November 2004
Traditional Japanese Gardener: Dominik Schimitz

        This month, Life In Kyoto interviewed Dominik Schmitz a 25 year old gardener who came to Japan six months ago from Germany, and is currently working for an established landscape gardening company in Kyoto.

Life In Kyoto: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mr. Dominik SchimitzDominik Schmitz: I come from a small country town near Rostock, the capital of Mecklenburg State in Germany. I have a twenty two year old brother and a twenty year old sister. Our parents run a gardening shop in our town.

LIK: What was your impression of Japan when you were living in Germany?

DS: Japan seemed like a very far away country, and I didn't know very much about it. Even my friends didn't know anything except for the stereotypical images of sushi and samurai. However, this lack of knowledge made me want to learn more about Japan and Japanese culture.

LIK: How did you learn about Japanese gardening?

DS: It was pretty much by chance. There was a German art professor who had retired to my country town after living and working in Japan for forty years. He spent his summers in Germany and winters in Japan, because he preferred the seasonal climate in the respective countries. When he first returned to Germany two years ago, he purchased an old country villa in my town. The house was old, and needed a lot of repairs, but he decided he was going to create a Japanese garden there. However, there was no one in my area who knew anything about Japanese gardening. It takes a lot of time and expertise to create a Japanese garden, so he began searching for somebody who would go to Japan and study Japanese gardening on his behalf. He invited me to view his garden that was under construction. That was my first time seeing a Japanese style garden, and I was very impressed: it was a thing of perfect beauty. There was such thorough care in even the most minor details. I had always been interested in Japanese culture, but after seeing his garden, I became certain that going to Japan to study gardening on his behalf was the thing I wanted to do.

LIK: Did the professor invite you to go to Japan?

DS: That's one way of putting it, but really he simply suggested that I go to Japan and find employment at a landscape gardening company. He couldn't teach me about Japanese gardening himself, but he could show me where I could go to learn about Japanese gardens. He introduced me to a famous landscaping company in Kyoto with a long established history. That is where I am working currently. However, the professor taught me a lot about Japanese culture before I left, and influenced my life in this way, so I suppose you could say I am his deshi (弟子: disciple), in a way. It's a little complicated, as I also apprentice under an "oyakata" (親方:master) at my company.

LIK: I know there is a "meister" system in Germany as well, but what do you think of the Japanese "oyakata" apprenticeship system?

DS: It takes ten years to become a fully qualified gardener in Japan. That seems like an awfully long time, as it only takes three years in Germany. I guess Japanese people are perfectionists. Then again, three years probably isn't enough time for a person to truly become an expert. Personally I think that some amount of time between the two would be right.

LIK: How did the members of the Japanese gardening company receive your presence?

DS: They accepted me warmly as a member. They are all very kind, and took an interest in German culture. I didn't speak any Japanese at all in the beginning, but I was able to feel very comfortable regardless. My original plan was to stay for three months to study, but I decided to extend my stay to a full year, because they made me feel so welcome

LIK: What do you like best about Japanese gardens?

DS: Japanese gardens have a complete sort of beauty that I admire. Maintenance is conducted with special care paid to every detail within the garden. For example, moss is used to give the garden an ancient feel. That sort of thing leaves a deep impression on me. I was surprised by the ways they give shape to the garden, especially the way they prune trees. They prune the trees every year, and after forty or fifty years a "natural" landscape is born depending on the gardener's style. Thus, Japanese gardens are the result of a highly developed aesthetic sense and decades of hard work.

LIK: You must have visited many Japanese gardens in Kyoto. Do you have a favorite garden in Kyoto?

DS: There are so many to choose from, but if I was forced to pick one, I might say the private garden that is the masterwork of my mentor's great-grandfather. I also like the gardens at Shugakuin Rikyu and Katsura Rikyu, as well as small, nameless gardens. LIK: What do you plan to do in the remaining six months of your year in Kyoto? DS: I would like to travel more. I'd like to continue practicing tea ceremony and try my hand at ikebana as well.

LIK: What advice would you give to foreigners who wish to work in Kyoto?

DS: Study Japanese language and culture as much as possible before coming to Kyoto. This will give you a deeper understanding of the culture and prepare you for daily life to some extent. I spoke no Japanese in the beginning, and little English, so I encountered a lot of difficulty with my job and my life. I was forced to communicate solely in Japanese, and picked up the language very quickly as a result.

LIK: What are your dreams for the future?

DS: That's a difficult question. I would like gain a firm grasp of the skills needed to create Japanese gardens, and bring these back to Germany with me. I have not yet decided whether I wish to raise and sell the plants needed for Japanese gardens, or work as a landscape gardener creating the gardens themselves. You meet say it was fate that I met the professor in Germany, so I'll just wait and see what happens next.


       - Article by Akiko Kanitani and Susumu Onda; translations by Sabine Brink and Bianca Jarvis

Speak Easy: An American Diner in Kyoto

      Going out to Breakfast on Sunday mornings is a well-loved tradition for many Americans, either as a cure for Saturday night's hangover, or a simple way to enjoy time with family and friends.

      Speakeasy: BreakfastHowever, the "western style" breakfasts served at some Japanese restaurants bear very little resemblance to actual American food. Fortunately, Kyoto has Speakeasy, an American style diner near Shuugakuin Rikyuu owned by Japanese people but serving authentic American breakfast food: french toast, crispy bacon, hash browns, and Denver omelettes, to name a few. The restaurant has been in business for nearly 18 years, so they clearly know what they are doing! There are many reasons that this restaurant is beloved by expatriates and Japanese alike: free coffee re-fills, large-sized portions, low prices, and breakfast served from 9am until 6pm everyday (all-day breakfast being a standard fixture of American diners)! There are a variety of breakfast sets for every budget and appetite, ranging from the \300 #1 breakfast (two eggs and toast), to the \600 deluxe #5 breakfast featuring two eggs cooked any way you prefer, a choice of meat, french toast with syrup, and hashbrowns. Coffee with unlimited refills is \250 yen. If you're the type that prefers to skip breakfast, there are daily lunch specials as well, American standards such as chili burgers (\650), enchiladas (\700) and a roast beef sandwich served with french fries (\900). All meals are served with a basket full of American-style condiments: ketchup, mustard, tabasco sauce, seasoned salt, and more. At 6pm, breakfast service stops and an expanded dinner menu is offered in its place, as well as a wide variety of cocktails and other alcoholic beverages.

      The American-style atmosphere is enhanced by the quirky decorations, a gaijin-friendly bulletin board, English newspapers, a jukebox and two TVs playing CNN news. You're certain to feel right at home, no matter what country you come from. Fridays are now ladies day, which mean women can get a special dessert with their meal for only \100 until 6pm, and 1/2 price cocktails from 6pm to 2am.

Hours: Speakeasy is open everyday from 9:00am-2:00am, until 3am on Saturdays.

      Location: Speakeasy is located at 7-7 Yamabanakawaharacho in Sakyo Ku, 50 meters South of the Higashioji Kitayama intersection. City Bus # 5 to Shugakuin Michi, or Eizan Densha to Shugakuin Sta.

Phone: 075-781-2110


-Bianca Jarvis (American)

Note:This list is by no means exhaustive. Information is subject to change without warning.
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