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Book Review - Cutting Back: An Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto

As I’ve discovered in this journey of reading two books a month I’m drawn to real people sharing stories of their lives. Cutting Back; An Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto fits the bill!

Leslie Buck, born and raised in the United States, fulfilled a dream of hers to become an apprentice gardener in Japan. What I didn’t realize when I started reading was that some people specialize in pruning trees. Yes, they may do other garden chores but that is not the mainstay of their work. Leslie is one of those people. And in order to get an apprenticeship as a gardener in Japan she had to go to Japan and ask in person.

Leslie did not let the language or cultural differences deter her. In Japan traditional gardeners are treated with the respect given a brain surgeon in North America. And many of the gardens that Leslie worked in were hundreds of years old so she was terrified of making a mistake. In North America most of us don’t understand the complexity of pruning - including yours truly - and would think nothing of interrupting Leslie at work. Passers by in Japan, however, would make a wide circuit around the Japanese gardeners as a mark of respect while they worked.

There are many occupations in the world that are considered ‘a mans’ job. Leslie found it to be true of gardeners in Japan and worked three times as hard to keep up with her crew. In Japan the staff is expected at work early and based on their seniority in the company, i.e. the most junior person starts first and finishes last. The staff often stay late at work too, to the point where the crew becomes more your family than your biological family.

The most striking difference I found was in how an apprenticeship worked. In Japan an apprenticeship often lasted a lifetime. It was not a job but a preparation for being a craftsman and a way of life. The author, Leslie, recounts the story of asking a craftsman how long he had been studying ikebna the Japanese art of flower arranging. His response was, “Oh, not very long, only fifteen years. I’m just an amateur.”

Leslie writes in a voice that’s clear, descriptive, and often entertaining. I could feel transported while reading. For instance she says, “I had to remove my glove to get a good hold. The icy leaves clung to the dormant clump. I’d imagined meditatively raking sand in Japan. I hadn’t predicted that I’d be working on a decayed, freezing iris clump on the last day of December.” Brrr!

This story, on the surface, seems to be about Leslie’s time in Japan. But it also gives some insight into how the Japanese people view work, craftsmanship, and hierarchy. For Leslie it turns into self discovery which she shares because it’s applicable to all of us no matter where we are, or what we are doing. The most profound for me was the statement that said, “One cannot expect to find good teachers in Japan; an apprentice must instead be a good student.” You’ll have to read how that plays out for Leslie yourself though!!

I would recommend this book in a heartbeat. Great story, well written, and a bonus if you have any gardening interest. Check it out here!

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