A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK

 

PART ONE:  DESIGN & CRAFT

Chapter 15: The Men Who Moil

by Dec 20, 2012Handbook, Part 1: Design & Craft0 comments

In this Chapter…

  • Earth Movers
  • Stone Standers
  • River Folk
  • Graffiti Artists
  • The Pros
  • Tools of the Trade
Of course, all gardens across the world depend to some extent on the human input of gardeners and growers, but so intense is the level of human intervention in Japanese gardens, especially regarding the growing and pruning of trees, that the role of the gardeners and nursery workers is even more essential here than in other gardening cultures. – Jake Hobson


Earth Movers

During the Heian period (794-1185; see The Ancient or Classic Age), gardens were designed primarily by nobles, although the physical construction would have been carried out by laborers known as domin (土民 “earth people”). As this pejorative term implies, these men had the arduous tasks of digging out large ponds by hand, creating the contours of surrounding features, and man-handling the massive rocks into position. They were, then, gardeners in a crude sense of the term, although they would have had nothing – or very little – to do with aesthetic principles or on-going maintenance.

Weeding moss by hand, Oyaku-en, Aizu-Wakamatsu

Weeding moss by hand, Oyaku-en, Aizu-Wakamatsu

 

Once designed and laid out, gardens attached to imperial palaces and shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り) residences would have been tended by estate employees called komori (木守 “tree guardians”), a term that appears in the Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making). The Heike-mongatari (平家物語 The Tale of the Heike), a novel chronicling the wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans at the close of the twelfth century, contains a chapter called “Autumn Leaves” that illustrates the general role of such employees in an imperial garden. Emperor Takakura (高倉天皇 1161-1181) had a hill-garden constructed for the express purpose of viewing maple leaves in autumn: “But one night a late autumn gale blew violently and scattered the leaves everywhere in confusion, so the next morning, when the Palace servants went round early as usual to clean the grounds, they swept up all the fallen leaves and the broken branches as well, and as it was a bleak and cheerless morning they made a fire with them in the court of the Nuidono, and heated some sake to warm themselves.”

Essay 109 in the Tsurezuregusa (徒然草 Essays in Idleness) by Kenkō (兼好 1283?-1350?) tells of a famous “tree-climber” who was teaching another gardener to prune the highest branches of a tree. The expert offered the novice no advice while he was cutting the topmost branches, but reminded him to be careful when he had descended almost to the height of the eaves of a nearby building. Asked why he offered advise at a point at which it would have been possible for the novice to jump down if he must, the expert replied that a man is naturally cautious when his safety is threatened, but he is seldom as careful when things are easy. Kenkō comments, “This man belonged to the lowest class, but his words were in perfect accord with the precepts of the sages.”

An archive photograph showing earth works during the construction of Meiji-jingū Shrine, Tokyo, between 1915 and 1921. (Photograph of a photograph on display along the approach the main shrine complex.)

An archive photograph showing earth works during the construction of Meiji-jingū Shrine, Tokyo, between 1915 and 1921. (Photograph of a photograph on display along the approach to the main shrine complex, June 2012.)


 

Stone Standers

Towards the close of he Heian period (794-1185; see The Ancient or Classic Age), a new class of garden designers began to make its presence felt: the ishitatesō (石立て僧 “stone-standing priests”). Derived from ishi-wo-tatsu (石を立つ “to stand rocks upright”), and dating from the mid to late Heian period, the term referred to priests of the tenth to fifteenth centuries who designed and physically constructed gardens. Although the ishitatesō are mentioned in the Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making), it was not until the early fifteenth century that they really gained ascendancy over estate workers and manual laborers as unrivaled professional gardeners. This shift in status was due to their intimate knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, which was enjoying a renaissance of sorts in garden design with the rise in popularity of Zen Buddhism. Interestingly, these gardener-priests, usually came from the middle or lower ranks of the clergy because of the stigma attached to working closely with soil, and they were often members of the esoteric Shingon (真言) sect of Buddhism, particularly from Ninna-ji, the head temple of the Omura branch. Consequently, prejudice from other Buddhist priests as well as by the aristocracy was so prevalent that one Shingon monk wrote of Musō Sōseki (夢窓疎石 1275-1351; see Designing Men), arguably the greatest of the ishitatesō, “This incomparable Zen master Soseki, in spending his time planting flowers and trees, debased himself as a religious figure.”

