I’m soon approaching my 1 year mark of my apprenticeship in Japan. I recently took a brief visit to California last month for some work and to see family and friends. It’s given me some time to review my thoughts and feelings of my time invested so far. I wanted to be open and honest with both the excitement and growth I experience here, but equally the stress and difficulties I face.
spring work on a tosho
Bonsai undoubtedly is my greatest passion. It’s something I absolutely love and has served as a form of meditation and healing during stressful times in my past. While I have doubts of whether my decision was the right choice, I absolutely do not regret it as I made it myself. To that end I am grateful to members of the bonsai community who encouraged me and the family that supports me being here.
Being in an immersive environment, naturally, has allowed me to hone down and really accelerate my skill and knowledge in bonsai. Bonsai is union of art and horticulture, and can’t exist without both. On one end I am pursuing aesthetics, learning how to style trees to create aesthetically beautiful and balanced shapes. On the flip side we have horticulture, knowing how to keep the tree healthy and the techniques to sustain the design we created. I have been very open about the work I post as a means to document my progression in skill and to share it with others : https://bontsai.com/work/
My last shinpaku I’ve styled in my apprenticeship:
hand carved deadwood features
Last white pine styled:
Recent black pine work
Contrasting my most recent work with my first few projects, I can definitely feel that I am learning and improving my technique (but still with plenty to learn):
First tree and shinpaku styled as an apprentice
first white pine styled
It’s over a month into spring and deciduous work has been well underway. Generally speaking, there are some common goals in the scissor techniques we apply during spring.
1) Balance: In short this means to strengthen weak areas while controlling strong regions of the tree
Most deciduous trees are apically stronger as a whole and naturally, with each individual shoot. Meaning that if left unchecked a tree will progressively grow taller and wider. While a perfectly good trait towards creating a big canopy with large photosynthetic surface area, it is not conducive towards making good deciduous bonsai
This is why we pinch new central spring shoots on maples, preventing the branch from elongating and allowing food to be allocated to weaker lateral buds and branching
2) Sunlight: Although this can be considered apart of balance it’s important enough to be overstated
A vigorous deciduous tree in spring will quickly produce a lush outer canopy. The thick dense canopy might be beautiful to look at and tempting to keep but come by winter when the clothes come off those initial joys may turn into regret
A key feature of nice deciduous bonsai is fine branching. To maintain fine branching as a tree constantly grows we need fine branching to cut back to. Those small weak interior branches will help make a tree more full or may replace a main branch that has gotten too thick.
If the outer canopy is completely shaded interior growth dies and we have nothing to cut back to as the tree gets coarser and bigger
With these two principles in mind lets look at our sample case:
Spring foliage on shishigashira
I know you’re saying get with it already, but to really understand what we’re doing we need to think about shishigashira’s growth characteristic and shoot anatomy.
Shishigashira are characterized by dense foliage, small internodes, and curled leaves. The important parts are the first 2. It’s common to see shishi with dense pom pom like foliage mass at the end of a branch. This is due to the incredibly small internodes and close proximity of the leaves. Inspecting the spring growth brings insight to the reasoning.
Here is a typical shoot on a shishigashira
Strong shoots on a shishigashira
A typical spring maple shoot has 2 “susoba” or budless leaves, followed by a small extension, symmetrical pair of leaves, then lastly a strong central shoot that will keep extended if left unpinched. For Japanese maples we typically pinch or cut the central shoot, then after the leaves harden we cut one leaf off the pair and the remaining leaf in half (to allow light into inner canopy). Any susoba present are typically cut as well.
Shishigashira differs from most a. palmatum varieties in that they do not produce a strong central shoot. Interestingly under close inspection I realized that many of the shishigashira shoots do not even have susoba. Looking at case 1, this means at the first set of leaves do have basal buds and that tiny nub in the middle is the central shoot produced by the tree. If we were to treat it as we do standard japanese maple it means cutting that central shoot and one leaf off the pair. (the leaves don’t need to be cut in half as they don’t shade much light)
Don’t cut like this!
If we did this we would end up with a tiny tiny, almost non existent internode. Too small in fact. Because of this natural growth characteristic we actually need to work against it to encourage the tree to extend and produce longer internodes and ultimately branching! Otherwise we’re left with long branches with dense pom pom foliage tufts at the end. So to counteract this we cut off the leaves from the first pair entirely, followed by one leaf off the central pair.
First pair cut entirely, one leaf of central pair cut.
