SAITAMA -- It's a rainy day in autumn, drops glistening on the bulky trunk and outstretched branches and leaves of a majestic tree -- a scene worthy of some grand landscape out of a story. But this Japanese zelkova is in fact a miniature tree just 40 centimeters tall. The 60-year-old "bonsai" miniature tree is planted in a pot, the soil gripped firmly by its roots, and it forms growth rings year after year.
The Omiya Bonsai Village, in the city of Saitama, is home to five bonsai establishments, giving the whole area the look of a large diorama. One of them, Seikouen, was originally founded in Tokyo's Negishi area, north of Ueno, some 170 year ago, toward the end of the Edo period (1603-1867). Seikouen is now headed by fifth-generation master Kaori Yamada, 43, and has a staff of about 30.
Japan's bonsai history dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), when it was begun as one aspect of garden culture among the imperial family and aristocrats. From the middle ages onward, the practice also gathered samurai-class enthusiasts, and flourished during the Edo period.
The culture of landscape gardening and planting trees spread within Edo Castle, home of the shogun, as well as throughout the town of Edo where daimyo feudal lords and the shogun's samurai retainers had set up residences and mansions. Even the common folk, who could not own large gardens, could grow the trees in front of tenement houses if they were small enough to fit in small wooden boxes or planters. The term "bonsai" began to be used from the Meiji period (1868-1912), and prior to this, they were referred to as "potted plants," among other names.
"In the town of Edo, there was demand for landscapers, which forced craftsmen to polish their skills. During this time, grafting and selective breeding were also carried out, and gardeners seemed to have great skill. It is said that Japan's gardening was on par with that of the English," said Yamada.
To go back to the very beginning, what exactly is the difference between a plain potted plant and a bonsai tree?
"As opposed to cultivating potted plants, where the main goal is to appreciate their growth, bonsai involves expressing some sort of landscape in the container. This landscape contains the thoughts and sensibility of the creator and the individual who grows the work. How one interprets this landscape differs depending on the individual, like when we view abstract paintings. The practice can be likened to painting a picture atop a container using living plants."
Yamada showed us around the garden. The oldest work there is a distinguished "goyomatsu," or Japanese white pine, which has been passed down from the time of Seikouen's first master Shonosuke. The tree is said to be around 350 years old, counting from when it had been growing wild on a mountain in present-day Fukushima Prefecture, northeast Japan. Careful tending of bonsai over many years can produce trees with branches stretching out in unique shapes, imbuing the work with its own allure. The bonsai term "mochikomi" refers to the duration that a bonsai has been cultivated in its container. The older the mochikomi, the more highly acclaimed it is, and the greater its price.
"There are trees that live longer than human beings. What we see before us is only a brief moment in the whole lifespan of the bonsai tree. The tree's condition is also contingent on the season and that year's weather. In recent years, they have also been affected by global warming. The art of bonsai is to devote time and elaborately cultivate the trees, all for an encounter that lasts for only a brief moment. Bonsai may be a luxurious pastime unique to Japan, with its bountiful nature and rich variety of seasons."
Ever since the spread of the coronavirus, fewer people have been visiting the bonsai garden. Meanwhile, Yamada says there have been more young female visitors to the "Saika bonsai" schools she leads, as they claim they have more free time. In 2017, the world bonsai convention was held in the city of Saitama, gathering enthusiasts from around the world.
Bonsai, which tended to be seen as a hobby for old men in retirement, seems to be growing into a new form of expression due to modern values.
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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A word of wisdom: Bonsai is the art of painting landscape that grows through four seasons
Originally, I thought of bonsai as a refined hobby that only a select few could master and appreciate, and felt the classic goyomatsu five-needle pine had a dignified and unapproachable presence.
To my surprise, though, Seikouen's fifth-generation head Kaori Yamada told us that there is no right or wrong when interpreting the scenery captured in that pot with its miniature tree. Even if the work's creator had a specific location in mind -- a mountain, a Japanese garden, or a nostalgic landscape depicted in a traditional ink painting -- the viewer is free to interpret and understand it by projecting their own landscapes onto the work, familiar or imagined.
Not only are the bonsai similar to artworks in terms of viewing and appreciating them, but also when it comes to creating them, said Yamada.
"Bonsai works embody elegant landscapes that cannot possibly exist in the natural world," she said. "Creating a bonsai is like painting a picture to depict what you'd like to see in a landscape."
At the same time, Yamada spoke passionately about the natural aspect of bonsai; that they are, after all, living beings that change form over time. "The concept of 'mochikomi' is about how a bonsai grows while going through the four seasons, and how a continuous repetition of this cycle brings out more and more elegance in the plant."
If more than one plant is grown in a container, they will naturally compete for nutrients, water, and light, and some plants will be strong competitors while others are weak. The miniature trees are also impacted by external factors like the changing seasons and climate change.
As the plants used for bonsai can live for several hundred years, the craftsperson who takes care of them can only witness the plant for a brief moment within its long history, even if they own it for their entire lives. Yamada said that as a craftsperson herself, she reckons that some of the bonsai she cares for may have passed their peak, while others may reach their heyday many decades from now, and that she may not be able to witness them in their complete, perfect form.
"Bringing the bonsai nearer to its completion and taking part in its growth without seeing the full picture is tricky, but also the rewarding part of the practice," said the bonsai shop head, choosing each of her words carefully.
My mental image of bonsai as a stiff and solemn artform was transformed. I now see it as a fascinating practice that combines both natural and artistic elements to create an ever-growing landscape inside a small container.
(By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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The Bonsai Village, which includes Seikouen, has a high concentration of gardening businesses, and was formed after shops moved from Tokyo to Saitama, north of the capital, following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The area was selected for its mineral-rich red clay, a feature of the Kanto loam layer, and the plentiful groundwater veins flowing beneath the Kanto Plain. The suburb is also close to Tokyo, and was convenient for shipping purposes. In the early Showa period (1926-1989), about 30 bonsai businesses were based here, but only five remain today. Nearby, there is the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, which introduces the history and characteristics of bonsai of the four seasons.
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The plants used for bonsai are perennials and can be mainly classified into five kinds: "shohaku" evergreens (e.g. pines, Chinese junipers); "hanamono" or flowering trees (e.g. sakura cherry trees, ume plum trees); "mimono" or fruit trees; "hamono" or trees characterized by their leaves (e.g. maple trees, Japanese zelkova) and "kusamano" or grass. The classic bonsai is the "goyomatsu" five-needle pine, or Japanese white pine. On top of being evergreen and having a long life, its trunk and branches are flexible and can be shaped easily.
"The tree has a massive presence, and is so attractive that you fall in love with it," says Yamada.
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Around 1850, first-generation master Shonosuke opened a shop, Oukeien, near the current JR Uguisudani Station in Tokyo's Negishi area. The establishment was renamed Seikouen (literally "pure fragrance garden") by the second-generation master Hatsugoro, who was moved by the scent of plums. In 1943, during the time of third-generation head Kamajiro, the establishment was moved to its current location to escape war damage. Seikouen now preserves and spreads bonsai culture that flourished in Edo, while also coming up with a new bonsai form pairing flowering plants with the tree in the planter. The establishment also has a wide variety of containers, as well as compact ones for placing on balconies and in rooms. Seikouen has seven "Saika bonsai" schools in the greater Tokyo area, including at the shop in Saitama, and also holds online classes.
Seikouen's address is: Bonsaicho 268, Kita Ward, Saitama, Saitama Prefecture.
Its official website is https://www.seikouen.cc/ (in Japanese)
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The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights Japanese traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.
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