For 30 years, Jake Hobson has lived and breathed Japan. It’s not just that his wife is Japanese and that he has mastered the Japanese language, he has also absorbed its craft traditions, and has schooled himself in one of its most definitive and universal art forms – niwaki – the art of pruning and shaping trees. And in bringing niwaki to Europe (his version of niwaki, he hastens to say, which isn’t at all the real thing) he has done his utmost to stay true to its spirit.
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Jake’s love affair with Japan began when he was an art student in London, studying sculpture at the Slade. One of his house mates was Japanese and – along with her different take on life – her stories of hanami, the annual celebration of the cherry blossom, fired his imagination. So when, in his final year, he won a travel bursary, he set off for Japan to see it for himself. Visiting parks and gardens in pursuit of blossom, he was increasingly struck by the forms of the trees – clearly shaped by hand, yet in a way that seemed to distil their essential form rather than subverting it. He was enthralled by this intersection of nature and artifice, the very ground he was exploring in his sculpture. “A tree well pruned can express more than a tree can express naturally,” says Jake. He draws a parallel with the manga comics popular in Japan. “Sometimes you’ll see more expression in a simple line drawing of a face than you can see in a real face, even in a film.”
Determined to return to Japan, Jake trained as a TEFL teacher, which allowed him to spend a year in Tokyo before finding work in a tree nursery near Osaka. Here he set about learning the traditional skills of niwaki – not just pruning and sculpting, but bending and tying, lifting and rootballing, and the brutal decapitation of sturdy trees, sometimes 50 years old. It was at the top of a ladder, surrounded by podocarpus trees on a balmy October evening, that he decided his future. “I thought to myself, I would really like to have a nursery like this in England. So I came back, and I started growing trees. But very soon I ran into this problem that it does take a long, long time for trees to grow.”
Jake took a job at Architectural Plants in Sussex, where for the next five years he honed his pruning skills on the nursery stock, and finally came to understand how he could translate the essence of what he had learned without using Japanese plants, or even trying to create specifically Japanese effects. “Finally the penny dropped that niwaki was nothing to do with where the plant came from, and everything to do with what you were thinking and what you did.” In 2000, the cloud-pruned trees and billowing box hedges in Gardens Illustrated’s winning garden at Chelsea took the horticultural world by storm: suddenly everyone wanted what Jake had started calling ‘organic topiary’. He had been doing some pruning for friends, and bringing back authentic tools, unavailable in Britain, from his visits to Japan. Unable to continue at Architectural Plants because of a back injury, the time came, in 2006, to turn these hobbies into a business. Starting out, as he did, “with no money and no customers”, pruning was a lifeline. “What I really wanted to do were amazing Japanese pine tree projects,” he says. “But what everyone else wanted was organic cloud box hedges, so that’s what I did for the next five years.”
He also wrote a very successful book, and began to teach the principles of niwaki. But although he is widely regarded as the great innovator in this style of topiary, he is adamant that he has done nothing new: the Belgian designer Jacques Wirtz, he points out, was planting cloud hedges back in the early 1970s.
“It’s not topiary itself that changes, so much as how you use it,” observes Jake, pointing to the trend for “big organic shapes in wild meadow settings”, as at Great Dixter, and to the cloud-pruned trees now sold by florists. “I hate seeing the misappropriation of Japanese style,” he says. “With Pinterest and Instagram, it’s so easy these days to pick up ideas without understanding them.” It upsets him that European nurseries have started copying Japanese trees – less because the detail is invariably wrong than because of how they are used. “The underlying purpose is to make an ornament, a decoration. And that is completely NOT why Japanese trees are grown. They are microcosms of the wider landscape; they always remain trees.”
At 48, Jake still has a rather boyish, Tiggerish enthusiasm for all things Japanese, but his focus has moved on to selling beautiful tools from Japan, discovering the same reverent craftsmanship in blacksmithing that he found in horticulture. “I’d say my work on the Niwaki business is much more useful to people than my clever pruning skills. If I’m remembered for anything, it won’t be organic topiary, but for bringing the tripod ladder to the UK. At least I’ll have made the garden a safer place.”
For more information on Niwaki tools and courses visit niwaki.com