READ: the swallows will soon be leaving / SAVE THE DATE: Niwaki Chiltern Street 1st Anniversary Party
What are you doing during the season of white dew, on the second day of the swallows leaving? No, it’s not a trick question, but if you want to answer truthfully you’ll need to be au fait with the classification of the 24 sekki (divisions) and further 72 ko (subdivisions) that constitute the Japanese microseason calendar.
Based on an ancient Chinese system, the particular calendar we’re referring to was devised in 1685 by a court astronomer called Shibukawa Shunkai, who adapted an existing Chinese calendar to match observed events closer to home.
Reading highly evocative names such as “distant thunder” (31 March–4 April), “Rainbows hide” (22-26 November) and – a personal favourite – “worms surface” (10–14 May) you may wonder how much is close observation from a diverse-range of sources and how much is poetic licence. Was Shibukawa-san updating a way of measuring time or composing a long-form poem, with the calendar as the central conceit? Or it is a bit of both: an almanac for aesthetes, if you will?
Either way, dreamers, artists, naturalists and gardeners can call on this more gentle method of noting the passing of time, which, in an increasingly digital world, has a pleasingly analogue, imprecise ring to it. It is also noteworthy how few of the entries relate to any sort of ‘useful’ activity: they are much more about noticing and appreciating the small moments in life, which is not a bad analogy for the pleasures of gardening.
Returning to our original question, what you should be doing on the 21 September (mid-way through the departure of the aforementioned swallows) is celebrating the 1st anniversary of Niwaki Chiltern Street. Please join our Founder, Jake, Chiltern Street Manager, Darren, and his assistant, Lucie, along with the rest of the Niwaki crew at the shop from 6pm for drinks, nibbles, tool chat and a special (pink!) anniversary giveaway. Call Niwaki Chiltern Street for more information.
Here in the environs of Niwaki HQ, the sun and rain have conspired to send our gardens and hedgerows into overdrive, presenting the perfect excuse to dust off our Niwaki Original Tripod Ladders (Ha! As if we’d let them get dusty!), don our favourite, weather-beaten Niwaki Canvas Cap, sharpen our trusty Niwaki Garden Shears and enter the fray.
We get so used to working with the Niwaki Original and En-Pro Adjustable Tripod ladders that we sometimes forget what it was like in the dark ages of ordinary, A-frame and leaning ladders. Traditional ladders were a by-word for imminent disaster. Sit-coms and cartoons of the late 20th Century were full of mishaps involving hapless heroes and heroines comically wobbling their way towards A&E (that’s ER for our North American readers). What a different comedic cultural landscape we might have known had Niwaki Jake been born decades earlier? Makes you think.
Discussing the benefits of the tripod design with a customer at Gathering (an event held at the peerless Burford Garden Co.) the other day, we were reminded just how reassuring it is to climb a three-footed ladder for the first time and discover there is no wobble. Of course, it makes perfect sense once you try it.
We may say this every year, but THIS year’s Niwaki catalogue really does have the finest selection of great stuff from Japan available this side of Cape Irizaki. And what’s more, it will soon be landing on doorsteps up and down the country, tantalising and enticing gardening connoisseurs with a trug-ful of tools, gear, tripod ladders, homeware and much, much more.
With over 300 different products, this year’s publication is packed tighter than a Shinjuku Line carriage at rush hour (and trust me, that’s packed). Where else will you find a Japanese Grater (p.55), the best shears money can buy (p.19), a canvas apron emblazoned with Eley Kishimoto’s iconic flash pattern (p.29) and kitchen knives (pp.54–59) so sharp they’ll make your old knives feel like something unearthed next to mammoth bones in the back of a cave? Well, there’s this website I suppose, but you can’t get your red pen out, circling what you fancy on a website can you?
What colour is springtime? Stepping out into the garden or the woods near Niwaki HQ in Dorset, or Hibiya Park, Tokyo (pictured - thanks Yuri!) the answer would seem to be green. Every new leaf, over-saturated with chlorophylls, is busy absorbing blue and red light, reflecting unwanted green light back to our eyes. Under the canopy of a freshly minted beech tree or the majestic candelabra of the flowering horse chestnuts, the air itself seems almost to have turned green.
The greenness of spring seems beyond doubt, so you might be surprised to learn that in Japanese, and indeed many other languages, green is not such a clearly delineated concept. In fact, the colour word most likely to be used in relation to spring in Japan is the noun “ao” 青 and its adjective “aoi” 青い, which could be translated as “fresh” or “newly grown” or “unripe” and carries with it a strong sense of blue as well as green. The kanji itself (青) originates from the Chinese word “qing” 青 which again implies “blue-green freshness”, and is used almost exclusively with naturally occurring phenomena, like the sky, grass and the ocean.
When Oliver Spencer, friend and customer, approached us to collaborate on a range of workwear, we jumped at it. After all, everyone loves hard-wearing canvas work trousers, especially stylish ones, and what could be more fun than speccing up a new gilet? (Golden rule of gilets: pockets, and lots of ’em!)
Of all the tropes and supposed characteristics of the Japanese way of life to have lodged in the Western consciousness, few have gained more traction – cemented in our brains by a hit book and TV series – than the notion of Japan as a land of uncluttered tidiness.
