Feeling Light-Headed

I had about 10 posts to write about things going on in America but those can be written later.  I’m on the front lines of bonsai excellence again in Osaka, Japan to continue my studies and help my Oyakata prepare for the Kokofu-ten and Taikan-ten.  Jet-lagged as hell I showed up after arrival.  As I studied all the new arrivals and long-term tenants, a wild-collected Tosho (Juniperus rigida) caught my attention and I mentioned it to my Senpai Maeoka-san.  No sooner did I comment on it then I was told it would be my first tree to style.  With three apprentices under me now, the cleaning up of the bark and deadwood was done before I arrived.  Not sure how to say “hooray” in Japanese….  My time has been served as lowest deshi.

Old Front
Old Front
The new front.
The new front.

Some interesting and very fragile deadwood (which we will get to later) was left from previous stylings and almost every branch had eda-jin, or deadwood in the branch.  This one is a 2 out of 10 on the pain scale.  It is a very good foliage type due to needle length and makes it the perfect variety for a slender trunked tree.   Many branches especially on the back have become too full and heavy for the trunk line and diameter.  This bonsai is elegant and will soon be refined by the end of the post.

The previous front has become the “back” for a number of reasons; most important being the base on the other side is more interesting.  Another appealing point to highlight on the new front is the subtle presence and absence of deadwood as your eye follows the trunk to the apex.  It was not possible to take too many photos during styling as November is the busiest month at Kouka-en.  Shoots were thinned back past the clusters of thick terminal shoots throughout and about half the branches cut back or off.  Lightening the foliage mass of the atama (head) of this bonsai balances everything out.  It’s important to note that this tree was allowed to grow freely for at least a year maybe two before styling.  Rest periods are a given here in Japan for bonsai but unfortunately not so common elsewhere.  Overworking a tree to keep it in a constant state of show-readiness is a good way to weaken your prized possessions.

After the canopy was wired and trunk line reset, I broached the issue of the very long jin on the right side with my Oyakata.  My impulse to snap it off each time a wire wobbled it was kept at bay until this point.

Before Bending the JinThe Boss suggested bending the jin to follow the trunk line back down the tree as an option but it was decidedly contrived looking.  You’ve got to explore options.  We moved on to the notion of creating the feeling of a tenjin (top-jin) which is far more appealing as it leads the eye from base into outer space…..

To move the jin where I wanted it to go, a pocket blowtorch, water, and aluminum foil were used.  Just preheat to 350 degrees and let sit after baking for as little time as possible before bending.  While I do not think the purpose of growing this branch out and killing it or the preservation of a wild branch was to make this sort of tenjin, it’s hard to ask for anything better.  Bending the jin required multiple guy wires and a whole lot of breath holding.

Some may be asking “is he gonna show us how or not?”.  As with repotting, there are some techniques that require both hands and fast action so I didn’t document the whole process.  I’d try this on something not that important first. DSC_0468 There are other ways to bend jin and deadwood like a steamer or hot towel but for the purposes of this project, this method was used.

1.  Wet area to be bent ideally via overnight rain plus a mist bottle later or just wet repeatedly with mist bottle.

2.  Wrap live veins near bend point(s) with aluminum foil.  Create shields like the ones in the photo above using cardboard wrapped in thin wet cloth plus aluminum foil around that.  This makes a malleable shield for foliage and branches above burn site (hot air rises….).

3.  Wet bend site one more time then wrap with thin layer of aluminum foil to avoid burning the branch.

4.  Prepare a guy wire to hold the branch in place after the bend.  You can see my first guy wire in the photo above ready for the bend to the “left and up”.

5.  Decide what foliage and branching above and nearby will likely be killed / stressed by the pocket blowtorch and figure out how to protect it.  Wet aluminum foil at bend point a little to avoid burning the foil.

6.  Cook bend point like a Creme Brûlée from the area just before bend point and a little after then use jin pliers to bend the jin where you want it.

7.  Rinse and repeat.


The final tenjin placement is much better although until a few pads fill out and the tree is further refined, an “X” is formed.  On the next styling, the apex and right side will be thinned aggressively and the second highest branch on the right side completely removed.   A long-term client who is one of the oldest Kansai Region clients to exhibit in the Kokofu-ten purchased the tree a few days after it was styled.

The Taikan-ten is rapidly approaching and everyone is racing to prepare for the sales area and marathon of work involved.  A number of Kouka-en’s clients have bonsai displays ready for the exhibition including this chojubai.  DSC_0391

An upcoming article on chojubai will be in International Bonsai Magazine soon.  I’ll have a spread of my favorite bonsai, kusamono, and perhaps even a candid shot of Bill Valavanis at the show.  Be sure to check out his blog HERE.  While this provides definitive proof that Bill is a masochist, his posts are a great addition to the blogosphere.