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)






Dedication, Obession – what I learnt from SOMM

I spent the last weekend in Napa Valley, probably America’s most famous wine region. We met some wine enthusiasts, and they mentioned the documentary SOMM. It is about a group of four professional sommeliers who prepare for “the hardest test you’ve never heard of” to earn the Master Sommelier diploma, the highest ranking certificate a wine professional can obtain.

These guys are “maniacs” (quote of one guy’s wife), “some of the most dedicated, obsessed people” (quote of a master sommelier).

But see for yourself:

When I see how they study, how they immerse themselves with wine books, wine magazines, wine people and, of course, wine itself I feel relief and envy.

Relief – because I see that there are other people out there that have a similar passion for these things. Because I feel I am not alone with my interest for a niche subject. I see that it is OK to bury yourself in one field of study. To focus on only one thing – the ONE THING that matters to you.

Envy – because I wish I had friends here in California with whom I could share the passion and study together. One reason why I was happy in Kyoto was that I finally met people who loved studying Japanese gardens. We browsed second-hand bookstores together, spend money on books, special interest magazines and tools, and even in the few hours of our free days dedicated most of our time and energy to the subject. Having fellow passionistas around me helps me justify my own dedication to the subject – it is just easier if you are not alone.

However – until I meet these people here, I will connect to them by watching documentaries about them. About nerds and geeks and all those people who just do their thing. Every minute of every hour of every day.

Two other inspiring documentaries I recently watched. Documentaries about people who are obsessed:

Tim’s Vermeer



If you have more movie recommendation for me, please let me know in the comments!


Wax-on, Wax-off. Repeat until proficient in garden maintenance and/or Karate

Getting in the right mind set with Karate Kid. I watched this classic for the first time. My advice: Skip the first 15 minutes (Kid gets beaten up 3 times) and watch from where the fun begins.

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Wax-on, Wax-off. Repeat until proficient in garden maintenance and/or Karate.

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Mr. Miyagi is surprisingly funny. And I although I hear the words, I only understand half of what he wants to say, so that is a great preparation to the vagueness of the Japanese language.

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The only thing that bothered me is that Mr. Miyagi refers to Daniel as Daniel-san. An old Japanese man would never do that, especially not if the kid is the student. It would always be Daniel-kun.

Book review – A Guide to The Gardens of Kyoto

Guide to the gardens of Kyoto

A Japanese garden guide by Marc Treib and Ron Herman
Must-Have-Level: 6/7, I wouldn’t want to miss it on my desk or when out exploring.

Audience: First-time visitors to Kyoto (if they love gardens and explore on their own), students of Japanese garden culture and seasoned Japanese garden veterans.

Character: “Serious Japanese garden book” – no dreamy photographs or romantic descriptions to be found here. It’s a reference book, a guide book and great introduction to the history of the garden culture in Kyoto.

What I like about it: Its small size allows me to take it along, so I am able to read ABOUT the garden when I am IN the garden. The thing is: If I read about the garden before my visit I forget 90% of the information, because I have a hard time visualizing the gardens; if I read about it afterwards, I realized I missed half of the details and context.

Links: (free browsing on Google books), (Amazon affiliate), (Amazon non-affiliate)

Description: A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto introduces 50-something gardens in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto. The text for each garden is short and very precise, conveying the feeling of the garden as well as the facts and some background knowledge. The average garden gets a description of one or two pages, and a black-and-white photograph. Some more important gardens like Saiho-ji and Katsura-Rikyu get four to five pages. In addition to the description of the garden, each chapter features the time period it was built in, with remarks to major restorations, and in the case of a temple, the branch of Buddhism to which it belongs. The address, opening times are featured as well, and whether a permission is needed to visit the garden or take pictures in the garden.

I tremendously enjoyed reading the 50-page long introduction to the cultural context of Japanese gardens, out of which 20 pages are devoted to the history of the Kyoto area. I also like the suggested reading list – a fountain of books to add to my to-read list.

The book was written by Marc Treib, a (now retired) professor of Architecture of UC Berkeley and Ron Herman, a landscape architect in the San Francisco bay area, who has spent many years researching Japanese gardens. This is the second edition from 2003, the first edition was published in 1979.

Links: (free browsing on Google books), (Amazon affiliate), (Amazon non-affiliate)

Sandboxing with polymeric sand

Polymeric sand - the setup

So I ordered this table top sand box – in order to better understand the spatial dimensions of Japanese gardens. I do not want to copy single Japanese garden in minute detail, but rather understand how the proportions and dimensions of the design work. I also use them to better understand the levels of an existing garden or a garden I design for my clients at Dendron Exterior Design.

I yet have to start to really build a garden, but I thought I’d take a few pictures of the set and the tools I use. I hope to pick up some bigger gravel stones on my next trip to the beach to use as Japanese garden stones.

My sand-boxing set

Kinetic Polymeric Sand for Modelling a Japanese Garden (2)012814_0305_Alittlebito2.jpg

Sand, sandbox and tools. Gravel in different colors and grain size. A wooden knife, shaped like a butter knife that came with the box. So did the sand form. A wooden Miso spoon. A spatula, most useful for cutting straight and clean lines. 2 scrapers from the art supply store that I intended to use for gravel patterns, but that doesn’t work as I thought it would.

Using the wooden miso-spoon to get the sand surface as smooth and level as possible

Since the sand sticks to itself, it is easy to create slopes and valleys. It also cuts clean and nicely, which would be impossible to achieve with actual sand.

Not afraid to mix with small gravel. Imagine the mess had I used play-doh!

Easy clean-up & storage!

Available in the US from (my affiliate link:, non-affiliate link: and directly from brookstone ( The only similar product I found in the UK is this: For Japan, have a look here:

Why polymeric sand?

I never ordered one of those table top Zen gardens, because I was afraid of the mess they’d make. This sand (kinetic or polymeric sand) sticks to itself but not to your hands – like cookie dough. It is 98% sand and 2% polymers. Non-toxic. Smells funny, though, and washing hands after handling it is advised.

Just in case you’re wondering: Kinetic or polymeric sand is different from moon sand – here is a video that shows the difference:

Other options:

Originally, I thought about buying Lego bricks to build gravel gardens, but unless I would use lots of the tiny flat grey 1×1 squares, the scale would be too big to make sense. I also thought about play-doh, too, but I am not too fond of colorful dirt beneath my fingernails. Also, I was worried it might look to childish.

Working intuitively:

I was looking for an intuitive tool to work with – model building requires too much preparation for my taste. And the kinetic qualities of this kind of sand are so fascinating, it is hard to put it down.

Keep toying around:

I will keep you posted about future gardens I make.

Do you build miniature gardens yourself? What tools & material do you use?