Rejoining The Tribe

For me, bonsai work in Japan is quite different than anywhere else.  The formality of every process and system of organization in daily life contrasts nicely with the idealized feeling of natural beauty we strive to create in the bonsai.

My interest in writing over the last few years continued to wane as I have been traveling basically non-stop.  Life as an American bonsai gypsy is extra tough, as work in America requires a ton of driving and flying.  The hyper social nature of this lifestyle often makes you the center of attention and at the same time very much alone.   Rejoining the bonsai tribe in Japan, albeit briefly, is a nice change of pace.

After being away from Kouka-en since my last short-term visit in Fall of 2013, very little has changed overall.  Many of the bonsai I helped repot in 2011 and 2012 have gone through a repotting cycle since then, so it’s nice to see them continue to thrive.  The trunks of the historically pertinent bonsai have gotten thicker.  People have come and gone.  All of the tools are in the exact same place and the process of repotting a bonsai down to the finest detail remains constant.

The day after I arrived at the garden work commenced.  My mind feels kind of like a lava lamp when you plug it in and the “lava” warms up.  Time to start actually updating the blog : ).

Contrary to what many believe about bonsai apprenticeship in Japan, the formality of processes here does not make you a mindless robot.  It frees you to contemplate deeper matters while accomplishing the days work.  Yes, we do tend to take these habits home with us, but the positive results of steady technical application to a given bonsai produce undeniable results.


Here is a huge Korean Mountain Cherry just repotted into a wooden box for a rest period.  It took quite a bit of brute force and a small mountain of media to repot this one.  Next to it is a Sekka Hinoki I hope I’ll have time to style again.


IMG_6764 IMG_6770



Here it is a few years ago:


Since it was purchased over 30 years ago (at around the size of a baseball bat), repeated cycles of branch removal and bonsai container culture followed by periods of rest in an oversized box have sustained this cherry tree’s vigor without excessive thickening in the wrong places.  Cherry bonsai of any stripe this size are very rare.  More information about this bonsai can be found on Bjorn Bjorholm’s YouTube series Bonsai Art of Japan.

I wrote an article for American Bonsai Society Journal about this tree a few years ago, in case you would like more details on the history of this bonsai.


2011 Leaf Thinning (and enjoying the ease of access)








2012:  Naoki Maeoka fully wired the tree.








Another deciduous bonsai that has steadily evolved is this Prunus mume:















With the surface full of fine roots and fertilizer residue, a good clean-up was necessary along with a the repot.  This is one container you don’t want to scratch with the repotting sickle……IMG_67521918076_1706722899573417_667141780691103156_n

It is rare for me to see bonsai in America that have this much time under their belt with consistent care.  When grown in a container this long, the plant seems to accept it’s status as a bonsai and quits fighting so hard to subvert your efforts.  Well planned repotting cycles and attention to detail have sustained the the long-term tenants of Kouka-en for decades.  Character from age cannot be rushed; both in the trees and patina on containers.  Combine the two and you have something special.  


Thanks for reading along.  The next post will be about a day trip to Himeji.