[Book review] Cutting back by Leslie Buck

Cutting back: My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto
Leslie Buck

First published 2018
By Timber Press
Reviewed edition: kindle ebook
ISBN 10: 1-604-69793-8
ISBN 13: 978-1-604-69793-3


The intention of the book is described as followed:

[…] I started thinking about how I’d accomplished all of my dreams, even the biggest one—apprenticing with a Japanese garden company. So I asked myself, “Well, what next?” and a voice popped into my head: “Write the book.”

-Interview with Timber Press

Leslie Buck is a garden designer and aesthetic pruner who specializes in natural design in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has over two decades of gardening experience and a fine art degree from U.C. Berkeley and the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts in France. In 2000, Leslie studied with Uetoh Zoen, one of the oldest and most highly acclaimed landscape companies in Japan. Leslie has worked, taught, and volunteered in hundreds of private landscapes and as well as dozens of public gardens including the Portland Japanese Garden, Hakone Japanese Garden, Tassajara Zen Center, and Merritt College.

Cover and Layout
I received an ebook for review purposes and can’t say anything about the print and paper quality. What I can say is, that there are illustrations inside the book, which embellish every chapter title. This looks very pretty, even in the ebook version. However, because the layout of a responsive ebook seldom goes well together with pictures and graphics, there are some minor problems regarding these illustrations, disturbing the reading.

The cover of the book is very simple. On a white background is the canopy of a Japanese styled pine with the title “Cutting back” in black, a subtitle in red and the author’s name. The font reminds at a playful handwriting and reflects the tone of this book, which is full of more or less humorous anecdotes.

Contents of the book:


24 chapters with stories of the author’s life in Kyoto.


I looked forward to reviewing this autobiographical story about the life as a garden apprentice in Kyoto because I myself came to Japan as a trained gardener to work in a Japanese gardening company for some months.

Although my story in Japan began many years after Leslie Buck did her apprenticeship in Kyoto, and which took place in a company near Tokyo, not Kyoto, I could see a lot of parallels, but also differences in our lives in Japan.

In this book, the author describes how she came to Kyoto, what concerns she had and what drove her to take the final step to go to Japan.

We accompany Leslie Buck on her first struggles to find a job and how she ended with one of the most prestigious companies in the end. But this is only the beginning of her journey and she takes us with her into the beautiful gardens of Kyoto and let us participate in the hard work of a gardener’s life.

Leslie Bucks writing style is flowery and often shows us her feelings and emotions very openly. We see her vulnerability, feel sorry for her and feel joy with her.

Her narrative style has some very good tweaks. Sometimes she can find perfect transitions between her experiences in California and her works in Kyoto. However, in some situations, this style made it difficult to know if she was telling a story from America or Japan, and only at the end, it became clear. One example for such a situation can be found right at the beginning of the book when she describes a scene where she is standing in a tree and a pedestrian comes along and asks if she can get a branch of the tree for her home.
I expected this scene to play in Japan because this is something I experience very often. But the story ends with the sentence, that something like this would have never happened to her in Japan.

Although I see the overall story very positive and successful, I couldn’t fully sympathize with the young Leslie Buck on her first working trip to Japan. Taking holidays within such a short internship (for me an apprenticeship is lasting several years) is a no-go except when agreed on from the beginning, not only in Japan. When I read about it, I wanted to scream “No! No! You can’t do that!”. And this was not the only situation I wanted to scream out to her. Only thinking about the long lost/won war and that some people could still see her as an enemy let me shook my head in unbelief, especially when it came to her poor boss who was meant to kill himself during said war. It never seemed to occur to her, that he wasn’t proud to be a kamikaze pilot. Most of these people were just poor young boys with their whole lives ahead, forced to make exactly this lives an abrupt end.
Instead of thinking he hates her because she is American, she could have been thankful that he survived and was able to teach her.

Despite this story, I enjoyed this book, although I couldn’t forget about it and it gave me an uneasy feeling, which I couldn’t suppress until the end.

Cutting back is an autobiographical work telling the story of a foreign woman working in a men’s business in Japan, which happened almost two decades ago. Japan has changed since then, but some things haven’t changed at all. I want to recommend this book to everyone who wants to work in Japan in a field away from the big (IT) companies or who is interested in a true story with true feelings of a foreigner living in Japan. It is a story of hard and exhausting work and how difficult it can be to hold on and don’t give up. It is something very few people achieve who come to Japan from Europe or America to work in the gardening field for more than a few months.

Although I couldn’t always agree on what Leslie Buck wrote, I see this book as a very important guide for people who consider living and working in Japan, especially in the landscaping sector. It shows the true face of the industry and not the transfigured image we might have.

A great thank you to Timber Press for providing a copy for reviewing purposes when I asked.

If you got interested in this book, I would be happy if you buy it via the following link:
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Useful tools and resources:

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