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.

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)

2014-04-04 - Mamezen (3)

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.

2014-04-04 - Mamezen (2)

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

Day 89 – Kyoto has a new garden

The last day of my trip.

On Sunday night we finished the tsuboniwa at the Mamezen Ramen shop in Kyoto (豆禅). I woke up early this morning to take some pictures of the garden – here is one of them, there are more to come:

Japanese tsuboniwa garden in Kyoto


Mamezen owner and Yuba-Ramen chef Minoru Yonekawa:

With Mamezen owner Minoru Yonekawa (実米川)

With Mamezen owner Minoru Yonekawa (実米川)


The Mamezen garden team: Tatsuhiko Kobayashi (小林達彦), Tatsuomi Ikeda (池田辰臣) and Jenny Feuerpeil (伊恵弐 フォイヤーパイル):

From left to right: Tatsuhiko Kobayashi (小林達彦), Tatsuomi Ikeda (池田辰臣) and Jenny Feuerpeil (伊恵弐 フォイヤーパイル)

From left to right: Tatsuhiko Kobayashi (小林達彦), Tatsuomi Ikeda (池田辰臣) and Jenny Feuerpeil (伊恵弐 フォイヤーパイル)


Day 38 – The cutest bamboo fence I have ever seen – Yotsumegaki (よツ目垣)

Everything in Japan has a kawaii version, I guess.

Kawaii Yotsumegaki bamboo fence in Kyoto (可愛い四ツ目垣)

Kawaii Yotsumegaki bamboo fence in Kyoto (可愛い四ツ目垣)

This is a miniature version of the popular Yotsume-gaki bamboo fence and it is used to mark a water faucet.

I have to add this to our Real Japanese garden e-Book about bamboo fences.

Day 39 – My way to work near Myoshin-ji in Kyoto

My daily 13-minute way to work is one of the best times of the day. The air is fresh from the Arashiyama mountains and Narabi-ga-oka hills, the sun shines friendly on the new day and I am happy to be alive and to learn more to become a better gardener. 

I pass the Myoshin-ji (妙心寺) temple complex every morning and remember that I was here with my dad when he visited us in Tokyo for a week. I cannot believe that this place is part of my everyday life now. 

By the way, I take these pictures often single-handedly with my left hand while riding my bike. No time to stop if I want to be on time at 6:25 in the company…



Guess who was allowed to draw the gravel patterns in the Hojo garden today?

Guess who was allowed to draw the gravel patterns in the Hojo garden today?