The Tiniest Garden – A Mini Comic in the Making

There are many ways to tell a story. I’ve been working on the story of my 90 days in Kyoto on and off for the last few years, stalling and starting again and again. Maybe there is a different way to get my experience across?

In my time in Japan I discovered manga as a reader. Especially slice-of-life manga like Yamazaki Mari’s travelogues about her months or years spent in foreign places inspired me. There is also a plethora of books with short manga episodes about topics like Feng-Shui, Japanese History, cleaning your apartment (most notably the KonMari Manga), taking care of your finances, owning a cat. In Japanese, this format is called Manga Essay and many of these are aimed at women between 25 and 45. So I am right there in the target group.

Browsing the shelves of the local Book-Off, I discovered this manga essay written by Mafune Kyoko, a female graduate of the Kyoto University of Arts, who discovered her love to Buddha statues and Buddhist sculptures. In short chapters she describes her trips to temples and the statues she sees there, explaining along the way the basic and finer points of Buddhist sculpture appreciation.

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If something like that could be created for Japanese Gardens? I had this idea early on, but while I knew how to write, I was not confident in my drawing skills. However, like a bubble, the idea popped back up again and again. And since my writing was going slow,  I figured a new approach to the subject, a new medium, could rekindle the fire.  So I started creating a short four page, 16 panel comic with the help of a Coursera course on making comics. It is about how my friend from work Kobayashi and his friend Ikeda built a tiny mountain stream garden in a the vegan Ramen restaurant Mamezen.

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Here I am, in the middle of inking and I will keep you posted about my progress.



Mamezen Restaurant (website, Google Maps)

Yamazaki Mari (Wikipedia, Travel Books)

Mafune Kyoko (Butsuzou ni koishite, manga about Buddhist Sculptures)

Making Comics (Coursera course and website by Patrick Yurick)






Day Zero – Why am I on this plane?

Today, I opened my diary for the first time since I returned from Japan 11 weeks ago. It helped me to travel back in time and although I don’t recall a lot of details of the flight, I can certainly feel how I felt then and there.

Notebook 1.2

So now I am sitting on the plane, the engines are running and we are literally in… the… air… now. […]

As I blow into the nozzle of my inflatable travel pillow, I am asking myself what I am doing here. It won’t be the last time. The honest answer is: I don’t know.

It is a sunny SF morning, the SF bay is blue & beautiful… I see a container ship, emtpy. San Mateo Bridge.

Anyway, this time I am less excited than usually when travelling to Japan. Why? It is a big thing! It is my dream come true. Or what I think my dream is.

All I knew is that it would be a different world. And it began with a feeling I’ve never had before:

Notebook 2

This feels like a real journey, like real travelling. It is a journey, a path and I don’t know what to expect. All I can do is take the next step. And another one.

I’d like to think that the medieval garden designer and Zen monk Muso Soseki (夢窓疎石, 1275-1351) is likely to have felt the same way before leaving on one of his many foot pilgrimages through the forests and back roads of Japan.

You can read more about him in the book “A Zen Life in Nature” by Andrew Keir Davidson. I highly recommend it, I think it is one of the best books about medieval Japan.

Onigawara – Japanese roof tiles at Toji-in temple in Kyoto

When I left the temple, I saw a lot of Japanese roof tiles (kawara 瓦), ornamental end pieces and ogre tiles called onigawara (鬼瓦) arranged on the ground under a tree. The temple just underwent major restoration work and the tiles were probably stored/exhibited there.

The first thing that caught my eye was a row of neatly arranged roof end tiles with a typical Japanese ornament. These symbols are called Kamon (家紋) – emblems used by a family, a temple or an individual, much like a family crest in the western world. This one is made up of three comma shapes that move clockwise to form a circle. It is called Mitsu-domoe (三つ巴) or tokeimawari mitsu domoe (時計回り三つ巴).

I am sure they were arranged to resemble a group of seven Jizo statues, which can also be found around temples, shrines and on the roadside and along hiking paths. They are the guardians of young children and travellers. Read more about Jizo or, politely, O-Jizo-Sama in this wikipedia article.

