellow time of day when the visitors had thinned right out. It occupies a 12 acre site in Balboa Park, the cultural complex of San Diego, and scene of earlier visits to the Museum of Art and the Mingei International Museum.

The Japanese name for this garden is San-Kei-En, meaning “Three Scene Garden: Water, Pastoral and Mountain”. It is named after the San-Kei-En Garden in Yokohama, and it celebrates the link between San Diego and its sister city of Yokohama.

I was struck initially by the sheer size of the garden. It first opened in 1991 but was expanded in 1999 and again in 2015. It is set within a basin, so you experience the garden in different stages as you move down from the top to the bottom of the canyon. Although the heart of the garden is a central water channel with simple footbridges, you aren’t even aware of this section when you begin your walk down the hillside. In this way, it feels quite different from the San Mateo Japanese Garden, which in the main is more open and visible, and laid out around a single body of water.

The garden is designed using Japanese techniques, but adapted to suit the climate, landscape and plant life of southern California. Its many varied features include: a ceremonial gate, a karesansui or dry landscape garden, a bonsai collection, a koi pond, the dragon bridge – symbol of power, strength and good luck – and the dry waterfall. With the right timing, you could also enjoy the azalea, camellia and cherry tree plantations. I would love to go back.

Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park
San Diego, CA
Permanent attraction

All photos: JF

Above: the sloping hillsides are thickly planted, shading the pathways.

Below: dry waterfall made of rocks.


Below: waterfall , pool and pavilion.


Below: a duck enjoys the tranquil pool.


Below: water channel with tree-lined walkways on either side.


Below: a classic bamboo water feature.


Recharging in the San Mateo Japanese garden


I was hoping to visit the Japanese garden in San Mateo Central Park after reading about it in the book Quiet Beauty: The Japanese gardens of North America. Happily, I managed to make that visit earlier this summer, the same day we saw the digital art exhibit at PACE. So if you do plan a trip to this part of Silicon Valley, consider experiencing two different aspects of Japanese culture in the same day and see both together.

The garden opened in 1965, following the signing of a sister city agreement between San Mateo and Toyonaka in 1963. It was designed by Nagao Sakurai, who had created several other American Japanese gardens, including the dry garden in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (1952). It is a stroll garden built around a central pond that is fed by a waterfall. Two wooden bridges transect the pond; of these, the first is more prominent – an arched bridge with numerous fat carp swimming beneath it.

As you loop around the pond, you encounter lush foliage, eye-catching rock formations and a series of beautiful views, punctuated by unique features: the stone pagoda, the waterfall, the viewing pavilion and the tea house. This is a wonderful place to visit and attracts a different crowd from the garden in Golden Gate Park: more local families spending time outdoors, not so many camera-toting tourists on a deadline. Highly recommended.

Japanese Garden, San Mateo Central Park
San Mateo, California
Permanent attraction

Above: pathway near the viewing pavilion. All photos: SF.

Below: looking in through the main gate.


Below: view across the pond towards the arched bridge; there are carp in the water, and you can see the main gate again, this time from the inside.


Below: view from the arched bridge, looking towards the second bridge; you can enjoy the contrast between the trees and the local office block architecture.


Below: five-storey stone pagoda, donated by the City of Toyonaka.


Below: plaque on the pagoda.


Below: waterfall.

Below: reflections on the water; contrasting arrangements of rocks.

Below: the second bridge.


Below: many shades of green.


Below: pine trees.


Below: view looking back to the second bridge; you can see the arched bridge in the background.


Books: 101 Japanese gardens you have to visit – in North America

image cover quiet beauty

Visually stunning, this glossy hardback features 26 Japanese gardens from the United States and Canada, each photographed in loving detail. A further 75 gardens are listed (without illustrations) in Appendix 2, which is helpful because you are likely to find more that are within reach of your own home. It was a revelation to me that there are so many Japanese gardens on this continent, and so far I have visited only one, the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park.

The introductory essay is excellent and fills in the historical background. I was struck especially by the trend observed in the second half of the 20th century, a trend away from absolute authenticity to a broader conception of the North American Japanese garden as a kind of hybrid, where the designer is empowered to be more artistic or to respond to the specific qualities of the local environment.

