More than a few friends and family members have asked what it was like living as a bonsai apprentice in Japan for 6 weeks. Some days were filled with mochi parties and antique shows. Other days involved lifting, carrying, and more lifting. There was a lot of sitting in the car as we drove as far as Tokyo and Takamatsu, and there was a lot of second hand smoke.
As much as I lived the day-to-day life of a bonsai apprentice, I was a short-timer, and this helped keep my spirits high throughout my visit. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like for Peter Tea or the other Americans studying bonsai abroad. Fortunately for us, they’re doing a great job writing about their experiences.
Peter started the Aichi-en Apprenticeship Program to expose more people to the bonsai life. So far at least four of us have stayed with the Tanakas in their Nagoya home.
Apprentice quarters at Aichi-en
The sum of my furniture: futon, comforter, storage unit, rubbish bin
You’ll notice that the sliding doors and walls offered very little privacy. At any time, the Tanaka’s boys would peek inside to say hi, see if I could play, or stop by for an impromptu computer lesson.
The industrious Hiyuu navigating Facebook
I was fortunate that Peter had been at Aichi-en for seven months when I arrived – plenty of time for him to learn the routine and improve his already considerable bonsai skills. His comfort at Aichi-en insured my comfort there.
Each morning we ate breakfast with the family and then headed out into the sea of bonsai surrounding the house.
Sea of bonsai
We spent much of our time in the workshop. Mr. Tanaka sat just inside the door – I sat to his right, then Peter, and finally the other Mr. Tanaka, a third-year apprentice, sat at the far end of the workshop. Some days were quiet, others were chatty. Snacks appeared around 10:30 and 3:30 each day, as did lunch and dinner at fairly predictable times. What was not predictable, however, was how much time we got to spend in the workshop.
I visited Aichi-en in Fall – show season. This meant that we spent a lot of time with show-related activities that included picking up trees from customers, preparing trees for exhibits, and setting up and later striking the actual exhibits.
At the Daiju-en sales area, part of the 11th Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention and Exhibition held in Takamatsu
Fall is also pine season. When we weren’t doing exhibit-related work, pines filled the workshop.
Mr. Tanaka and me appraising a white pine
Debatable wiring technique
The intrepid Mr. Tanaka – no relation to the boss
Workshop time doesn’t necessarily equate to bonsai time. Peter, apprentice-Tanaka, and I, cleaned the workshop every day and performed tasks that varied from packing boxes to painting display stands. The same was true for Mr. Tanaka. His work came to a halt whenever customers visited, and evenings were often filled with projects like the fabrication of root stands.
Mr. Tanaka at work on a root stand
One apprentice-related topic that deserves special attention is food. It’s one thing to have little control over one’s time. It’s another to have little control over what, and how quickly, one must eat.
I was fed very well and I missed the food the day I returned home. But because we had so little control over what, where, and when we ate, our free time often focused on food.
On those special occasions when we had time off – maybe one day per 10-20 days – we often headed across a busy street to a mall that had a great grocery store. Peter and I picked out everything that looked good and then spent the rest of the day snacking. Treats ranged from the healthy, including Japan’s outstanding – and expensive – produce, to all manner of things fried.
Fried treats at the local grocery
Amazing apples – only $7 for three!
Roasted cherry-flavored mochi with red bean paste
The meals rarely left me hungry – the Japanese develop great appetites at an early age.
What are you looking at?
Finding the bottom of the udon bowl
Peter vs the Taiyaki – waffle batter with red bean paste inside
Our precious days off gave us the opportunity to catch up with friends or with blog posts, explore the neighborhood, or simply sleep. Mundane activities included laundry. Peter and I used the Tanakas’ washing machine, but dried our clothes at a laundromat a few blocks away. In one of the more surreal moments of my visit to Japan, I found myself alone with a uniformed laundry attendant vacuuming beneath the dryers on her hands and knees while the Carpenters sang their greatest hits.
Days off also provided social time with the Tanaka family. One day we headed to the oldest Temple in Nagoya to participate in a service for young boys, of which the Tanakas have three.
The Aichi-en children
Afterwards, we visited an open house hosted by the man who built the Tanaka’s residence.
Traditional Japanese home – hinoki and sugi
We also had a little free time in the mornings before Mr. Tanaka came out to the workshop. I typically walked around appreciating the trees – and pots, of which Aichi-en had plenty.
Hmm, Japanese, 40 years old – maybe just the thing for that pine back home
Above all, I can say the time spent with Peter and the Tanakas was great fun. I learned a lot and had a wonderful time along the way. I sincerely appreciate the effort Peter and the Tanakas took to ensure I had a great trip – if any of you are reading this, thanks again!