The Sakuteiki refers to two early gardener-priests by name: En’en-Ajari (延円阿闍梨 see Designing Men) and Renchū (蓮仲). Little is known about Renchū other than what is mentioned in the Sakuteiki, but it appears that he fell out of favor after committing a taboo (kinki 禁忌) in one of his garden designs: “Even at the Tōhoku-in Palace, among the garden stones set by the priest Renchū, has not a taboo been violated?” The Senzui-narabini-yagyō-no-zu (山水並びに野行の図 An Illustrated Manual of Forms of Mountain, Water and Field Landscapes) mentions two more of these priests by name – Hoin no Joi (kanji unknown) and Soen (kanji unknown) – although, once again, little is known about them. There is some evidence that suggests that some of these priests may have been itinerant, trading their skills for patronage wherever it could be obtained, and during the Medieval Age (1185 – 1568), the term broadened to include priests of all Zen sects who were involved in the physical construction of gardens. That these men were primarily priests reflects the nature of the commissions from emperors, nobles, samurai and temples: Elaborate estate gardens that were principally Buddhist in conception and design.

 

River Folk

These laborers breathed new life into the art of the garden, which was becoming sclerotic through secular repetition, and, under the sign of Zen, they took the genre of the rock garden to its greatest heights. – François Berthier

The ishitatesō (石立て僧) drew the manual labor they needed to assist them with heavy, dirty, or less glamorous tasks of garden manufacture from the kawaramono (河原者 “dry river people”). A pejorative connotation was attached to the term kawaramono because these people lived principally along the banks of the Kamogawa River in Kyoto, real estate that was not highly desirable for reasons of health and sanitation. Other tasks performed by this underclass included execution, butchering animals, and tanning leathers, all of which required a constant supply of running water. However, such activities were also considered inappropriate and unclean according to Buddhist and Shinto beliefs.

Among other gardening tasks, we know that the kawaramono were charged with selecting appropriate trees for the imperial palace. There is evidence that they also sought out, transported, and erected rocks and trees throughout the Kyoto region. François Berthier speculates what happened next: “… under the instructions of the monks, they had to dig ponds, make small hills, position rocks, and plant trees. In this way they were initiated into the art of the garden and became true experts who eventually supplanted their masters.”

As their skills and knowledge increased with practice, they gained recognition as professionals from the Ashikaga shoguns, and the prefix senzui (山水 “mountains and water”) was added to their appellation sometime during the later part of the Kamakura period (1185-1333; see The Medieval Age). The senzui-kawaramono (山水河原者) held sway as professional gardeners throughout the Muromachi period (1338-1568) and into the early Tokugawa period (1668-1912; see The Early Modern Age). Regardless of their professional abilities, however, they continued to be subject to daily discrimination and humiliations such as being required to kneel while speaking to people of higher rank.

Perhaps the most famous of the senzui-kawaramono were Kotarō (小太郎) and Hikojirō (彦二郎), who flourished around the middle of the Muromachi period (see “Graffiti Artists” below). Two other Muromachi-period garden designers and builders belonging to the kawaramono class are Zen’ami (善阿弥; 1386 – 1482) and Saburō. The suffix –ami (阿弥) indicates that Zen’ami, a protégé of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (足利義政 1435-1490), was from the Jishu school of Buddhism, founded by Ippen Shonin, and was therefore considered a dōbōshū (同朋衆; see “Arbiters of Taste” in Designing Men), or connoisseur. He is credited with the construction of Ginkaku-ji garden for Ashikaga Yoshimasa, and died in his nineties a highly respected man among the power elite. “This man,” adds François Berthier, “– who was called ‘an artist without equal’ and of whom it was said that he was ‘foremost under heaven… in the planting of trees and the placing of rocks’ – opened the way for a new generation of garden makers and helped to improve the lot of his disenfranchised comrades.”

Saburō was responsible for Daisen-in’s famous dry landscape garden surrounding the abbot’s quarters. Certainly, he was mentioned on an ancient plaque in the temple grounds as having proposed a “planned area of sea and rocks at the beginning of the sixteenth century”.

The last kawaramono to be named in official records is Kentei (賢庭), a highly respected garden designer who worked under Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州 1579-1647) at Konchi-in, a sub-temple of Nanzen-ji, in 1628. He is also credited with work on Sampō-in, and other famous gardens of the Momoyama period (1568-1603) such as Ninomaru at Nijō-jō.

