Minagawa Tsukasa 皆川司

Respect is simply earned. Power is more complex and accrues to certain individuals in mysterious ways. Minagawa Tsukasa is proof.

He doesn’t wield money– he almost eschews it. He hasn’t inherited any rank or title. Power through fear? There are of course reasons you wouldn’t want to cross him, but fear isn’t the mode by which he generally operates. Even when I remark to him that many people in Kyoto consider him powerful, he smiles and shakes his head.

“I’ve got no influence. But I do have many friends.”

The friends of his that I’ve met seem like honest, hard-working people: a tofu maker, restaurant staff. One night after leaving a restaurant in Kyoto with him, a taxi driver stops, opens his door and says, “Minagawa-san! Jump in– I’ll give you a free ride somewhere.” He thanks the man, but declines the offer.

Like all powerful individuals, many people he doesn’t know, know him. And the influence he says he doesn’t have touches people several degrees removed from him. Minagawa is not mafia. He’s neither a politician nor spiritual leader.

He’s a gardener.

This was not the life he envisioned. In fact, he’s not even sure he envisioned any sort of career before he started down the path, literally, in high school.

“My father ran a dry-cleaners. But a friend’s older brother was running a gardening business so I started working part-time with him. After graduating, I continued with that, apprenticing from age 18 to 20. At first, I didn’t think I was going to be doing this my whole life.

“When I was about 20, I went to work for a patisserie. I eventually realized that working like a robot inside a room wasn’t for me, so I went back to working in gardens. I got married at 23 and realized I had to do something with my life; I had to decide.”

Minagawa was, at the time, working with a well-known gardener in Kyoto. It took about another year before it began to sink in that this would be his life’s work. By 24, he had already learned much by way of technique. But gardening, especially in Japan, has layers of knowledge and tradition.

“Knowing botany and the characteristics of the many plants used in gardens is not enough. You have to understand rocks and the many components of a Japanese garden made of rocks. First you have all the landscaping stones. Then you have toro (stone lanterns), stone pots, stepping stones, even the fine gravel paths commonly used at shrines—that we smash up using hand mallets and a special mixture of materials.

“After that, you have to study things like takegaki (bamboo fences) and even carpentry if you are making mon (gateways). You also have to study tea ceremony, I think, to understand what kind of gardens or courtyards would be appropriate to that tradition.”

How long does it take to learn all this?

“I’m still learning,” says Minagawa, over three decades after he started this work.

And what are you best at?

“Arranging rocks. And taki no iwagumi (waterfalls cascading over rocks). I’d say design,” after which Minagawa is quick to differentiate between design and technique in his line of work, where design is the vision and planning, technique is the execution.

I watch him for a while at his technique while he and his team are grooming the grounds of the International House in Roppongi. It’s a week-long job and Minagawa and his team of about five other gardeners, including his son, have driven up from Kyoto.

“I hope this branches out,” mumbles Minagawa as he trims backs some azaleas, “or it’s going to look bald like me.”

He and his team trim quickly, seemingly without an abundance of attention. It’s not at all like many people imagine: gardeners immersed deeply in Zen-like concentration. Instead, they trade banter and seem in good spirits in the warm, early Spring weather. Occasionally, Minagawa scolds or cautions someone.

Have you ever screwed up?

“No,” he quickly replies, “but sometimes there are differences in what I want to create and what, for example, the priest of some temple wants me to create. And I’m also careful. If I have a young helper without the best sense of form or aesthetics, I might not use him so much.”

Maintenance of temple and shrine gardens is a regular job, but the actual creation of one is very rare. Even complete overhauls of established gardens are unusual. Minagawa has worked at some rather hallowed gardens, the names of which he doesn’t want mentioned in any article on him, out of a sense of humility.

So how does one go about getting such work?

“I hate doing sales,” says Minagawa, “There are other gardeners in Kyoto who really work hard at doing sales, but I’ve worked my way here entirely through introductions from friends. I’m not so interested in the money. I love the culture and history of Kyoto. I want to see that passed on and my job is a part of that. I make sure that youth I work with understand the history and culture behind this job, so that doesn’t disappear.”

People in Kyoto and beyond no doubt respect that. He talks to me about some temple priests that have called him in to advise on the design of a new garden which his colleague will actually build. He says he doesn’t want to be involved in the hands-on side of the work because he wants it to be his colleague’s individual work of art.

Which gardeners does he respect?

“Kobori Enshu. That guy, in that era, did some amazing work. There was a psychological element to his gardens that’s incredible.”

Minagawa’s hands are visibly strong, but not from gardening alone. One night he mentions that he does karate so I square off with him. He becomes light on his toes, like Muhammed Ali’s famous “dance like a butterfly” line, and loose with his arms as he pulls up his guard. He throws a few shadow punches—blink and you miss them—which pop millimeters from my chin. We’ve been drinking and I’m glad he doesn’t miss. Minagawa has been practicing shotokanryu for over 40 years and runs his own small dojo.

“Karate is my mental training.”

Minagawa is also an avid participant in local festivals, where he is one of the designated few that gets to shoulder the floats. Word is that he’s very passionate about this and that others are careful not to screw up, as much out of fear of displeasing Minagawa as out of concern for upholding tradition.

“I’ve been hoisting floats in festivals, including the big one in Gion, for twenty years now. I was invited through work connections.”

While Minagawa has benefited his whole life from such connections, he also uses his own to help others. He’s a fixer, connecting appropriate parties in important ways, and perhaps therein resides his power. He’s a gatekeeper as much as a physical gate maker. In Kyoto, where the outcome of many decisions often depend on the nods of individuals in the shadows, being in Minagawa’s good graces does not hurt one’s cause.

In the end, for Minagawa, everything comes back to gardening, not power.

“In my free time, I like to admire works of art made out of stone. I like to go view old toro, ask about where the rock came from, when they were built, what influenced the shape. I like to appreciate the texture of the rock.”

“I have a very small garden at home with four toro. The foundation stone for one is ancient, dating back to the Asuka Period (592-710).”

He smiles and I wait for the rest of the story, but there isn’t one. He’s nodding distantly, as if imagining that stone in his head. It’s an appropriate piece of a garden for him to be proud of. And most people never notice it.
































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