My Japanese Nata (鉈) – pride, joy and pain

One of the things that impressed me most during the first weeks in Japan was how my co-workers treated their tools. Every morning each gardener carried his or her heavy tool bags from our company’s garage and placed them carefully on the back of the truck. Garden tools, scissors, shears, knives, wood-working tools, heavy masonry and stone working tools. Levels, steel squares, strings. You name it. In the evening, after work when we waited for the last team to come back, everyone would clean their tools, sharpen them if necessary, repair them. Some built their own tools, or their own handles and grips for hammers, mallets, etc.

Often I was asked: Do you have a Nata? Do you have a bamboo saw? At first I had to reply “No”. Even if I owned them, there is no way I would have taken them on the plane since they are simply too heavy. Then someone would lend me his or her tool OR I was given another work. At that time I learned that in order to be trusted with a task, you need to have the right tools. Even if you are still learning, you need to have the tools in order to learn. Thankfully my senpai Laura, a lady from Lithuania who is very experienced in Japanese garden techniques, lent me her tools after she returned to Europe for the summer. From that moment on, I could say: Yes, I have a nata. Yes, I have a security belt to climb trees. Yes, I have mallet. Yes, I have a bamboo saw. And I was trusted with more and more work and was able to learn a lot more. 

I bought my own nata after a while. It is my whole pride and joy: It is super-sharp and simply beautiful. Also dangerous, apparently, since I cut my thumb and index finger last week. I still need to get more working experience with this tool. These are my pin-up pictures 😉

Ryouba Moroha 両刃

両刃 can be pronounced Moroha or Ryouba and means double-edged blade. The 165 refers to the length of the blade, 16.5 cm

The nata hachet and sheath

The nata hatchet and sheath in all their beauty

I love how the blade is fixed to the handle。The ridge of the blade is 6 mm or 1/4 of an inch wide.

I love how the blade is fixed to the handle。The ridge of the blade is 6 mm or 1/4 of an inch wide.

The inscription reads 鋼付 or hagane-tsuke.

The inscription reads 鋼付 or hagane-tsuke. Hagane means steel, tsuke means to attach. See explanation in text below.

As you can see in the last picture, this nata is made using the Hagane-Tsuke (鋼付) technique. That means that mild steel (low carbon steel, relatively cheap and soft steel) is used for the body of the blade. The cutting edge however is made of steel, which makes it strong enough to withstand abrasion, yet easy enough to sharpen.

After using a nata it is best to clean the blade with a little bit of water and dry it with newsprint paper. Sharpen the blade only if needed. If you put away the nata for a longer period, use a soft cotton cloth to apply a thin coat of oil to the blade. 

Back in San Francisco – Continuing my Japanese training (self-conducted)

I have returned safely to San Francisco and settled back in to my so-called normal life.
To continue my Japanese garden training here, I volunteer at the Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, the oldest Japanese garden & estate in the western hemisphere. It has an incredible authentic feel to it. When I visit Hakone, I feel as if I am in Japan.

I currently have a small screening fence project. I chose this site to practice my fence building technique as it is inconspicuous. When I am finished with this, I want move on to a more prominent fence near the tea garden.

The idea is to screen off the storage area under this wooden building with a Kennin-ji gaki style fence (建仁寺垣).

Screening of the storage area for ladders with a Kenninji-gaki-style fence

Screening of the storage area for ladders with a Kenninji-gaki-style fence

I designed the setup and built the framework in the last 1.5 days. Instead of the traditional round Maruta (丸太) fence posts, I use pressure treated 4x4s (4 inch x 4 inch timber) posts. I used concrete as a foundation for the longest post. Since the existing post of the building has a concrete foundation, I couldn’t dig past it, which would have been necessary to securely plant the post in the ground (1/3 rule, one third of the post should be below ground).

The framework: Three 8x8 inch timber blocks are securely  fastened to the foundation structure of the building. Each of these has a 4x4 inch post attached.

The framework: Three 8×8 inch timber blocks are securely fastened to the foundation structure of the building. Each of these has a 4×4 inch post attached.

I also attached five horizontal rails to which the bamboo slats will be nailed (no picture). After finishing this, the head gardener Jacob Kellner and I split bamboo to make bamboo slats. I used my new Nata (鉈), a square hatchet used by Japanese gardeners and fence builders. The bamboo I cut was very thick. My nata must have slipped off the bamboo and I cut my left thumb and index finger. At first, it looked pretty bad, but I think it will heal in a couple of days.


