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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #45 (November 17, 2009), page 13.

Bendy, steps, and shells

Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way

By Jake Hobson

Timber Press, 2007

Hardcover, 144 pages, $34.95

By Josephine Bridges

Get a sheet of paper, pick up a pencil, and draw a tree. That is a niwaki," writes Jake Hobson in his matter-of-fact introduction to a rarefied topic. Next he encourages the reader to build a tree, then to grow one. It’s at this last stage that "you run into trouble; the tree appears to have a mind of its own. It does not look anything like the sketch you drew or the model you built." Unlike their western counterparts, Japanese gardeners and nursery workers approach growing a tree in the same way they approach drawing or building one, "coaxing out those features believed to signify ‘the essence of the tree’: gnarled trunks, outstretched branches, rounded canopies." Now that you know what niwaki are, you’ll want to know more.

The first half of Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way contains three chapters on general aspects of this "cultural and practical tradition." The reader learns about faith and culture as inspiration in "Garden Elements." In "The Roots of Niwaki," the author delves into history and terminology, including some of the names given styles of pruning: "bendy (kyokukanshitate), steps (danzukuri), and shells (kaizukuri)." In "Principles and Techniques," those readers who aren’t content to marvel at the work of other gardeners are given a little how-to instruction. Throughout the book, the author’s charming drawings give visual learners a boost.

The second half of Niwaki considers specific types of trees — pines, azaleas, and bamboo, among others — and includes a wealth of photographs of the process and the results. I found it particularly refreshing that Hobson includes a number of photographs of gardeners at work. His photo captions are frequently amusing: "Mushrooms, blobs, or doughnuts?" he asks in reference to some "immaculately clipped azaleas." Regarding a certain oak’s appearance following a procedure called fukinaoshi, he writes, "Quercus phillyreoides, in a bit of a mess." Finally, he gives plants which are not niwaki, particularly moss, their moment of glory.

And he saves the best for last. "Behind the Scenes at Japan’s Nurseries" is a treasure. The nursery workers (uekiya) and gardeners (niwashi), without whom there would be no niwaki, inspire admiration from the reader as well as the author, who writes, "It is the work of the niwashi, and backstage that of the uekiya, that for me defines all Japanese gardens. Their work should never be underestimated." In my favorite photograph, a black-and- white, Kumeda-san, sitting on a couple of cloth sacks and holding a can of something labelled "Boss," appears to be about to deliver a punch line. His straw hat casts his eyes in shadow, but there’s no doubt they’re twinkling.

Niwaki also contains maps of Japan, both political and geographic, a list of Japanese-English plant names, and a glossary of Japanese terms. This last is a lovely curiosity. Some of us might otherwise never learn that a sozu is a "bamboo deer scarer," or that the "weeping form of trees," which we know so well by sight, is called shidare.

While Niwaki definitely has what it takes to impress serious garden nerds, there’s also plenty here for the rest of us. Author Jake Hobson is an experienced gardener and, with his wife, Keiko, a purveyor of Japanese garden tools in the U.K. He’s also an approachable guy with a good sense of humor. Niwaki is his first book; let’s hope it’s not his last.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books