Japanese Kawara tile end pieces

These seven roof tile end pieces are arranged to look like Jizo (地蔵) figures or tiny stone Buddha statues.


After I began to take pictures of the tiles, I discovered this fantastic creature: A turtle with what looked like the head of a cat or dragon and a long hairy tail. I researched the subject with the most absurd google search terms until I found out that we are talking about a bushy-tail turtle or Minogame (蓑亀 – literally “straw raincoat turtle”).

Bushy-tail turtles are so old, seaweed has started to grow on their shell like hair, making them look bushy-tailed.

Turtles are auspicious and often depicted alongside cranes (tsuru) or carps (koi). They are said to get 10,000 years old and are therefore a symbol for good luck, longevity and felicity. They visit and support people who they deem virtuous and compassionate.

A grim looking bushy-tail turtle (蓑亀 minogame) with the face of a dragon is an auspicious symbol of longevity.

A grim looking bushy-tail turtle (蓑亀 minogame) with the face of a dragon is an auspicious symbol of longevity.

Two personal stories:

A Japanese friend of mine told that one day, when she was a little girl, a giant turtle visited her in the garden near their house door. Her mom wanted to keep the turtle, since it is a bringer of good luck. Somehow the turtle left, but had not been seen in the neighborhood. I can say that my friend is very compassionate and virtuous, so I think the it was not a coincidence that the turtle chose her.

One of the monks of the temple I worked at most of the days (Kodai-ji) has a turtle that is nearly as old as he is. He is still pretty young, though, around 32 years. The turtle is usually kept near our tool shed, but he flees sometimes to the big pond. However, since he never learnt to feed himself, one of the gardeners has to go catch it and bring it back to its water basin. Catching it is easy: Just waved a box of turtle food near the edge of the pond and the turtle will surface really fast.

Comment of the monk: 「馬鹿だから。。。」”Because he’s really stupid”. I still laugh when I think of this episode.

I found one great youtube channel during my research: Japan Antique Roadshow . This is the link to the episode about a bushy-tail turtle roof tile. I will watch more of their clips about Japanese antiques as they are very informative, yet short & sweet.

Grumpy Dumpty – Daruma paintings at Toji-in (等持院) in Kyoto

The first thing you see when after you take off your shoes at Toji-in temple is a huge daruma painting at the end of a long wooden corridor. The comical rendition of a seemingly grumpy Bhodidharma, with eyes wide open, surprises and and reliefs some of the heavy, solemn atmosphere one expects when entering a temple. The high contrast of white, red and black certainly made an impression on my the first time I visited the temple in 2012. This time, I was looking forward to see the Daruma again.

The Japanese call the legendary Buddhist monk Daruma (達磨 or だるま) after the Indian short form Dharma for Bodhidharma. He is attributed to have brought Ch’an Buddhism from India to China in the 5th or 6th century BC. Ch’an will later make its way to Japan and be known as Zen.

The most famous Daruma painting in the main hall way of Toji-in.

The most famous Daruma painting in the main hall way of Toji-in.

Why the round eyes?

There are many legends around this religious figure. He is especially famous for sitting 9 years in meditation, facing a wall. Daruma was well into his 7th year of sitting, when he got tired and fell asleep. When he awoke, he was mad and dissappointed that he fell asleep – so he cut of his eyelids, so this could never happen again.

Legend goes that shoots of a tea plant grew where his eyelids touched the ground – since that time monks drink green tea to stay energized and awake during meditation. Read more about the life of the first Zen monk on wikipedia.

Day 1 Daruma 3

I found more daruma paintings in the different rooms of the temple – it was like searching for easter eggs.
Apropos egg: Daruma dolls are very popular in Japan. They are little egg-shaped tumbler toys, mostly depicting him without his legs. Another side-effect of sitting through a 9-year-long meditation, is that your legs fall off due to atrophy. I think everyone who sat in Seiza (正座), the typical Japanese meditation pose, for only 20 minutes can feel his pain…

Day 1 Daruma 2

Day 1 Daruma 4

Daruma inception:
Day 1 Daruma 5

The last Daruma in the temple is also the first one – a small photograph of the big Daruma in a reception room near the entrance/exit. I wasn’t aware of the picture when I entered the temple, but the easter egg hunt was… dare I say… a real eyeopener.

