Most visitors to Japan, and residents alike, are charmed by the serene beauty of traditional Japanese gardens. However, behind the seemingly effortless flow and intricate composition of the natural scenery hides labor of love.
We spoke with two foreigners who took traditional gardening apprenticeships in Japan. They started from scratch and learned the ropes over several years before getting into the “garden business” themselves.
Here are their stories.
Dominik Schmitz was born in Germany and raised in a small village in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. He came to Japan for the first time in 2003 to do a three-month internship in Kyoto in traditional Japanese garden culture.
“I vividly remember the first Japanese garden I saw in Kyoto. I was overwhelmed by the balanced beauty. Japanese gardens are man-made, yet they bring out the beauty of nature so impressively,” he recalls.
German artist and professor Heinrich Johann Radeloff, who had lived in Kyoto for 40 years, introduced Schmitz to Kyoto-based Ogawa Jihei, an 11th generation Japanese garden master at the Ueji company (Japanese) that has been in this business for 250 years.
“Without his mediation, this door would probably have remained closed to me because the traditional Japanese trust in en (chance and good connection),” Schmitz says.
Learning by doing
During his entire internship, he was asked to just sweep leaves with the bamboo broom and weed in the Japanese garden of a hotel in Kyoto. “All I wanted then was being shown how to cut trees and set stones, but in retrospect, I realized that this ‘simple’ work creates the connection to the garden,” he says.
“When guests came to the garden, we would move our workplace so that we were not to be seen. Decked out in traditional work clothing, complete with tenugui (hand towel) on the head and jikatabi (split-toed, rubber-soled work shoes) on the feet, we looked like ninjas,” he recalls.
He was trained in the traditional Japanese way: largely without explanations, hardly any talking during work, not asking many questions but just observing and copying.
“Summers in Kyoto are extremely hot and winters wet and cold, and the pressure to perform is very high.”
Subsequently, he passed an examination with the German Chamber of Agriculture—in his case with the Federal State Schleswig-Holstein—earning him the distinction of meister (master) gardener in Germany. This qualification is given after an accredited apprenticeship of three years followed by work experience of three years. He then returned to Japan to continue his mission.
When Schmitz finally started his own business in 2017, Dominik Zoen, there were hardly any customers. Luckily, two established gardening companies hired him as a helper during the initial independent work phase. Most of his jobs now are garden design and taking care of gardens at temples, hotels, and private gardens.
“During my training, I saw the enthusiasm for creating these gardens and how important maintenance is. When I work in a garden, I try to give visitors the same experience I had when I saw a Japanese garden for the first time. In most cases, it works well: the feedback from my clients and the ‘feedback’ from the gardens make me happy. These gardens give back so much!”
William, who hails from Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., also came to Japan to do an apprenticeship at a traditional Japanese garden company and directly learn from the Japanese masters.
He has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Colorado and 10 years of work experience as an apprentice of Martin Mosko—creating private Japanese gardens in places like Denver, Boulder and Aspen. He also briefly worked in Hawaii.
“Japanese society is very reference-based, and the traditional garden world involves practically no speaking of English. So to give myself time to learn Japanese and make connections, I taught English for the first three and a half years in Japan,” he recalls.
During the inbound boom before the coronavirus, his garden tour business, An Design, grew fast
Good fortune was on his side as one of his students had connections in the gardening world. She introduced William to Kyoto-based Ueyoshi Zouen, a company in business for around 300 years. There he was accepted for a two-year apprenticeship.
“I count myself as very lucky. How long a company has been in business gives them status. Kyoto is definitely, and by a fair margin, the Japanese garden capital of the world. There is no other place with the volume of garden history, masterpieces and masters,” he says.
Creative application of skills
After completing his apprenticeship, he set up his own company but securing work was not easy.
“I had very few of my own garden clients, so I was working exclusively as a subcontractor for a larger garden company. I would go with their crews about 3-4 days a week and perform maintenance in the private gardens of their clients.”
He started to create another revenue stream by combining working in the gardens with leading tours to Kyoto’s famous and lesser-known gardens. During the inbound boom before the coronavirus, his garden tour business, An Design, grew fast and so did his garden business, but differently from what he had imagined.
“My garden design projects actually started to come from my foreign tour guests, people who really liked my tours. They were interested in making a new Japanese garden or renovating the garden on their property,” he says. “I was scheduled to travel abroad to build one of these gardens when the pandemic put everything on hold.”
The coronavirus chance
Interestingly, this adversity brought a new opportunity again for William. He started leading online tours and experiences.
“I went virtual with the garden tour work I was doing and started creating videos of the gardens I would frequent on my walking tours. Then, I began to string these videos together and use them to tell the fascinating stories of these gardens,” he says.
“Before, I could only share Kyoto’s beauty and spiritual power with those who were lucky enough to make it here, but now my ability to connect with those interested in Kyoto and its many Japanese gardens is much greater.”
Both Schmitz and William were not shy to start from scratch in Japan and pursue their gardening dream despite numerous difficulties. With lucky connections and subsequent hard work, they are now in a position to pass on their passion for Japanese gardens, in place or online.
Do you dream of apprenticing with a master in Japan? Have a story like Andrew William or Dominik Schmitz? Let us know in the comments below!