A quick visit to one of the charming but somewhat chaotic blacksmith’s workshops in Niigata would soon put paid to the idea that all Japanese are up to speed with this concept. That’s not to say there isn’t an underlying sense of order in such places: the functional simplicity of the secateurs and other fine products they create arises, in part, from the craftsman’s familiarity with the materials and tools of the trade, and these must be in the right place at the right time in the right condition. But Zen-like spaces these workshops are not.
Like most people, here at Niwaki we vacillate between the two positions. On one hand we love the sight of a tidy garden shed or a freshly clipped hedge, but on the other hand, like most gardeners, we have an ever-growing stack of broken plant pots that we’re keeping just in case, and let’s not mention the disorder and confusion that has taken hold in the back of the Niwaki Land Rover.
Whatever your take on all this, if you’ve got tools you need somewhere to store them and maybe a way to transport them, and we have several stylish new solutions to these age-old problems. We can’t guarantee you’ll achieve a higher spiritual plane as you rearrange your bits and pieces, but you can at least sleep well knowing you’ll be able to lay your hands on that spare spring for your Niwaki GR Pro Clippers or your well-used Niwaki Creanmate just when you need them (assuming you can remember where you’ve put the Tool Box itself).
Available in three sizes and two colours, these fine receptacles for stuff are smart enough to keep around the home – after all, it’s not just tools that need stashing – but tough enough to keep handy in a Landy and use non-stop in a workshop.
Click any photo to inspect the range.
In amongst the madness of 2021, Soeda-san took a trip to Niigata to document a few of the craftspeople (and, in some cases, their grannies and their cats) whose expertise sets Niwaki products apart from the crowd. Gain an insight into how the raw materials are forged, hammered, sharpened and polished into finished products. It’s physical, messy, sometimes dangerous work, that, to the untrained eye, approaches a magical process. We hope you’ll agree the end results make it all worth while, and what’s more, it’s fascinating to watch.
Do not adjust your monitor: what you are seeing is indeed a faithful representation of the luminance and colour of the majestic Ginkgo biloba trees in late November and early December, shot just last week by Soeda – our man with a cam in Japan.
If you’ve been down to Niwaki HQ in Semley (near Shaftesbury in Dorset) over the past few months, you’ll have quite rightly sensed that change was afoot.
Over the summer (remember summer?) our showroom closed temporarily, reappearing – on more clement days and in much reduced terms – as a pop-up shop on the back of our bright yellow, modified Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser. There’s only so much you can fit on a flatbed truck – even one as stylish as ours – and although we continued to offer click and collect, it pained us to see disappointed customers who had hoped to browse the entire range.
On a clear, bright September morning, with the sun just warming the red bricks and stucco Neptune gargoyles of the handsome mansion block across the road, Niwaki Chiltern Street officially opened its doors to gardening aficionados, seekers of considered tools and accessories, denim freaks, and anyone else drawn in by the sheer elegance of its Jones Neville-crafted interior. We hope you will pay us a visit soon, if not today, to see the shop for yourself – we’re bursting with pride and can’t wait to show you around – but in the meantime, please let us whet your appetite with some information about how to find us and what to expect.
Sitting here at Niwaki HQ, Dorset, it’s sometimes easy to forget that our products begin their lives on the other side of the world.
Your favourite Moku Trowel found its shape in the hands of a father and son team in Niigata, and the Niwaki Blue Steel Higonokami Folding Knife you secretly covet couldn’t have been made anywhere but Miki, Hyogo Prefecture, since its 5th generation knife makers are the only remaining team who can use the protected name ‘Higonokami’ for their product
If you were heading to Japan for the Olympics, which you’re not and neither are we for reasons too obvious and depressing to go into, we would definitely recommend mixing spectating business with gardening pleasure and taking a trip to a few of the country’s otherworldly gardens and temples.
Sugoi! The 2021 Niwaki catalogue is hot off the press and winging its way to homes, greenhouses, sheds and follies across the country as you read this.
We don’t want to spoil all the fun, but you can read a little more to whet your appetite: click through to read the full story.
Although aimed at beginners, seasoned old pros should find something useful here too, and at the very least enjoy tut-tutting and disagreeing, for the first rule of box clipping is there are no rules in box clipping.
Last October, dodging typhoons, we found ourselves in Kyoto. Enquiries were made, Kimura san, Japanese gardener and friend, obliged. Hence a day filming at the Keihanna Commemorative Park, somewhere between Kyoto and Nara.
We dropped in on exhibition in Tokyo by Keishi Miyahara at the Tsubaki Atelier. Prepare for moss.
The Niwaki Stories
Once, before Instagram, there was a thing called a blog. Now, we all have to try harder.
Reiwa here we come!
Join us as we scale the peaks of Kongo san, an unspectacular mountain in Osaka. Cable cars are acceptable.
A-chan, Kan-chan and Ya-chan, the Furukawa brothers at their family nursery in Osaka, where Jake leant his stuff.
In a list of big excitements that have befallen me of late – including the birth of our boy Digby more than two years ago now, and Arsenal coming from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Emirates – spotting a tree might not seem that significant…
Two words. Carol Klein.