 

Graffiti Artists

Kotarō (小太郎) is one of the possible creative forces behind in the famous dry landscape arrangement at Ryōan-ji. The composition is presumed to date from the 1488 reconstruction of the garden, and was almost certainly completed prior to 1500. Kotarō’s name is carved into the back of the main granite rock in the second grouping from the east (left). A second name is also carved into the rock, although the first kanji of this name is severely weathered and illegible. What is known for certain are the second and third kanji, which read –jirō (二郎). The name is usually rendered as either Hikojirō (彦二郎) or Seijirō (清二郎). A certain Hikojirō is known to have worked on the garden of Shōsenken at Shōkoku-ji in 1490, and the name Kotarō is mentioned in a text dating from 1491 as being attached to a Buddhist temple. This Kotarō went to gather moss for the garden of Shōsenken, at Shōkoku-ji, and François Berthier believes him to be the same individual. It is assumed by a number of scholars that Kotarō and Hikojirō, both from the senzui-kawaramono (山水河原者) class, had something to do with either the design or the physical construction of the Ryōan-ji arrangement. That neither of their names appears in official Ryōan-ji records might have more to do with their low social status. However, the carving of names into the back of rocks to identify either the designer or the builder of a configuration was not common practice during the Muromachi period (1338-1573), making these two quite possibly the most famous graffiti artists in Japanese garden history!

 

The Pros

The gardeners are the custodians of the remarkable balance between nature – with its cycles, seasons, life and death – and the will and creativity of human beings – Jake Hobson

A volunteer gardener wearing traditional garb, Shisen-dō, Kyoto

A volunteer gardener wearing traditional garb, Shisen-dō, Kyoto



The term uekiya (植木屋 “planted tree dealers”) dates from the Tokugawa period (1603-1868; see The Early Modern Age), although it is still in use today. It refers to the class of professional landscape architects and garden constructors that arose during the Muromachi and Momoyama periods (1338-1573; 1568-1603; see The Medieval Age), and, given the kanji, it is likely that these persons were originally only tree planters or horticulturists. Unlike the ishitatesō (石立て僧), uekiya were not priests, nor were they menial laborers like many of the kawaramono (河原者); they were professionals who made a living through the design, construction and maintenance of gardens both great and small. In other words, they were contracted not only by the daimyo, but also by the chōnin (町人), or townspeople, and Günter Nitschke implies that uekiya represent the commercialization of garden design, as opposed to the freer, more creative spirit that characterized the niwashi (庭師; see next paragraph). Routine seasonal work in nurseries includes growing specimens from seed, grafting, planting, potting, training, pruning, and, root-balling, but may also involve transporting and replanting specimens in their final destinations. Particularly fine specimens from existing gardens that are about to be cleared may also be dug up, root-balled, and temporarily planted at nurseries until new homes are found.

Gardeners painstakingly clearing the drainage ditches either side of the sandō (参道) at Hachiman-gū, Kamakura. The cobbles are pulled out one by one, individually wiped clean of rotten leaves and debris, then replaced.

Gardeners painstakingly clearing the drainage ditches either side of the sandō (参道) at Hachiman-gū, Kamakura. The cobbles are pulled out one by one, individually wiped clean of rotten leaves and debris, then replaced.



Another term came into use in the later half of the Tokugawa period and the early Meiji period (1868-1912): the niwashi (庭師 “garden teachers”), or “garden experts”. By the middle of the Taisho period (1912-1926; see The Early Modern Age), these individuals were the kings of their profession, having received both formal education and training and secret orally-transmitted traditions (see Preserving the Craft). As professionals, they were paid to design, build and maintain gardens, and, in some cases, they even provided raw materials such as rocks, trees, shrubs, and carved stone artifacts. Günter Nitschke associates the niwashi with the chōnin, who had disposable income and leisure in sufficient quantities to create gardens of their own during the Tokugawa period. However, Marc Keane cites the first use of the term in the Nihon-kokugo-daijiten (日本国語大辞典 Shogakukan’s Japanese Dictionary) by the poet Kunikida Doppo (國木田獨歩 1871-1908) during the Meiji period.

Niwashi preparing pines for the winter, Rikugi-en. Tokyo

Niwashi preparing pines for the winter, Rikugi-en. Tokyo


Today, the term niwashi is preferred for those who work within large estate or public gardens, either building or maintaining them, and uekiya for those who work in nurseries, growing and forming the plants. In reality, however, these boundaries often blur into one another

Today, the term niwashi is preferred for those who work within large estate or public gardens, either building or maintaining them, and uekiya for those who work in nurseries, growing and forming the plants. In reality, however, these boundaries often blur into one another.