One leaf after work
Shishigashira can still produce long shoots on strong regions of the tree. In those areas we can cut back as we typically do with standard acer palmatum.
Although this shoot does not have susoba we can treat the pair of leaves as so. First pair cut, central shoot cut, and one leaf off second pair removed.
One leaf should be remaining
For some final thoughts, I would think that this technique could be applied to kotohime japanese maple which also produces naturally very small internodes but as I don’t have any experience working on kotohime myself, I wouldn’t know for sure until I try.
On another note, I will also be in the states the first 2 weeks of June to see family. If you’re in California and you want to talk bonsai or hang out let me know! Thanks for the read.
Magnolias are ubiquitous in gardens around the world. They mark the end of winter with a spectacular bloom, decorating landscapes in both vivid and subdued tones. My family home has a large magnolia that reliably graced us with beautiful blooms each year while providing a cool shaded understory during the hot summer months. They are among my favorite broadleaf deciduous species and I’m happy to be able to develop one during my apprenticeship here. Lets get to business. For starters the tree:
First to clarify, this is magnolia liliiflora known by モクレン “mokuren” here in Japan. The flowers are big, and so are the leaves. But it’s my preferred variety over smaller leafed varieties like star magnolia. Liliiflora has a smooth cream to white color bark that contrasts strongly with the large and often vibrant flowers. Despite having smaller leaves, the star magnolia has a more subdued bark and less striking flowers. Magnolias are appreciated for their winter silhouette, beautiful bark, and flowers and for those reasons I like liliiflora more. Here is a mokuren displayed during this years Kokufu. I am told by Oyakata that it’s possibly the best mokuren in Japan:
Back to the tree:
view from the side
right chop where scar is healing
side profile of apex, in the future I want to remove the thick branch in the front
From these set of photos there are few things that are obvious. The presence of a large scar, and an overly thick branch/bulge. Since we appreciate magnolias for their bark we should aim to encourage healthy callous formation to obtain a seamless trunk. To preserve the taper and form of the tree, we need to remove thick branches/bulges but this also introduces new potentially large scars. In order to ensure good callous formation and with some advice from my senpai I decided to only make one major cut. The other branches would remain as “sacrifices” whose collective foliage mass would help heal the wounds. If I did all major cuts at once the existing amount of branches and produced foliage may not be sufficient to heal the wounds. To do so I would have to allow some of the existing fine branching run and grow thick which would introduce more imbalances to be corrected in the future.
With this in mind I decided my “major” cut should be the bulge at the back of the tree:
This would be cut, introducing a big scar. But the large branches above it as well as branches immediate to the would would aid in callous formation. While the 2 thicker branches to the right ultimately will be removed, the wound created by cutting those branches would be smaller and easier to heal, so for the time being the bulge is prioritized.
There are some concerns with this plan. Since one of my sacrifice branches (branch number 1) is attached directly to my apex, allowing this branch to get too thick can damage the taper of the tree as well as create another future large wound site when I remove it. Because of this I want to distribute the sacrifice branch burden across multiple branches. As soon as branch 1 starts to get too thick it will be cut. Branch 2 will take over as the main sacrifice and will be allowed to run as much as possible without overly compromising the tree’s design. Conveniently there is a small back branch immediate to the wound which I expect to provide lots of callous formation. There are more branches and buds at this base to replace the back shoot when it becomes too thick as a sacrifice as well. This multi-staged plan will help me avoid creating new large wounds while preserving the taper of the tree.
cut and carved
A slight depression is carved into the wound so that when it heals over it is flat without a substantial bulge. If the cambium is ragged after carving, use a grafting knife to cut cleanly across the entire edge. Unfortunately the heartwood on this tree was slightly soft. I wouldn’t say rotted or punky but after debating for awhile I gave in and decided to carve out the dark wood as well. I filled it with a faux wood filler, stuff you can find at home depot for damaged furniture, voids in wood, etc. My brief experience with it is that it takes a long time to dry and harden, especially if there is any moisture content in the wood. I would not recommend it for filling large wounds, in which case cement or a hard epoxy might be more suitable. I will report back later in the growing season if it holds up.