On my last evening, Mr. Tanaka presented me with a certificate for completing 6 weeks of study at his nursery. To celebrate, we headed into town and visited a driving range!
Here’s the paper – now on with the party
Of course, it was early December in Nagoya – not the warmest time of the year, but as good a time as any for golf, a sport which all three of us – Mr. Tanaka, Peter and myself – have neglected in recent years due to our obsession with bonsai.
Mr. Tanaka armed against the cold with cigarette and coffee – me with hoodie and 5-iron
The driving range was pretty incredible. After striking a ball, the tee dipped below the artificial grass and arose with another ball in place – there was no bending over at this range. And the vending machine that provided us with the cards used to magically dispense balls proved to be the most thoughtful vending machine I’ve seen. The text reads, “CARD: This machine represents pleasant feeling with simple form and fresh color patterns. Glory producing machine by respecting convenience of users and others.”
“Glory producing machine”
Intense competition on the range – brrr!
After proving that we aren’t the golfers we once were, we lit out for a late night snack – ramen. The evening made for a great finish to an outstanding trip. I can’t wait to go back!
Thanks for reading :)
The USPS unveiled a new series of bonsai stamps last month. The artist, John D. Dawson of Hawaii, came out to Sacramento’s McKinley Park for the “first day issue” rollout. Had I known, I might have attended.
I first heard about the project 18 months ago when the USPS wanted to license the image of one of my trees. The artist had used a photo of my black pine from Bay Island Bonsai’s 2003 exhibit as a reference for the stamp. Upon seeing the design, I was immediately struck by the likeness.
Black pine stamp – January 2012
Black pine – January 2003
The USPS included a bit of a bonsai primer in their announcement of the series, and followed up with a nice piece about how the project took shape. The other stamps in the series feature a banyan, a trident maple, a Sierra juniper, and an azalea – a colorful mix!
This is the most fun I’ve had since my hinoki was featured in a cosmetics catalog.
Hinoki – “The Giving Tree”
Million dollar bonsai
There was a lot of talk about a large white pine at the 11th Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention & Exhibition (ASPAC 2011) offered for 100,000,000 yen. At today’s exchange rate, that’s close to 1.3 million dollars.
Million dollar bonsai
The tree was offered by S-CUBE, the bonsai organization headed by Seiji Morimae. The tree sported a sold sign on the second day of the convention, but I do not know for how much the tree actually sold.
Could a large white pine really be worth $1,000,000? Good question. The pine is big, really big, and it has amazing roots.
Million dollar roots
Good trunk, good roots, and the man behind S-CUBE, Seiji Morimae
What I’m learning is that it can be difficult to determine the value of trees like this because they are unique. Vendors have heard about the slow economies around the world in many languages this week, but a few good buyers have been leaving a slew of red sold signs in their wake, and the very best trees sold well – hence the success of S-CUBE at the event. If only more exhibits featured such nice trees!
Japanese maple – sold
White pine – sold
Chinese juniper – sold
Cork bark black pine
Japanese black pine – sold
Chinese juniper – sold
White pine – sold
White pine – sold
A row of great trees
I recently had the good fortune to attend a bonsai workshop run by Akio Kondo. In contrast to the last Kondo workshop I attended, this event was more pensive, more contemplative. My trees experienced no radical transformations. Instead, we spent time making plans for the future and talking about how and when to execute these plans. Not the most exciting bonsai work, but some of the most important work. Others in the workshop had similar experiences.
Kondo had a number of suggestions for the trident maple above. Some branches were left long so they could thicken. Others were kept short. Long drooping branches were wired slightly upward. In a year or two, the long branches will be shortened to stubs and the process will begin again the following year.
A grafted prostrata juniper with wonderfully green shimpaku foliage showed up for styling. Trees benefit greatly from professional attention at this stage of development. Watching the tree shape up with help from a such a talented artist was a treat. Although the day ended before the tree was finished, I’m hoping I’ll see it completed before long.
Kondo spent a long time making subtle adjustments to an old procumbens juniper. Cutting a bit of a branch here, wiring a branch there, Kondo performed fairly mundane work on the tree. We were surprised, when he finished, at the difference these small adjustments made. Although the tree will continue to improve as the branch pads develop, we now have a much better idea of what form the bonsai will take in the future.
Refining a branch pad
The matter of the front is still up for grabs a bit. The front pictured below is a good candidate, as is a similar front a few degrees to the left.
The primary styling goal is to highlight the interesting movement in the trunk.
Sonare – trunk detail
The most radical step in the tree’s immediate future will be repotting. Setting the tree in a more appropriately sized – read: smaller – pot will make a world of difference.