Rod Hardingham’s favourite tree, a black pine in Tatsuno, embodies not only his love of gardens and nature, but also a decades-long affinity with Japan and Japanese culture. “My wife, Etsuko, is Japanese,” says Hardingham, 69. “She was working for an American company in Tokyo, but her English was awful, so they sent her to the UK to improve.” Hardingham’s brother Stephen was her English teacher. He made the introduction and, before long, Rod and Etsuko were married.
It was on Hardingham’s first trip to meet Etsuko’s parents that he visited Tatsuno, in Hyogo Prefecture, and saw the sloping black pine. “My wife’s family live in a town called Himeji in the west of Japan. Her sister suggested we drive about 20 minutes over to Tatsuno because it still has a large number of samurai houses and other architectural remnants.”
The tree stands outside the most prominent of these, Tatsuno Castle, which dates to the 16th century. “The castle itself is small, but it has these beautiful, old weathered trees, which are cultivated according to the traditional practice of niwaki,” says Hardingham. “This pine has always stood out for me on account of its dramatic appearance. It has been deliberately slanted to give the impression that it is struggling to grow against the wind and it is perched beside this huge rock. I think the tree represents how nature forces changes on to living things while the rock is permanent, solid and unchanging.”
Hardingham estimates the tree to be between 80 and 100 years old and, considering that it is on the other side of the world from his Kent home, he has done well to visit it frequently over the past three decades. “I’ve never lived there, but we go back and forth to Japan quite often and I try and take a day trip to Tatsuno every time. We’re supposed to be there now, but obviously there’s a pandemic on.”
Given the current restrictions on international travel, Hardingham will have to make do with his backup: a 20-year-old black pine he has been cultivating in the garden of the B&B he runs. “I’ve given it a similar slant and even made an effort to cloud-prune it, so it looks as similar as possible.”