From Blossom to Box Hedge - An interview with Jake Hobson.
Inspired by the elegant beauty of the Japanese garden, Niwaki (garden tree) makes superior garden tools that cross continents. I spoke to sculptor, writer, and gardener Jake Hobson to find out more about his flourishing, independent business.
Behind most inspirational brands is a story, a change of direction or an accidental discovery. Founder of high-end gardening accessory company Jake left his childhood love of nature in the woods and headed for London to pursue a career in sculpture. It was a trip to Japan to witness the Hanami, (flower viewing, the annual cherry blossom festivities) that changed the direction of his life in more ways than one.
"I went to Japan to see the cultural aspect of Hanami. Not the horticultural phenomena, but peoples’ excitement, the cultural, artistic aspects. This trip started my interest in gardens."
But it's not just the beauty of the cherry blossom that made an impression on Jake.
"Japan is my life. In Japan, everything is done well. They are respectful, things are made well, and they have excellent customer service. It's a pleasant country to be in aesthetically; there's lots of beauty. It's a very small country, but they balance things carefully. It's a nice way to do things."
It was not long before Jake was back in Japan. This time he was there to learn all he could about Japanese gardening techniques and took a job in a garden nursery in a rural part of Osaka.
"Gardening apprenticeships in Japan last about seven years, and the student lives with the master. Mine was a more casual affair, and I'd go out and visit gardens with the team. It was fun and relaxed. It was here I learned the techniques of tree training, pruning and root balling."
It wasn't the biological aspects of gardening that fascinated Jake, he was and still is fascinated by the sculptural nature of the Japanese garden.
"The common perception is that topiary is twee and stuffy. We take the contemporary garden and Japanese influence to create something more organic, relaxing English stuffiness."
'The goal is not to make a new nature but to make a copy of existing, desirable nature. Japanese landscape designer' Shiro Nakane
"I'm not a nurturing gardener. I like the man-made aspects of it. Pruning etc. I love the simple process of doing something - the artistry, the sculpture, the physical act. The trio of plant, tool and person."
The quality and care taken to produce Nawaki's products, show deep respect for tools, and I wonder if this has always been the case.
"Tools did not start as the thing. They became the thing. As I got deeper and deeper into it, I became interested in how they were made - the benefits & disadvantages. Even going as far as changing the way I work to accommodate the tools."
Jake did not start out to create a gardening tool business but wanted to use some of the equipment he had enjoyed using in Japan. His Brother-in-law Haruyasu shipped over some tripod ladders, secateurs, and topiary clippers, which worked just as well when clipping British box hedges. He demonstrated that Japanese gardening tools were not just for the art of Bonsai and could be used in western gardens just as well.
With a strong appreciation of the sculptural aspect of tools and an experience of high-functionality, Jake wanted to seek out the best traditional makers he could.
"Building relationships with artisans in Japan took 15 years of graft - to become accepted. In Japan, manufacturers are either huge corporations or family businesses. It's common to find three generations of one family working in the same business. For example, an elderly couple may have handed the business over to their son and be training their grandson as an apprentice. Traditional Blacksmiths are not highly ambitious, but they are focused on doing what they do well. They won't cut corners to save money or suddenly change materials."
Japanese horticulture is not simply about outside spaces and cultivating and nurturing small plants indoors are also important art forms. Bonsai and the mindful practice of flower arranging (ikebana) provide a connection to the natural world and a quiet and considered appreciation of its beauty.
I wonder if this connection was important for people's spirit during lockdown?
"Yes, there's a sense of peace and calm overseeing a plant, and people get hooked, even if it's just watching an acorn sprout in a glass of water during the winter months. In Japan, indoor gardening is the same, but on a smaller scale, and they still use their outdoor scissors in the home."
Although Niwaki has a thriving online customer base, they became aware that people liked the human connection, to see and feel the products. Customers travelled miles to visit their showroom in Dorset, and many bricks and mortar stores started to stock their products. So Niwaki opened its first store in London.
Why an urban setting?
"We had experience merchandising our goods at RHS Chelsea. We really enjoyed being creative with our displays using Japanese inspired furniture. We also wanted to catch the international market, so we looked for somewhere central but not too busy. We want people to come and spend 20/30 mins with us. A destination shop and not simply a place with high footfall."
The Niwaki showroom found its home on Chiltern Street W1 in Marylebone. Their neighbours are the world-renowned candlemaker Cire Trudon, and the street was once voted 'London's coolest' by Conde Nast Traveller. The shop looks nothing like a communal garden plant or tool store, with its elegant displays and Japanese influences resembling more of a high-end boutique. Although beautiful, it's not just skin deep. The quality of products and customer service remains a priority. Jake has taken on the Japanese style of customer service, which is reflected in Niwaki's relationship with customers.
"We sell sharp knives and scissors, so items need to be carefully displayed. Our staff will talk you through the items, and product knowledge is key. And modesty. We know that some customers will know more than us. We want to be friendly, entertaining, light-hearted and fun both visually and verbally."
What's next for Niwaki?
"We're opening a new warehouse in Dorset. A more intentional community space so we can do more in house and collaborate with local designers. I'm really keen to travel again, back to Japan, and build further links with the USA. Oh, and I plan to write a third book!"
Despite being clipped by a global pandemic, Niwaki is continuing to thrive and grow. Inspired by the beauty of trees and the noble art of the blacksmith, they continue to produce beautiful, functional tools for mindful gardening that can be enjoyed the world over.
I'd like to thank Jake for taking the time out of his busy week to chat with me. To shop Niwaki tools VISIT