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The Sharp End: Japanese Utility at Niwaki, Chiltern Street

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The Sharp End: Japanese Utility at Niwaki, Chiltern Street

March 4, 2022

British horticulture is now so Japan-influenced that it is hard to imagine what gardens were like before Jake Hobson brought us Niwaki, his 15-year-old retail company that is subtitled “Great Stuff from Japan.” Jake’s first import to these shores was the three-legged tripod ladder, one of which was easily the most fought-over piece of equipment at Cottesbrooke Hall when I was there as a trainee gardener a decade ago. It was so light, and tall, and sturdy—all the more so for being on three adjustable legs.

Then came the pruning equipment. Japanese knives were already appreciated by good chefs at that time, who thought nothing of ritually cleaning their carbon steel blades in exchange for the sharpest possible edge. Improved garden tools dovetailed with a craze for cloud pruning, and, currently gathering momentum, topiarized trees shaped like broccoli. Jake is a master pruner, as well as an enthusiastic communicator but mainly, he is a purveyor of great stuff (mainly) from Japan online, at Niwaki’s HQ in the English countryside, at a shop in Tokyo, and now in London. Join us for a tour of Chiltern Street, W1:

Photography courtesy of Niwaki.

Above: Mimosa takes flight in the windows of Niwaki in London’s West End.

Gardening aside, it is also difficult to imagine floristry without Ikebana, whether Japan- or Korea-influenced—like the arrangement here, in the hands of Frida Kim, who will be teaching contemporary Korean Ikebana at the Niwaki shop later this month.

Above: Kenzan, a more economical name for flower frogs (as they are known in the west), come in different shapes and sizes.

Submerged in water, the metal grip of a Kenzan makes sense of shallow dishes, or wide Constance Spry vases, or ceramic swans (et cetera) for arrangements, and they look wonderful when they are not hidden away. For a one-and-a-half minute tutorial, see Niwaki’s film on the subject, as well as short visits to traditional tool manufacturers in Japan.

Above, left: Four-piece mini Kenzan set. Right: Higurashi scissors, drop forged in carbon steel, are used for Ikebana, cut flowers, bonsai, light pruning and dead-heading.
Above: At the rear of the London shop, blades and plywood galore.

The online catalog and physical shop offer depth and breadth, from best-selling garden shears to terrifying nail clippers. There is also a good spectrum of pricing, from a Kojima denim work jacket (£259) to magnetic kitchen scissors disguised as a small carrot (£7.50).

Above: Kanejun Mitsukawa Juntaro saw set, £309.

Jake (or @niwakijake as he is most often known) is justifiably proud of the stories and heritage behind each hand-forged tool. These saws for instance are made by a third-generation saw maker in Kanejun, and the handles are made from Paulownia wood, embossed with the purpose of each: for cross, rip, diagonal, flush and keyhole cutting.

Above: “Our garden shears (£79) are a core product and very popular indeed, as is the Crean Mate rust eraser (£15),” says Niwaki Alex.

Used with camellia oil, Crean Mate is key to  the ritual of carbon steel cleaning. It works like an eraser for rust and residues. Keeping blades sharp and clean is a Niwaki mantra: for more in-depth pruning advice from Niwaki Jake, see Boxwood Topiaries: 6 Tips for Trimming Shrubs from Niwaki’s Jake Hobson.

Above: A Hori Hori knife in action.

The Hori Hori (£32 with canvas sheath) is a staple at Niwaki, and another piece of indispensable kit that gardeners are almost fanatical about. It digs, weeds, harvests vegetables, transplants, divides perennials, edges grass and helps to plant bulbs. Just don’t bend it: feeling instead of yanking will help you to be in better and closer contact with your plants and the soil.

Above: The Golden Spade comes in standard or small (£34 or £28). It is an unusual color and is lighter in weight than it looks—with sharp edges.
Above: Jika-tabi, or Japanese garden shoes, to be worn with jika-tabi socks.

During the build-up to the Chelsea Flower Show, in which every footprint counts, the pros can be seen in Jika-tabi, Also available with steel toe caps, these embroidered, unprotected originals make very chic summer footwear, which is reasonably priced (£42). The socks alone are covetable, at £5.

Above: Expert niwaki-style pruning outside the Niwaki shop, London.

Ikebana workshops using kenzan will be held at 38 Chiltern Street from March 30. These will involve either Japanese or Korean methods, alternately taught by Ai Jones and Frida Kim.

For more on Japanese gardening, see:

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