Day 1 – Simple flower arrangement at Toji-in (等持院)

A simple flower arrangement in a reception room near the entrance of Toji-in temple (等持院)

A simple flower arrangement in a reception room near the entrance of Toji-in temple (等持院)

Day 1 – Texture

Japanese work days start early – very early. By 7:15 usually all the trucks have left the company and are on the way to the genba (現場 – another word that is not easily translated – it means scene, site, the place where stuff happens – in other terms: construction site for gardens). I arrived at 8 and missed Oyakata (親方 – the master), but his wife welcomed me and begged me in for tea. After introducing myself and answering questions about my life, I was told that one of the company’s employees would pick me up around noon. Oyakata’s wife recommended that I visit the nearby Toji-in. I had been to this garden before, and it is one of the gardens that have a special place in my heart. I took one of my favorite shots there, which became the title image of my first PechaKucha presentation in 2012.

I will write more about Toji-in later, but wanted to share this one picture of the temple’s wooden structure with you. It probably is the wooden structure of aged cedar that made me fall in love with Japanese architecture and gardens. And I remember taking this picture and thinking: I am happy to be back.

Charred wood (焼杉板Yakisugi-ita) at Toji-in temple in Kyoto (等持院)

Charred wood (焼杉板Yakisugi-ita) at Toji-in temple in Kyoto (等持院)

See what else I did on my first weekend in Kyoto: Day 1-3 Sakura paradise Kyoto


Day Zero – The Kyoto adventure begins (with the help of time travel)

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After you returned from a vacation, have you ever let your packed suitcase sit for a few days? I do that all the time. I do it so I can enjoy the lingering fragrance of a foreign country a bit longer. If I just unpacked the suitcase immediately, it would feel as if the journey never happened, right?

Well, it’s been four weeks since I returned from my 90 days in Japan. I unpacked my suitcase by now, but haven’t touched the more valuable souvenirs yet: the pictures and diaries. Upon my arrival in SF, I decided not to sort my photos or read my notes for a while. I wanted to let all the impressions settle and look at them with a fresh eye when I feel ready for it.

So, the time has come and yesterday I finally began to dig through my pictures, put them in different folders and label them correctly with the names of the places I visited.

Due to the heavy workload during my training, I had little time to post about all the things I learned and experienced. So, from today on, I will post the highlights (and lowlights) of my adventures of a Japanese garden apprenticeship – starting at Day Zero.

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On Day Zero I arrived at Kansai International Airport late at night and took the taxi shuttle to Kyoto. Using a taxi shuttle is one of the more comfortable ways to get from KIX to Kyoto City, especially with bulky luggage. I stayed at Mamezen, Yonekawa-san’s house and Ramen shop in Kyoto for the first night. I had met him a year earlier via couchsurfing and stayed at Mamezen for 3 nights. Entering the machiya (町家), a traditional Kyoto town house, I immediately felt at home. The space is so relaxing, even iyashi (癒し) – a typical Japanese word meaning comforting, soothing, calming. The word is also often used to describe gardens, spaces (癒し空間) and music, voices. The perfect place to start my adventure, a base camp; a space where I can (and will) come back to when I want to see a friendly face and eat very good & unique Kyoto ramen.

I slept very well and rose early the next morning for aisatsu – (挨拶) to present myself to the garden master and everyone in the company. The adventure begins!

A framed postcard at Mamezen - まわり道でもいいと思うんです。自分がほんとうに好きで選んだ道ならば。Making a detour is good - as long as you chose the way because you liked it.

A framed postcard at Mamezen – まわり道でもいいと思うんです。自分がほんとうに好きで選んだ道ならば。Making a detour is good – as long as you chose the way because you liked it.


Travel forward in time and
… see what two gardener friends and I made of Mamezen’s garden: Day 89 – Kyoto has a new garden
… see how we made decisions while building the garden: Day 73 – Making decisions and building gardens
Travel back in time and
… see how I let go of expectations in preparation for this trip: No expectations