A number of other terms also came into fashion during the Tokugawa period as the division within the ranks of the professional gardeners took place:

  • geika (芸家; alt kako かこ): The professionals who grew plant, and specialized in geishoku (芸植 “horticulture”; alt. shugei 手芸, jugei).
  • engeika (園芸家): A contemporary term for gardening as a craft or profession is engei (園芸 “garden art”), although it can also refer to horticulture in general. An engeika is a gardener or a horticulturalist.

 

 

Tools of the Trade

Traditional tools of the gardening trade (dōgu 道具) have remained remarkably constant since the Heian period (794-1185; see The Ancient or Classic Age). Most are crafted from wood and hand-forged iron, although the introduction of advanced metal-working techniques has significantly improved the precision and use of cutting tools.

A pair of jika-tabi, with articulated big toes

A pair of jika-tabi, with articulated big toes



Today, gardening attire is professional, form-fitting, and functional. However, footwear is unique, and deserves comment. Traditional working boots, known as jika-tabi (地下足袋; tabi 足袋), are made of thick cotton reinforced with soft, flexible rubber soles, and differ from western boots not only in material, but also in having separate big toe pockets. These tabi allow gardeners to climb high into tree canopies without slipping or damaging vulnerable branches, bark or moss. Protective sleeves (ude-kaba 腕カバー “arm covers”) are sometimes pulled over the forearms to protect against scratching and tree sap or resin, particularly while pruning pines, and pruning tools are often holstered on a belt. During the hottest summer months, hats are worn to screen faces and necks. Light gloves may also be worn.

A hand-held bamboo brush.

A hand-held bamboo brush.



Moving and setting rocks was traditionally accomplished using human muscle, an assortment of pry-bars (tekobō テコ棒), and capstans or windlasses (shachi 車地). These latter were driven by series of blocks or pulleys (semi-guruma せみ車) attached to tree trunks, stout pegs, or tripods erected over the rocks in question. Often, soil around rocks would be tamped using wooden wedge-shaped tampers known as tataki (叩き).

An archive photograph showing men moving and raising a mature tree using windlass (shachi 車地) and pulleys (semi-guruma せみ車) during the construction of the extensive grounds surrounding Meiji-jingū Shrine, Tokyo, between 1915 and 1921. (Photograph of a photograph on display along the approach the main shrine complex.)

An archive photograph showing men moving and raising a mature tree using windlass (shachi 車地) and pulleys (semi-guruma せみ車) during the construction of the extensive grounds surrounding Meiji-jingū Shrine, Tokyo, between 1915 and 1921. (Photograph of a photograph on display along the approach to the main shrine complex, June 2012.)


Tamping soil around a stone pillar using a tataki, author’s garden.

Tamping soil around a stone pillar using a tataki, author’s garden.



For flattening larger areas, gardeners resorted to the tako (たこ), or “octopus”, so named because larger specimens were fashioned from sizable tree trunks or stumps and were manipulated by a number of men gathering an “arm” of rope each and bodily lifting the heavy wooden tamper and letting it fall to earth in one uniform motion. Flat garden trowels known collectively as niwa-kote (庭鏝, 庭鐺) were once used for heavy earthwork and general garden construction. Today, of course, most rock and soil work is accomplished using hydraulic machinery, although tripod pulleys and “two-armed” tako are still used for smaller jobs, and western-style spades have replaced niwa-kote.

A “two-armed” tako, or octopus, in use, author’s garden.

A “two-armed” tako, or octopus, in use, author’s garden.


A saw-toothed weeding tool.

A saw-toothed weeding tool.



Pruning and shaping niwaki (庭木 “garden trees”) is an art in itself, and a vast array of tools for various specific tasks exist. Please refer to [chapter & subsection needed] for a fuller exploration of pruning. For the sake of convenience, pruning tools can be divided into three broad categories: Heavy-duty root or branch tools; topiary tools, and general pruning tools.

Long-handled pruning saws (tsuki-basami 月鋏 “[crescent] moon scissors”) and heavy-duty pruning saws of varying sizes (nokogiri 鋸 “saw”) are used to take off limbs and large branches. The heavy duty nebiki-nokogiri (根引き鋸 “root-reducing saw”) is brought to bear on stubborn tree roots. Cleaver-like hatchets (nata 鉈) are the favored tool for clearing away unwanted plant material and undergrowth.

