What a fantastic afternoon it turned out to be visiting my friend Richard’s garden in Northern Kyoto recently. The garden is a jewel box of traditional design which despite its modest dimensions is lavish with magnificent stone features, an ornamental pond and three statuesque 70 year old black pine trees kuromatsu. Winter is one of the best times to do some pruning of pine trees and I had effected an introduction to my very good friend Kensaku Yamaguchi who is an independent professional gardener in Kyoto. Yamaguchi-san’s reputation as a garden craftsman has been on a mercurial rise since he started his business as a solo operator after an 8 year apprenticeship at one of the top traditional garden companies in Kyoto. I had the good fortune to collaborate with him on the execution of my first professional garden design commission in Kyoto for a colleague’s residence six months ago. With his well established contacts in the garden supplies world, it was an absolute delight to “go shopping” for such extravagances as a 6 meter high Japanese maple Acer palmatum as well as visiting stone quarries to select garden stones.
Today’s assignment at Richard’s garden was the very labor intensive and exacting work of pruning just one black pine tree. As there are three pine trees the entire job will take three days. For professional Japanese gardeners, pruning pine trees is the pinnacle of their craft. In a typically “feudal” long apprenticeship, the “Master” gardener or “parent” oyakata would only allow the most senior apprentice anywhere near cutting a pine, such is the esteem given to it as the most important plant specimen in any Japanese garden. It is a pleasure to watch Yamaguchi-san at work with his almost alchemical skill. The difference between the “just pruned” tree and the “about to be pruned” tree is patently obvious and yet having spent an entire day on shaping a 3 meter high specimen, the result is uncannily natural.
It is often said that a Japanese gardener’s skill lies in bringing out the “essence” of a tree. Therefore one needs to accentuate the particular sculptural qualities that are inherent in the almost “macro-bonsai” style black pines kuromatsu which are considered to be “masculine” in character given their rough textured craggy bark and sharp robust needle leaves. Specimen pines such as those in Richard’s garden ideally should be attended to twice a year. Once during the winter or dormant season for a “haircut” known traditionally as hamashiri or momiage. The main focus of this pruning technique is to remove all the old needles until there is just a handful left on each branch. The work is all done by hand as it is quicker and can be more easily controlled. Exactly the right amount of force must be applied to prevent the whole top of the branch snapping off. I notice that Yamaguchi san wears cotton gloves with the finger tips cut off so that he can maintain the necessary control but also prevent too much pine sap leaking onto his hands. Pruning pine trees always starts from the top of the tree and proceeds downwards. After hamashiri the tree’s bulk will become lighter so that the branches and trunk become sculptural highlights of the tree. Not only aesthetic, this “haircut” also discourages mold and the proliferation of insects, as well as allowing more sunlight to reach the lower branches and leaves of the tree.
While Yamaguchi-san likes the detailed challenge of this particular job, he confessed to me that when designing new “traditional” style gardens, he has a preference for using the black pine’s feminine counterpart the red pine akamatsu. With its softer appearance; smoother red bark and more feathery needle leaves, it is less “bonsai-like” in a sculptural sense and more “natural” looking in its growth habit. It is often thought to symbolize a mountain landscape and as it is slower growing requires less intensive pruning and maintenance.
The more formal gardens that feature black pines tend to be found in institutions like Zen temples. There is a definite recent trend for private home owners commissioning new Japanese gardens, to go for a look that emulates the natural forest hence the increased popularity of the red pine. This is a fascinating discussion about gardening that I am keen to continue without distracting Yamaguchi-san from the concentrated task at hand. I try to make myself useful by picking up all the small branches and leaves that have been judiciously clipped and have fallen onto the blue plastic tarpaulin that he has prepared under the tree. I smile as the scene is reminiscent of a hairdresser’s salon floor after a haircut.
After picking up two big garbage bags I am also thrilled to find two or three really interesting small branches that I request to take home for my next Ikebana creation. I have learned a lot this afternoon and as the sun falls in the sky, I don my much needed down jacket and head home.
The poetic phrase that describes this micro-season alludes to the “haze” or veil of mist kasumi that starts to appear on the mountains in early Spring due to increased moisture in the air. It is still very cold and the common expression at the moment is: “san-kan shi-on” or “three cold four hot”. The ancient’s also knew all about this as the phrase was first coined in China. Call me hypersensitive but it still feels extremely cold to me. Maybe the update 2021 version is “five cold two warm’.