The following interview was made with Leslie Buck, author of Cutting Back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto (Timber Press).  The interviewer was Kristin Faurest, the director of the Portland Japanese Garden’s International Japanese Garden Training Center. Ms. Buck spoke at the Portland Japanese Garden last December.   

Leslie Buck and her boss Naka-ji san

Leslie Buck and her boss Naka-ji san

KF:  In your book you describe a quite harrowing work schedule, both from physical and emotional perspective. And small amount of culture shock. What in your own character best prepared you to not only take this on in the first place, but to persist?

Leslie: I used to dance ballet six days a week for 3-5 hour days after school, so I was used to a disciplined schedule. I am youngest of very assertive women, so this taught me to be both assertive (my sisters and mom both insisted I drive more aggressively on the freeway!), and submissive (I knew how to be quiet and learn from other’s mistakes). You need to be both submissive and assertive to go to Japan and live inside a hierarchy. I have to emphasize that one must be able to be submissive to work inside a J. garden company. One can’t get caught up in woman vs man politics. The hierarchy system insists on obedience.

KF:  From your experience, how does being a foreign woman trying to enter this male-dominated world differ from being a Japanese woman?

LB: It is easier for me as an American woman, than a Japanese woman because as a foreigner, I am outside the hierarchy. I am a foreigner and I will never fit in. So, I was allowed to bounce around between lowest apprentice to senior apprentices-as long as I had the skills to do the work decently. I had a mentor in California who had been trained in Japan, so I was fairly prepared to do senior pruning work-even if my work was not as good as the other workers. If I had been a Japanese woman, I would have been expected to follow hierarchy rules which is start at the bottom (sweeping/cleaning) until someone else entered the company (one week-years depending). Hierarchy is based on time in the company, not skill, for the most part.

KF:  Was there an a-ha moment where you finally felt accepted, or was it a process so gradual that you wouldn’t be able to identify when it happened?

LB: It was helpful for me to not expect that the men would “accept” or “embrace” me. My goals were 1 )to contribute to my team in a landscaping company and 2)learn as much from the men as possible, rather than be embraced or appreciated by them. I don’t drink a lot, so I wasn’t interested in much after work going out-bonding.

At a university, a teacher is not my peer, but a person in charge who I most likely respect. The same goes for an apprenticeship in Japan. I didn’t see my co-workers as peers that I hoped would embrace me. I saw them as teachers I respected. I worked very hard every day, tried to do research and write lessons down so I would learn efficiently by not asking too many repetitive, or wasteful questions. I’d think of which questions were most important and try not to ask too many for most questions will be learned in action over time. If I learned something, I appreciated my teachers/co-workers, rather than congratulating myself on a job well done. Our bond was that of teacher/student rather than peers. Perhaps that is why effort in Japan is more admired than success, because of the strong teacher/student relationships.

KF:  How is your time in Japan always going to be a part of you – I mean, what are your habits, patterns, or perspectives that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Kyoto experience?

LB:  I can’t help but want to do my very best in most of the things I do. When I slow down and clean the bathroom well, it becomes a point of pride rather than a dirty chore. I am very thorough at anything I do before moving on. My writings are my way of teaching.

I appreciated how the Japanese embrace using local natives in their gardens, and strive to create gardens that look as natural as possible. So no matter how much I love daffodils, I use mostly natives in my gardens, and do more and more over time. It creates a garden around my home that has the feeling of areas around my home where I take hikes. I am such a beginner at creating a landscape from scratch. So I take lots of hikes for inspiration and am open to accepting my mistakes.

I appreciated how the men I trained with were, many of them, highly skilled garden craftsmen. But they each had their own style (bold, gentle or some liked pruning more and others landscaping). So I like to think each of us, aesthetic pruners in my area, have our own specialties, rather than pruning being one practice. Some of my pruning colleagues specialize in the healing nature of gardens and share this with clients. I like to encourage natives and the overall landscape atmosphere. Others are good at hardscaping and do beautiful paths and fences. When we work with heart, our specialty, our clients benefit.

KF:   Pico Iyer once said that home “isn’t a piece of soil, so much as it’s a piece of soul.” He was reflecting on his many years living in Japan as well as his identity as an ethnic Indian who has never lived in India or spoken an Indian language, and who has called both the U.S. and Britain home.  Having had this experience and knowing how it changed your life and identity, how do you now define ‘home’?

Leslie Buck with crew of Uetoh Zoen on a rare break from working at Shugaku-in Rikyu Imperial Villa

Leslie Buck with crew of Uetoh Zoen on a rare break from working at Shugaku-in Rikyu Imperial Villa

LB: I have always been drawn to the art/film/crafts of Japan so much so that I wondered if I wasn’t Japanese in a past life! After living in Japan, I realized how utterly different Japan is to anything I was familiar with-sight, sound, smell and taste that my original theory was shattered to bits. What I realized is that much of Japan; film, crafts, gardening and food is permeated with nature, and because I have a passion for nature, that is what I was drawn to. Much of western gardening with its sometimes geometric gardens seeks to control nature, whereas most of the gardening I found in Japan sought to express nature. Several landscapers in Kyoto told me to not copy “Kyoto nature,” but to express nature surrounding my “home.” They said that imitating my own nature, the garden would allow for more relaxed contemplation rather than hyper-fascination with another’s ecosystem. Japan’s nature really does look different than our own. In a strict sense that would be the wild areas surrounding Berkeley. But I think because American move so much, that perhaps the nature they are familiar with might be the one they grew up with, rather than the one they live at. One of my clients is from Australia and she built a natural feeling garden with plants she was familiar with-from Australia. I consider it a more Japanese garden than if it had been California plants.  On top of this, a majority of city dwellers have never been to natural areas surrounding their home. But most have been camping! So when I built a garden in back of my house using Japanese garden principles I learned in Kyoto, I built one using native Ca. plants that look as if they’d come from Muir Woods near my home (had to play with this to get the right sun/shade/water/flower/evergreen/deciduous requirements for my tight space). And I built the garden to look like a place one would find in nature: the campground on the edge of a forest. Evergreen trees block houses, a meadow takes up half the garden, a nest of green trees another with a fire pit in the middle, so when you sit there one sees no house, not even my own. When people sit there, even for breakfast pancakes over the fire-they tell me that they are so relaxed they don’t want to leave!


“If you are curious about what it would be like to work alongside dedicated garden craftsmen of Japan inside a historic Kyoto landscaping company, Leslie Buck’s new garden memoir gives readers a first-hand look. Buck’s dramatic, three-season apprenticeship stories not only received a NYTime book review, but was reviewed in the Washington Post: Leslie also did an in-depth interview on the NPR’s podcast Cultivating Place on what it was like to be a female gardener from California who worked with a tight-knit group of proud craftsmen from the well known landscaping company Uetoh Zoen. Leslie provided us with photos from her journey, more of which can be found on her website,”