Topiary work is done either with long, two-handed pruning shears (karikomi-basami 刈込み鋏 “karikomi scissors”), or one-handed, spring-action shears (hakari-basami 葉刈り鋏 “leaf-cutting scissors”). Karikomi-basami are designed to cut through old wood, whereas hakari-basami cut through new leaf growth only. Very fine work such as budding pines and conifers is done with mekiri-basami (芽切り鋏 “bud-cutting scissors”), which have spring-action needle-nosed blades. Regular pruning work calls for ueki-basami (植木鋏 “planted tree scissors”; alt. kibasami 木鋏 “tree scissors”; hasami 鋏 “scissors”; te-basami 手鋏 “hand scissors”; sentei-basami 剪定鋏 “pruning scissors”). These traditional garden scissors come in a range of sizes depending on the intricacy of the job at hand, although they differ from secateurs in that the do not use a spring to open the blades, which are typically hand-crafted from steel.Pruning tools are cleaned and sharpened regularly, and their blades are protected from the elements using tsubaki-yu (椿油 “camellia oil”).

A kyatatsu, or three-legged ladder, author’s garden.

A kyatatsu, or three-legged ladder, author’s garden.



High branches are accessed using tripod ladders called kyatatsu (脚立). Once crafted from bamboo, these ubiquitous aluminum tripod ladders are used for everything from thinning and pruning to ornate topiary work. The three legs are extremely stable, with horizontal steps gradually tapering towards an apex, and the rear leg adjustable to accommodate varying terrain, rock-work, or steps. The feet are sometimes spiked to increase purchase on wet or slippery terrain, and elaborate platforms are sometimes formed around trees or into the water of ponds or streams by creating scaffolds from several ladders and gangplanks lashed together.

A large wooden mallet (kakezuchi) used for driving fence posts, author’s garden.

A large wooden mallet (kakezuchi) used for driving fence posts, author’s garden.



Constructing fences requires various saws (nokogiri 鋸), and large wooden mallets (kakezuchi 掛槌) for driving in posts and pegs. The irregularly curved surfaces of posts are copied for marking and cutting bamboo slats using an ataritori (あたりとり), or profile gauge. Traditionally, it was fashioned from fine strips of bamboo set in a comb-like frame, although stainless steel is used today. Fence beams were leveled in the past using a mizuhakari (水準; alt. mizubakari 水ばかり). This water-level consisted of a long, low, wooden trough with shallow sides hung beneath a tautly-drawn string, which was adjusted until it ran parallel to the surface of the water. Although primitive, the mizuhakari was incredibly accurate, and the technology was likely an import from China around the sixth century. A similar device was constructed from a thick bamboo split precisely in half and filled with water. These devices have long since been superseded by spirit levels.

Tools for slitting bamboo: a thick blade; a splitter for bamboo quarters; a wooden mallet (author’s garden).

Tools for slitting bamboo: a thick blade; a splitter for bamboo quarters; a wooden mallet (author’s garden).

 


Bibliographical Notes

Of course, all gardens across the world depend to some extent on the human input of gardeners and growers… Hobson, J. (2007). Niwaki: Pruning, training and shaping trees the Japanese way. Portland & London: Timber Press; p. 125.

But one night a late autumn gale blew violently and scattered the leaves everywhere… Sadler, A. L., trans. (1972). The ten foot square hut and tales of the Heike: Being two thirteenth-century Japanese classics, the “Hojoki” and selections from the “Heike Monogatari”. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 92.

Kenkō comments, “This man belonged to the lowest class…” Keene, D., trans. (1981). Essays in idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 93.

“This incomparable Zen master Soseki, in spending his time planting flowers and trees, debased himself as a religious figure”… Cited in Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the rocks: The Japanese landscape garden. Translated and with a Philosophical Essay by Graham Parkes. Chicago & London: U of Chicago P; p. 53.

“Even at the Tōhoku-in Palace, among the garden stones set by the priest Renchū, has not a taboo been violated?”… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; pp. 195, 32.

These laborers breathed new life into the art of the garden… Berthier, F. (2000); p. [57]).

“… under the instructions of the monks, they had to dig ponds…” Berthier, F. (2000); p. 55.

“This man,” adds François Berthier… Berthier, F. (2000); p. 58.

Certainly, he was mentioned on an ancient plaque in the temple grounds… Berthier, F. (2000); p. 66.

A certain Hikojirō is known to have worked on the garden of Shōsenken… Berthier, F. (2000); pp. 50-1.

The gardeners are the custodians of the remarkable balance between nature… Hobson, J. (2007); p.132.

and Günter Nitschke implies that uekiya represent the commercialization… Nitschke, G. (1993). Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen; p. 205.

Günter Nitschke associates the niwashi with the chōnin… Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 205.

However, Marc Keane cites the first use of the term... Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 165, n.*8.


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