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 25 – Planting moss and the mountains of Kyoto

After a day of working in heavy rain, a colleague and I climbed up the mountain behind the temple, just above the tea houses Kasa-tei (傘亭) and Shigure-tei (時雨亭). Kasa means umbrella and shigure means drizzle or autumn rain and is written with the kanji for “time” and “rain”. Very poetic, I find. Both tea houses were designed buy Sen-no-Rikyu, Japan’s most famous tea master.

We had a great view from the mountain, which is unfortunately closed for visitors. Some clouds still hang in the valleys of the distant Northern Mountains. My colleague explained that this is how we should plant moss – like soft mountain ranges, with valleys and hills, reaching out and retreating here and there. The mountains are our teachers.

The Kitayama mountains in Kyoto

The Kitayama mountains in Kyoto

Kaki-Shibu – 柿渋

I love Kyoto because it is the center for traditional craftsmanship in Japan. Over centuries, emperors, shoguns, religious and political leaders and tradesmen have lived here in beautiful houses and gardens, have held sophisticated parties and indulged in lavish banquets. They have invested in the beauty of Japan – sophisticated craftsmanship, a sense for balance and details, refined cuisine. And this tradition continues until today.

We stopped on our way to the temple at Kakishibu, a shop in Kyoto which sells mainly one thing: The liquid essence of dried and fermented unripe kaki fruits. It is used to dye clothes, wood and protect them against insects and water damage (to some degree). This essence is sold throughout the country, specialist garden shops as well as DIY and hardware stores. It is quite pricey. This small and unsuspicious shop is where they make the essence and run their business:

We bought about 1.5 liters which we filled in a used pet bottle. As soon as the pet bottle was in the car, it started smelling really foul – like rancid butter. You can find more information about Kakishibu in English from this seller’s site in the US.

Kaki (柿) means persimmon, an orange fruit that is harvested from autumn to early winter. The kaki used for kakishibu is Shibu-Kaki. Shibu (渋) refers to the astringent and bitter taste of the fruit. It is furthermore used to describe a visually austere, somber, subdued, subtle, quiet or unobstrusive elegance, an understated beauty.

When oyakata asked me what gardens I like I replied with Obai-in (Daitoku-ji) and Funda-in (Tofuku-ji). To both he replied: Shibui! I have never really thought about it, but in the following days out in Kyoto I realized that I do like shibui things way more than hanayaka (華やか – showy, flowery, bright) things. For example, this small hut in Kozan-ji near Kyoto:


Jizo-in in the Arashiyama mountains in Kyoto:

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And this wooden cedar veneer in Shake-machi near the Kamigamo shrine:

Kyoto Tag 1 - 1 Shake-machi Streets 3 (1)

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.