Garden Master and Renaissance Man


A chat with master gardener Nobuyuki HIRAKI:  "I was born in southern Kyushu and studied landscape design at university.  The course was mainly theoretical, so I was happy when my professor invited my Shisho (master), an accomplished Kyoto garden master, to give us practical instruction.  He invited me to work for him during summer vacation in Osaka.  It was a very difficult summer.  My Shisho was an extraordinarily strict person to work for.  He placed a tremendous emphasis on basics.  After summer ended and I returned to school, I often reflected on the value I received from working for such a masterful man.

Mr. Hiraki - Master Garden designer

“After finishing university, I apprenticed with my Shisho and was trained in all aspects of this work—esthetic pruning, bamboo fence building, tea house repair. In other words, all technical aspects of garden building.  For the first 5 years, I was able to accept anything my Shisho told me.  After that I began to develop some awareness of who I was in terms of the craft.  Then after 7 years, I felt like I was coming into my own and developed a sense of myself professionally.  By that time, the difference in skill level between master and apprentice is not that great.  It is a time when one begins to fight and argue within oneself—to re-think, to analyze, to question.  Until that time, I only saw things from the very narrow viewpoint of an apprentice.  But my view had become gradually wider.  In that way, my ego, my professional sense of self became stronger.

Mr. Hiraki - Master Garden designer

"Many people leave their apprenticeships at this point.  They think that they have 'made it.'  It is a big mistake.  The master-apprentice relationship is very close, like a father and son living in the same house—sleeping on opposite sides of paper fusuma doors.  The master may not only comment and advise the apprentice on his work, but also his private life.  This was easy to take during the early years, but got more difficult as time passed. Living and working in Kyoto made it easier to stick out the long and intense apprenticeship.  I visited all of the great Japanese gardens, like Katsura Rikyu, Nijo Castle and so many more.  The priests at Tenryuji Monastery where we worked were also very helpful with advice.  It was a very supportive atmosphere.

"On the other hand, I was looking forward to a long collaboration with my Shisho, and was greatly shocked when he died quite suddenly about 14 years ago.  Since then I have run the operation for my Shisho’s family.  I was able to continue to grow in this work because of the path laid down by my Shisho, including the techniques and opportunities he created.  It was a great honor to be asked to design a new garden here at Tenryuji.  I was chosen based on having been tested many times over a long period of time.  It was a test of intention, patience, skill and perseverance.

"A garden designer needs to have a strong sense of self.  When the client wants something that is wrong, I have responsibility to stand up for what I believe, to point out the truth.  Just like any work of art, if it is not done right, it can be an embarrassment for all concerned.   Clients and designers need to fiercely give their opinions.  It is a kind of fight.  But the designer must be fully trained in order to do that.

"In addition to my apprenticeship, I studied flower arrangement and tea ceremony for 10 years each.  I also studied calligraphy.  In tea, we discuss architectural settings and focus on an  enormous variety of tea implements made from ceramics, bronze, bamboo and also learn food presentation.  I was able to meet people from various professions and broaden my perspective through this network of fellow tea students. Each time I arrange flowers, the vase, the season and the flower varieties themselves are different.  It allows me to create works of art, over and over, based on good design principles.  Unlike a garden design which takes a long time to put in place, a flower arrangement is a work of art that can be done in a few minutes.

"I remember an interesting story.  I was late getting to my tea lesson one day, and I did not have time to change into clean clothes.  I arrived at my teacher’s house in my clothes that were soiled from garden work.  I had intended on simply apologizing to the teacher and then leaving.  However, the tea teacher insisted that I stay and practice tea.  'Soiled clothes from garden work are not dirty,' she said with conviction and an enthusiastic smile on her face.  'By all means, come in and practice tea.'"

In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld

© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld

Tagged on: ,

7 thoughts on “Garden Master and Renaissance Man

  1. Rob Coffland

    This both a lovely and very illustrative posting. The master apprentice relationship was very hard at first for me to understand. When I first heard older bamboo artists talk about their traditional apprenticeships, they seemed exploitative. Through time, further study, and reflection, I am now sad this opportunity no longer exists for aspiring bamboo artists. There are many ways to learn, and this path is no less valid. It is a question of the personality of the individual. I hope Hiraki-san will some day find an serious apprentice.

  2. Marjorie Eaton

    Stunning! Simply Stunning to read and see Steve. As you know, I love gardens, working in them, visiting them, floral arranging, tea ceremonies. This is the first I am reading in depth from a male point of view of a master-in-training willing to go all the way with his “Shisho”! Reminds me of J-R and John. I am humbled in great gardens they are crafted by master artists.
    I love your blog, this is such a great service for everyone around the world to read and enjoy of Japan. God bless you Steve.

  3. Warren Poland

    These postings are themselves wonderful works of art, a cumulative modern version of the described tea ceremonies or gardens themselves, ordinary daily functions transformed into moments of refined emotional engagement. Neither forced nor fancy, they have come to life as wabi sabi blog. When I read them, I am briefly transported from my desk and computer to moments in Japan, for which I, like others, give thanks to Steve-sensi, the master guide.

  4. Art Apprenticeships

    I really enjoy reading “Behind Paper Doors–a series about remarkable people in Kyoto.” Interview with Hiraki-san: Garden Master and Renaissance Man « Steve Beimel . It’s very interesting. Hope you will post something like this again.