Jake Hobson is known for bringing Japanese tools to UK gardeners
The Niwaki man tells Anne de Verteuil about his creative development
I grew up in the chalk Downs, in a village called Hambledon in Hampshire, and as kids we used to play in the beech hangars there. That’s my earliest, strongest link with nature and it definitely influenced the direction I’ve taken. Then there were four years of an art degree in London, studying sculpture at the Slade. That harnessed my interest in landscape and nature, though in a rather conceptual way at the time. But it led to a travel award from college and a trip to Japan, and that’s what steered me towards plants, and the possibility of sculpting with plants.
I went to Japan as an artist, thinking I wanted to be a sculptor. After a month looking round, I decided I wanted to stay longer because I was enjoying the trees and gardens so much. I got a job as an English teacher and then work at a tree nursery. Day one at the nursery was probably my sharpest learning curve; in fact, my first day doing anything horticultural ever. Eight in the morning, the middle of summer, ferociously hot, going into a bamboo grove to cut canes for plant supports – the experience of being thrown in at the deep end, working with people who did this every day and coming along with no skills at all.
There are two books I’d like to pass on to others: Garden Trees by Shogo Okamoto, in Japanese and with very few black-and-white images, but giving a fascinating insight into Japanese tree pruning; and The Gardens of Japan by Teiji Itou, very impressive photography, which made me aware that Japanese photographers seem to capture gardens differently to Western photographers.
I’ve always enjoyed looking at trees. I’m interested in the way the canopy and the roots are connected. You only ever see half the tree, yet the half you don’t see is just as important, probably more important. I particularly look at pine trees for their shape and their bark, the trunk and the line of their form. I’m always collecting images for great big bulbous, boxy, billowing cloudy shapes like that, shapes that give the contemporary cloud-pruning look. But I’m also after inspiration so I spend a lot of time when I’m driving looking at things – rather dangerously sometimes. It’s a very Japanese way of looking: thinking how you can make a caricature of it on a manageable scale.
If I had eternity to spend in one place it would be the foothills of Kyoto. One of my favourite gardens is Shisendo-in, famous for the amazing clipped azaleas. But it’s hard to choose just one. Every time I see a garden in Japan, I think it is my favourite. So much depends on what you’re seeing and thinking and the time of year.
I will probably be remembered for being really tall. No – I think probably for introducing some really good Japanese tools into the market. Also for putting a name – Niwaki – to particular Japanese pruning techniques. When I started in 1997, I felt as though I was out there on my own but in fact lots of people were doing it; just nobody had a name for what they were interested in. I happened to find a name in Japan that sums it up, so I feel I’m responsible for that.
Find out more about Jake’s tools and books at www.niwaki.com