This local adaptation comes across in the stories of the individual gardens. For instance, the Nikka-Yuko garden in Lethbridge, Alberta, where due to the harsh climate they have found they can use only plants local to southern Alberta. Or the Suiho’en garden at a water reclamation plant in Van Nuys, California, where the express purpose of the garden was to soften public opinion regarding water reclamation and reuse of sewage effluent – hence the name meaning “Garden of Water and Fragrance”.

My only reservation was that the texts on individual gardens sometimes felt pedestrian, laboring over the chronology of which feature was added when, or dwelling too much on visitor amenities – catering, weddings, corporate events. However, the gorgeous photography more than compensates.

Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America
Kendall H. Brown, 2013.
Tuttle Publishing, 176 pages, $34.95 (hardcover).

This book was received as a gift from family.

Books: Listening to Stone by Hayden Herrera

book cover listening to stone

Sometimes it’s a joy to try something different. I knew next to nothing of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), when I picked up this recent biography by Hayden Herrera. It was a gamble of sorts, given that the book runs to nearly 600 pages, but I am glad I persevered.

Herrera covers the artist’s life story in extreme detail, drawing on archive research and interviews with those who knew him, especially Priscilla Morgan, his partner in later life. This gives a very full picture and presents the biographer with certain challenges.

The action moves backwards and forwards between different countries. There are so many love affairs I lost count (and interest), and numerous professional false starts. On five separate occasions he creates designs for different children’s playgrounds, only to have the projects (yes, all five) cancelled at the planning stage. I found the first third of the book much the slowest and enjoyed the reading more as I went on.

What really lifts this tome are the discussions of the sculpture and other works, including the set designs for Martha Graham and the Japanese-inspired gardens, such as the garden for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Herrera excels in her vivid descriptions and her crisp approach to interpretation. The pieces are mainly abstract, but she tells you where to look for a bird’s beak or a person’s arm, and these gentle hints enlarge your understanding, even from within the confines of a black and white photograph.

She also draws out certain lifelong themes in Noguchi’s artistic career: the tension between his American and Japanese backgrounds; his focus on the natural world; and his notion of sculpture as the shaping of space. Had this been a monograph, we could have had an essay on each of these, but instead Herrera lets them surface naturally, sticking to a chronological approach that can feel repetitive but is also more organic, more like real life.

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi
Hayden Herrera, 2015.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 592 pages.
$40.00 (hardcover); $25.00 (paperback).

Travels in California, part 4: Japanese tea garden

pic lake & flat bridge

On our previous visit to the Japanese tea garden we managed to choose a misty autumnal morning. This time we visited in February, which meant we had brilliant spring sunshine, not a cloud in the sky – although it was cold enough that we had to sneak off for warming cups of coffee halfway through our visit.

I think the joy of this garden lies in wandering the paths and letting the vista of trees and water unfold around you. Last time, the leaves were starting to change to yellow. This time, many trees were still bare from winter, encouraging the eye to focus more on the pines and other evergreens, with their sculpted topiary.

Points of interest include the very steep drum bridge (taiko bashi), which was designed and built in Japan by Shinshichi Nakatani (1846-1922) for the 1894 San Francisco Midwinter Fair, where the history of this garden began.

Glorious in their vivid red are the five-tier pagoda and matching ornamental gateway, both acquired after the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The underside of the gate is decorated with a series of painted roundels containing images of flowers.

In a secluded corner lies the Zen garden, designed in 1953 by Nagao Sakurai (1896-1973), a leading landscape architect. This is a dry landscape garden (karesansui) in which the rocks symbolize a miniature mountain scene with stone waterfall, and the raked gravel represents a body of water such as a river.

I think we enjoyed it every bit as much as last time. Our young son was making his first visit and the parts he loved best were the stepping stone paths (tobi-ishi) and the fish (oh, yes).

Japanese Tea Garden
San Francisco, CA
Permanent attraction

Above: Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.