It’s time to inspect the other wound and if the callous needs to be recut. Unfortunately I discovered that the wood at this site was not just dark but actually rotted. I carved out all the soft wood and also painted lime sulfur on the deadwood to discourage future rot or fungal formation. Lime sulfur is bad and damaging to cambium so if you have any open cuts care not to spread it there.
back side callous, after removing cut paste I discovered rot
I began filling in the faux wood paste. Due to my issues with it drying I added it in layers allowing one layer to dry before filling in more
It’s been long break since my last post. While I’m active on Facebook and Instagram I’m finding it exceedingly harder to write between the time I invest studying bonsai as well as learning Japanese. In any case I’m still alive, and for those who are still around thanks for reading!
I’ve recently gained a strong affection for camellias. Prior to coming to Japan I’d never seen a camellia used as bonsai before. Their floral display is spectacular and provide some contrast in the garden between the more commonly seen coniferous and deciduous varieties.
During the Kokufu-ten, where I assisted my Oyakata for over 2 weeks (brrr),
I picked up a small tsubaki (camellia) tree. It wasn’t anything super expensive, but the flower variety was nice, leaves were small, and was a young plant with good potential.
photo from the same tree, taken one month prior
The variety is “izumotaisha” (いずもたいしゃ, 出雲大社). Unfortunately I lost the tag but I was able to re-verify the variety from a tsubaki book I picked up at the Kinbon vendor table. Another huge incentive for me to study and learn Japanese is to be able to read the books here. Japan undoubtedly has a high level of horticultural and aesthetic mastery from practicing bonsai for so many generations. Although bonsai is very much a “hands on” learning practice, I can’t cover the same ground from shear trial and error. There’s a wealth of printed information here and I hope after a few years worth of kanji I can access it better.
The tree as acquired. Many leaves were already cut in half. Because the leaf size of this variety is already small for camellia I can’t imagine it was done so for aesthetic purposes. Likely it was done for repotting which I will discuss next.
As an evergreen species, camellias do not drop leaves during the dormant season. This means when we work the roots we need to compensate by performing partial or full defoliation of the tree. For this tree, I’m doing the former. Full defoliation generally should only be done on very strong vigorous trees. Defoliation reduces the transpiration stress on the tree and can allow plant to properly recover from repotting.
As opposed to uniformly defoliating the tree, we can remove more from stronger regions and less from weaker areas to balance the tree. As I grow out and develop this camellia I want to preserve the inner buds so the design remains full and not leggy.
terminal bud and leaves, we call this the “おめ” “ome”
At the end of each shoot there is a strong terminal bud with pair of adjacent leaves. We call this “ome.” At the ome, the leaves attached to the strong terminal bud are cut entirely. This helps direct energy to the weaker and dormant interior buds.
The inner leaves and the dormant bud at each petiole’s base can be referred to as “kome.” We want to direct more energy to these buds so the leaves at the kome are only cut in half. Most of which were already cut so I left them as is.
Reducing strength at tips can also encourage development of interior backbuds
In addition to the dormant buds at every petiole I found some inner backbuds. I’d like to preserve these and allow them to develop too.
The weakest and smaller leaves were left as is. After finishing the scissor work, we can work the roots.
Camellia roots are quite tender and brittle. Careless raking or prodding will just tear out large chunks. Carefully work and tease out the roots to keep them intact.
I want to let the tree grow out more and thicken the trunk, so I removed it from the cheap production pot into a larger terra cotta pot. Since there is only one drain hole an anchor needs to be made. I used a piece of thicker gauge copper wire from the scrap bin.
Tie down, anchor, and drainage mesh set.
The result! I’m quite excited to develop this tree and to learn more about camellia cultivation for bonsai in general. I will post updates as this tree develops.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently. What does bonsai mean to me and what am I doing in Japan? Tempted by an elusive apprenticeship and a deep passion driving me forward I took the jump and now I’m here. A relatively spacious, but run down riverside apartment in Osaka prefecture. Of a 30 day month, I get 2 off–typically spent catching up on rest, getting a haircut, and cleaning my apartment. It’s been challenging in some aspects, but so far manageable. Life has become very routine and since every day is spent working and learning something new my mind doesn’t have much time to wander.
Over looking the Ina River
Coming to Japan has been overwhelming in many aspects. Of course, the apprenticeship itself which does not need to be overstated. Language, both inside and out of the nursery, is a big one.