Declared goal: Pack light

I will test-pack today.

I started to aim for minimalism when I first moved to Japan in 2010. We cleared out our flat, so everything except for very few precious memories had to go. I freecycled a lot in preparation for the trip. Since then moving countries and homes kept me from accumulating a lot of clutter, but I still am far away from minimalism. Especially trying to create a mini-Japan in the four walls of my home office led to cluttering and keeping stuff purely the sake of memory. I have started de-cluttering again a few weeks ago, but am far away from minimalism.

I find packing unnerving – I want to go minimalist, it is my declared ideal. But then I have the fear of missing something. And when I see what a minimalist travel bag looks like and how much stuff I intend to carry with me, I am shocked and beat myself up over it. The big ‘WHAT IF?’, the big fear of missing something, of coming off as unprepared. I love being prepared. When I was maybe ten years old, I read Michael Ende’s Momo. Momo is a girl, she is parent-less and has a coat much to big for her “…and goodness only knew if she would ever find another jacket as useful as this one, with all its many pockets.” She had everything she needed in these pockets. This made a big impression on me. 

What I found though is that carrying around a lot of stuff costs energy, AND you cannot be sure to have everything you will need.

My go-to site for everything minimalist is zenhabits. I also googled minimalist packing and found great inspiration in this blog post and video:

I would sure love to go with nothing more than a backpack. I will not be travelling, but living and working during the time. So I will add clothes for working, a set of business clothes and stuff I know I cannot get in Japan (special dental rinse), two books and, as customary in Japan, omiyage (mostly chocolate as a present to friends and people that will take care of me).

Let’s see how it goes. I will report back.

Learning by Copying – how I met my Mr. Miyagi

In December last year, I found myself in San Francisco’s Japan Town, walking towards my car with a stack of Japanese garden plans under my arm. What had just happened? I did not know…

The original - drawing and lettering in pencil

The original – drawing and lettering in pencil

40 minutes earlier – I enter the office of Y-san. It instantly takes me back to Japan. Fluorescent lighting, old gift boxes used for document storage fill the space between metal cabinets and the ceiling, and numerous calendars hang from the walls. Japanese offices seem to be the opposite of Zen. I cannot step inside the tiny office, a dog is sleeping on a huge pillow in the entrance. Like a genkan (玄関), the lower part of the Japanese hallway, marking the passage from the exterior to the interior.

I introduce myself to the Japanese garden designer (and builder), hoping he can offer me a job or refer me to someone in his network. As soon as he realizes my Japanese is half-way decent, he switches to Japanese and a my teleportation to Japan is complete. Not only that my understanding in Japanese is OK, but still not as good as English, but it is also the Japanese way of thinking and constructing thoughts and sentences, which creates a verbal vagueness I haven’t experienced since I left Japan in January 2013.

We talked about the main points of Japanese garden design, rock shapes in modern and traditional Japanese gardens, and what I could do to advance my studies. He asked me whether I could design a Japanese garden. I answered that No, I could design modern western gardens, but I have never designed a Japanese garden before. As a reply, he opened one of the drawers in the metal cabinet, which was overflowing with semi-transparent papers, rolled loosely. He grabbed a good handful and handed them to me, telling me to copy them. I was not sure whether I understood correctly: Copy? Now? – No, not now of course. Take them home and copy them, and return them, when you are done.

I felt like the Karate Kid receiving instructions from Mr. Miyagi. OK, I said, and under many thanks and bows, I made my way out of his office. This was surreal – not a lot, but enough to leave me wondering whether I understood alright.

At home, I checked whether they are “honmono” (本物) – the originals, the real thing. Yes, they are. They all look great! Incredible! Drawn in very fine pencil lines, with an incredible amount of detail.

I was, and still am, afraid to start copying the plans. I put them in the drawer and left them there. I bought new super-fine mechanical pencils. But I did not touch these plans. I like garden design drawing, but often feel my plans lack detail and refinement. What if mine won’t look as cool as his? What if I really give it my best and they still don’t compare?

Well, A few weeks ago I finally just grabbed one plan and began copying. Today I finished it. It is a western garden with Japanese planting. I would like to make it my February challenge to copy four of his plans. I will post them here, and this is number one:

My copy, trying different pencils

My copy, trying different pencils

There is a lot of room for improvement, especially with the pencil thickness. But I am getting the hang of it, so I will keep at it. 


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?