(The following is taken from an article written by Asher Browne in the March 2007 issue of Sukiya Living, The Journal of Japanese Gardening)
Over the past several years, I have been approached by quite a few individuals who are interested in training in Japan as a gardener or other type of artisan. The steady barrage of questions began while I was working for a gardening company in Japan, and it continues even now. While each individual has a different story and different priorities, I tend to hear many of the same questions, and giving the same answers, I thought it might be helpful to write the most common questions down in an article. What follows is a typical interview with someone who thinks they might like to travel to Japan and train as a gardener there.
Interview Candidate: I’ve heard that you studied in Japan. I have been thinking about trying that, and I was hoping that you could tell me what it’s like and how to set up an internship.
Asher: Yes, I lived there for eight years and trained for four. I worked at two different garden companies in Kyoto. But before I tell you all about my experience, I have a couple of questions for you. First, can you speak Japanese?
Candidate: Well, I know a little from a trip I took there, but I would need to study up.
Asher: I would definitely recommend studying Japanese in preparation for such a commitment. The better you can speak, the more valuable your experience will be.
Candidate: Studying Japanese is something I was going to start doing anyway, but I am a little worried about something else. I don’t have that much horticultural experience. My background is in art.
Asher: Having a background in art is a good thing, and horticulture is just one aspect of what needs to be studied. I, myself, was originally an art student before going to Japan. I don’t think my lack of horticultural experience hurt me in Japan because I learned while I was there. Once back in the U.S., I tried to round-out my experience by becoming a Certified Arborist.
Candidate: Can you tell me about the work and what the arrangement would be?
Asher: First of all, in addition to knowing some Japanese, being physically fit is a basic requirement that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Doing an “internship” means work, and the work is physically demanding. As far as arrangements go, there are quite a few different possibilities. I would recommend finding an education-minded company to work for, and staying there for a long-term period. I have heard of people teaching English on a work visa, and then studying with a garden company in their off days. This enables them to financially support themselves and at the same time study Japanese gardening at a comfortable pace. In my case, I worked for a garden company full-time for four years. The work was hard, and the weeks long, typically 60-70 hours a week. It was an extremely tough work, and I’m not sure it was an efficient way to learn. One thing that was good, however, was the amount of time I spent surrounded by beauty. Just being in so many Japanese gardens enabled me to absorb many commonly-found patterns, and it provided me with a great reserve of mental imagery to draw from in my current work.
Candidate: What companies did you work for? Do you think that I can train at one of those? They are in Kyoto, right?
Asher: I’m glad you asked that because I’d like you to know that Japan’s rich garden tradition permeates the entire country. Although I recommend visiting gardens in Kyoto, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as the best place to train. It is more important to look for an education-minded company, and you shouldn’t worry about what region it is located in. The companies that I worked for both had good points and bad points. With the first company, I learned a lot just by being in gardens and absorbing those important patterns. I also got a feel for how their teams worked. But that company was not education-minded, and they gave me little opportunity to learn real skills. The second company considered themselves traditional, and they were very intense in their work habits and teaching methods. I learned a lot from them, but it felt a little abusive sometimes. I stuck with it as long as I could, and I ended up learning many traditional skills while there. So, again, I recommend looking for an education-minded company. They are hard to find, but they’re out there. I’d also like to mention that learning from more than one company was very valuable. I realized that there are different ways of doing things even in Japan. And from that point on, I was always trying to assess if a certain method was the best way or not. Because I developed this habit, I began to realize that Kyoto’s garden maintenance had a lot to be desired in many instances, despite what Kyoto’s gardeners said. The Adachi Art Museum in Shimane prefecture, for example, is on a much higher level than anything in Kyoto.
Candidate: How long does it take to learn everything? Do I have to train long-term, or can I go to Japan for a few weeks or months?
Asher: After a half-decade training I began to realize that I had only just begun to scratch the surface of the subject. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know in comparison to the whole subject matter. This is especially true once you start to realize that gardening, by itself, is just one minor part of the whole living environment. So if you want to do it right -if you plan to be serious about this- you should be thinking about committing years or even decades to the endeavor.
Candidate: There’s no way I could do that even if I wanted to. I’ve got a family and other commitments.
Asher: I know some professionals who cannot train in Japan long-term because of family or business concerns. Repeated or annual trips to Japan for short-term training is the solution for people like this. Keep in mind that during the rest of the year they are still 100% committed to their training. They continue to study Japanese and they continue to work on their physical fitness. They are also fully committed to learning from sources such as Sukiya Living, The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
Candidate: How do I set up an internship?
Asher: Setting something up isn’t easy. You’ve got to find an opportunity with a company or school, then get yourself over there, and then be able to stay there. You need some kind of visa, and you need to be able to support yourself. During my time there I had a visa because my wife is Japanese. My wife worked, and I also got paid by the company I worked for. I’ve also heard of foreigners staying in Japan on cultural visas. Many foreigners stay in Japan on work visas. For example, you could work as an English Language school and get your visa from the school while you work part-time at a gardening company. This is a good approach, I think, if you can find a company that is willing to work with such an arrangement. I’ve also known some people who studied in Japan while technically being tourists, taking a trip to Korea every three months to renew their visa. A number of people interested in training in Japan have asked me how to set something up. I always refer them to Sukiya Living, Journal of Japanese Gardening. The publisher of this magazine has set up a number of fantastic training opportunities that are available to people who are willing to prepare themselves properly. Sukiya Living can set it all up for you, but for some very good reasons they want you to (1) Pass the easiest level of the Japanese language test, and (2) Subscribe to Sukiya Living for at least one year. Some people might think that these requirements are silly, but I wholeheartedly agree with Sukiya Living and its easy requirements. Here is one reason why: When I was training I knew of people before me who had trained at the same company who were just as serious as I was. Then one year someone came for a very brief period to train. This person was not serious, and it ended up turning into an awful experience for the company. Luckily, the company had already had some good experiences with foreigners, so they realized that this was not the norm. Still, I realized that the “host company” could easily decide that training foreigners is just too much trouble. So I would rather see Sukiya Living set a few requirements before just handing out its valuable opportunities. Besides, setting up an internship and training in Japan are only part of the whole picture. There is also the transition back home and the challenge of putting your knowledge and skills to use. This is also something that Sukiya Living might be able to help you with.
(This is the end of this article. For those interested in training in Japan, I hope that this is of some help or at least something to think about. GOOD LUCK!)