Below: Looking through the drum bridge. Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.
pic humped bridge

Below: Ornamental gateway with pagoda nearby. Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.
pic gateway decoration

Below: Zen garden. Japanese tea garden, San Francisco. Photo: STF.
pic zen garden

Fond memories: San Francisco and the Japanese garden

pic1 tea garden
We are making plans to travel to San Francisco for a short visit, so I have been trying to refresh my memory by looking through photos that I took on my last trip, which was back in September 2009! These are from a misty morning visit to the Japanese tea garden, to which I’m hoping we can return. The garden is situated inside Golden Gate Park and features various structures, including the Tea House, which can be seen in the picture above. It began as a one-acre garden created for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. It then became a permanent fixture and was expanded to its current five acres, under the auspices of Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara (1854-1925). I shall look forward to exploring the garden at a different time of year, this time with a small person in tow …

Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco
Permanent attraction

pic4 tea garden

Books: Japanese Zen Gardens

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 11.27.14
This is an elegant coffee table book, but one that you can get your teeth into. Part One introduces you to the tradition of the landscape garden in Japan, and covers a selection of individual temple gardens. Part Two is more cross-cutting, and highlights common symbols that are often found in these gardens, which is interesting but entails some repetition.

The photography is captivating – every bit as good as in The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee (2010), for which Alex Ramsay was also the photographer. For instance, the mesmerizing greens of Saihō-ji, so famous for its moss that it is known as the Moss Temple; or the textures and colours of Konchi-in – gravel, rocks, evergreens and a gnarled Chinese juniper tree that is thought to date from the construction of the garden in the 1630s; or the more modern designs at Tōfuku-ji, produced by Shigemori Mirei in 1939.

The text too is rich in historical and topographical detail, with little plans of the gardens alongside. I suspect there is no real substitute for visiting the gardens (which sadly I have not), but this tries hard to be that substitute. I confess, though, that I struggled at times to identify which particular stone represented the carp, the turtle and so on – some labels with arrows would have helped me, though perhaps it would compromise the design of the book.

I liked the way that Kawaguchi compares aspects of the gardens with Chinese ink-brush painting. I think it made a lot of sense and that she could have explored this angle further, perhaps even included some paintings.

Overall, a very fine volume – would definitely recommend, but perhaps more for those with a little existing knowledge.

Japanese Zen Gardens
Yoko Kawaguchi, photographs by Alex Ramsay, 2014.
Frances Lincoln Limited, 208 pp, £30.

This book was received as a gift from family!

Japanese Garden at Norwich Cathedral

norwich garden 1

It was on a visit to the Garden Museum that I first heard of a Japanese garden at Norwich Cathedral. I saw it two years ago and again this summer and was struck by the changes wrought over time, even though it is a garden of stones rather than plants. This type of garden is called karesansui, a “dry landscape” or literally “dry-mountain-water”, because it contains an abstracted landscape created without using real water. Some stones, though, have turned a vivid green from the growth of algae in this moist and shady spot.

The Garden of Calm Virtue (tokuon no niwa) was built in 2010 by members of the Japanese Garden Society. It occupies a transitional space between the modern visitor centre and the 11th century cathedral buildings, permitting a moment of contemplation as you pass into the cathedral. However, the visitor walkway passes alongside the garden rather than through it, so you do have to appreciate its beauty from behind the glass.

The stones were selected specially and are from the glacial borders of north Scotland. They include silver-grey granite gravel, sawn grey sandstone and polished black pebbles. Three large boulders are seen as the focal point, and can be interpreted as a Buddhist triad or the Christian Trinity. The remaining stones are arranged to lead towards them. The gravel is raked in concentric rings around the stones. I love the contrast between the stones of the garden and the creamy-gold masonry of the cathedral behind.

Japanese Garden at Norwich Cathedral
Norwich, Norfolk
Permanent attraction

Above and below: Japanese garden at Norwich Cathedral. Photos: STF.

norwich garden 2

In Paris: a Japanese garden

pic japanese garden

The Musée Guimet has long been a favourite of mine and I discovered on a visit to Paris last week that it has absorbed the nearby Hotel Heidelbach, home to the Panthéon bouddhique, which features lots of Buddhist sculpture from Japan, and a delightful Japanese garden.

The building dates from 1913 and belonged to Alfred Heidelbach, banker and president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States in Paris.  The Panthéon bouddhique opened there in 1991.  The garden has a fine tea house designed by Prof Nakamura Masao and installed in 2001 by master carpenter Yamamoto.

The garden is compact but offers welcome respite from the bustle of city life, especially on a warm day.  You can walk along the plank bridge and step from stone to stone along the paths; you can admire the reflections; you can enjoy the white of the pebbles and the green of the bamboo.

Galeries du Panthéon bouddhique
Paris, France
Permanent attraction

Above and below: Japanese garden at the Panthéon bouddhique. Photos: STF.

pic bamboo

pic teahouse