Since I first went to Japan, in the autumn of 1976, there has been a part of my brain (on the right, I imagine) that manages to keep a sort of focus I learned on that visit. I went when I was writing my most ambitious book, The Principles of Gardening. The uber-pretentious title was not my idea, but it made me reflect: English gardening ideas are virtually unchallenged in this country, and admired round the world, but do they constitute ‘principles’? I had already taken Arab, French, Dutch and Italian traditions into account (however summarily); what was missing was the Japanese (and indeed Chinese) view.
My right brain swims into action now and then when I am thinking about, or looking at, a garden, and reminds me that there is another vision; an alternative, more precise concept of gardening, with poetry at its heart and craftsmanship as its medium. It came into focus this morning when I was cleaning my shears – the single-handed kind used for trimming topiary. They come from the Dorset-based importer Niwaki, the word for garden trees, i.e. sculpted trees as opposed to natural ones. The French élague their trees remorselessly in something of the same spirit but without the artistry.
Jake Hobson, founder of Niwaki and probably England’s number one niwakist, has a simple message: KEEP THEM CLEAN. It’s the tools he’s talking about, not the trees. So I sit here, with wire-wool and 3 in 1 oil (Jake says camellia oil) scrubbing blades I have allowed to get disgracefully dirty. What reminded me to do it was an extraordinary exhibition at Japan House, a new showroom/shop near Kensington High Street Station, which is worth visiting at any time. In an exhibition of all sorts of tools downstairs they have a whole wall of scores of hoes forged by blacksmiths all over Japan, no two alike, designed or evolved for different local soils and crops. Can you imagine such a thing in this country, where there is only one design of spade? I can think of no better example of craftsmanship, practicality and precision.