Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Accidental Apprentice

There are times when fate takes control, guiding you into places that you did not even know existed before you arrive there. Truth to tell, even after you do arrive, it takes a while before the purpose of 'being there' comes clear. It is when you realise that there is no choice involved, but somewhere perhaps hidden away in the double helical tangle of genes perhaps it was imprinted, a message that you had to be where you had arrived.  It took a while but eventually the reason did become clear.

In 1980 I arrived in Japan with a vague idea that I would spend a few weeks looking at gardens I had seen in books whilst a horticultural student. I hardly knew anyone at all, and certainly had no contacts in the garden world. Not that that mattered as I would not be staying long anyway.

About a week after arriving in Kyoto I literally bumped into someone on the street. I knew no Japanese at all so I apologised in English to the smartly dressed gentleman.

"Ahh, you speak english!" he said.

"Yes, I am English. It comes naturally to me."

"Good, come and have a coffee, we can talk."

Being disinclined to be rude to someone with a smiling face, we went into a nearby coffee shop. My new acquaintance explained he ran an English language school and was looking for native speakers who could teach there. I murmured something to the effect what a good idea that was.

"You can teach for me." It was a statement as far as I could tell. Try as I might, I could not find a question mark anywhere in the sentence.

"Heavens, no. I have no idea how to teach, besides I hated school. It left a bad taste, you know." Then I played what I considered my trump card. "Besides I only have a tourist visa. I am a gardener, and I am here only for a short while to look at the gardens in Kyoto."

Nothing seemed to phase my companion. Clearly he was a man used to getting his own way. "No problem, you will be teaching 8 year old students, they do not speak any English at all."

My heart sank even further into my shoes, as I pondered the most polite way to get out of the coffee shop without causing any lasting sense of disappointment. It was then he played his trump card, as Lenoard Cohen once put it, 'a card so high and wild you'll never need to deal another'

"You come and teach for me and I will introduce you to a very famous gardener. One of the very best in Kyoto, perhaps in all Japan. Kyoto gardeners are the top in Japan."

A week later I was stood in front of a bemused class of eight year old Japanese children. "My name is Robert. I am from England...." I nearly passed out from anxiety that first morning.

I consider the Japanese to be amongst the most sincere and noble people I have ever met. There is a graciousness and a sincerity to them that is deeply inspiring. They do what they say they will, and so a couple of weeks later I was sat in a taxi on my way to meet 'a famous Japanese gardener'. One of the best, perhaps the best in all Japan. I had been allocated an urbane and well read companion as an interpreter, even if his English was fairly limited. Not to worry, I was about to meet a fellow gardener, a soul brother as it were, and I could envisage the conversation being laced with anecdotes of experiences, a meeting of like minds.  I was clutching a bottle of duty free whiskey which I had purchased on the journey to Japan, fortunately I had not started it. Someone, somewhere, had mentioned that Scotch whisky was popular in Japan, and the exchange of gifts was part of the convention of meetings.

He was a big man physically, his cheerful face topped by a dense thatch of jet black hair, his eyes were kindly, and there was a warmth to him that put one at one's ease. He paid little regard to the whisky (I thought about what it had cost me, even duty free), and I was served a tiny cup of delicious green tea. The meeting seemed to go well enough. Though the conversation was a little stilted as everything had to be translated backwards and forwards. I saw photos of some of the work that the 'famous gardener' had done, it was way out of my league, beyond even my imagination. I tucked a small album of photos of work I had done under my leg, and hoped not to draw any attention to it.

After about an hour it was clear that the meeting was coming to an end. We all stood up, as I tried in vain to remember the word for 'thank you'. There was an awkward moment when I forgot that the Japanese do not shake hands, but bow to one another, but the confusion caused amusement and it was taken lightly enough in the circumstances. There was a brief animated conversation between my interpreter and the 'famous gardener' as we moved towards the door of the office. Then the interpreter turned to me.

"Kobayashi san wants to know when you can start?"

I was confused by this question to say the least. 'Start, what?"

"Kobayashi san is offering for you to become his apprentice."

It was only when we were sat in the taxi headed back into the city that I realised life would never be the same again. How true that was. Perhaps Kobayashi san himself never knew it, but for better or worse, he opened a door to show me how life, work and art could all come together at the same time and place. Perhaps it was written in the genes after all.

The river flows on.

Please comment. If you found this, or any other post of interest, it is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks, Robert Ketchell

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