My current means of teaching myself Japanese
Small interactions in Japanese, which should be easy, can become a big mental drain and make getting through the day much harder. My worst interaction to date is when I accidentally dropped a 10 yen coin on my way to the convenience store. I have a habit of saving all my spare change and then using it all to near exact cost to cover the price of a bento. I was paying for a bento (already placed in the microwave) and after handing the clerk money I was promptly alerted that I was a few yen short. I had no other money on me and it was about 35 seconds too late to place it back in the refrigerated aisle. The clerk asked me what I wanted to do and what ensued was a butchered attempt in explaining that I would be back with the yen in 10 minutes. The clerk ended up using some of her own money so the register could pop open. I felt incredibly embarrassed and mashed the pedals on my mamachari back to Kouka-en to look for any forgotten change in my backpack. I ended up finding a 50 yen coin, came back to the combini and gave it to the clerk who was a bit perplexed. She asked me if it was okay in Japanese and was offering me change but I said it was fine and quickly left.
Thankfully situations like that are rather rare and my Japanese has improved significantly since arriving to Japan. Some days are better than others, and its an ongoing process to teach myself and improve.
The last aspect which is rather understated and something that took me time to understand was the transition from hobbyist to aspiring professional. As a hobbyist I’m only bound to my standards as the determining factor of whether something is good or if I enjoy it. As an aspiring professional my work is subject to the scrutiny of my peers, Oyakata, and hopefully would be future customers. Of course this is quite obvious and its why I’m pursuing an apprenticeship, but it didn’t really set in until recently. In light of this I’ve been trying to keep my mind open, study as much as I can, and learn as much as possible. 6 months in and many practice trees later I’m beginning to understand some of my bad habits as well as slight nuances that make a design better. I’ve been very transparent about my work and looking back I know many of my old projects are not good. I have a long ways to go but I am happy to have made some improvement to be able to continue to do so.
Last tree and second shinpaku styled at Kouka-en (January 2019) First shinpaku and very first tree styled at Kouka-en (right)
Last black pine styled First black pine styled (right)
As a last bit of self reflection in pursuing bonsai I not only want to improve and grow my work but to mature and grow as a person. Perhaps they go hand in hand. But as much as I mean that, quite contradictorily, I just want to be content with who I am.
To my old and new followers thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email!
Its hard for me to write often, but I’m active on my Facebook and instagram and regularly post pictures:
It’s been quite awhile since my last update. My typical day runs down as follows:
5:00-6:00 AM Wake up
Study Japanese or LINE (skype equivalent more popular in parts of Asia) call to the states
8:00 AM Begin work at Kouka-en
5-6:30 PM Finish work and bike back
7-8:00 PM By this time I try to finish grocery shopping, cooking, and household tasks
9:00 PM Self study Japanese or oversea internet calls at this time
10:00 PM Ideal sleep time
In reality my schedule varies quite a lot and recently I have not been consistent in my language studies as well as cooking. The latter I blame because of cheap half price grocery store bentos. They are a godsend. Cheap, delicious, and much healthier than the equivalent dollar menu hamburger from the states.
All in all I have been doing well though. My Japanese listening skills rapidly improved and my speaking (although still quite grammatically poor at times) has become passable for basic communication. I was quite terrified of getting haircuts here for awhile but I’m able to get the approximate cut I want only using Japanese now. It’s still quite a long road to fluency but it’s a start.
I’ve also been told many times that appearance wise I am passable for Japanese. At times I benefit from this allowing myself to blend in, living a normal life and at others I find myself in situations far beyond my language ability. I’ve gotten used to explaining that I recently came from America and I’m not of Japanese heritage to escape otherwise difficult and awkward exchanges.
My skills have been gradually improving as well. I’m used to learning by example and teaching myself. There are many excellent trees in Kouka-en and when I find myself in a rut on how to wire or style a particular branch I often walk outside and look for examples from the trees on display. Typically watering, routine, or seasonal work will take priority over styling trees. Recently I’ve been occupied with just that so I haven’t been able to share new projects. However my current project is looking promising so when it’s done I hope it can showcase my improvement.
Since my last update quite a lot has happened. 3 tyhoons, several practice trees finished, an auction, lots of maintenance/seasonal work, and recently my family paid a visit.
Typhoons are entirely new to me having lived in Southern California for most of my life. 100+ km winds seemed pretty exciting at first until I realized it meant hand carrying more than a few heavy trees inside. The shuffle was done 3 times over September and October and I’m quite happy to see typhoon season end. Autumn is here with warm days and cool nights. Expansive partly cloudy skies, whose cool tones will soon contrast with the warm colors of the leaves below. Autumn is by far my favorite season and the weather has been very enjoyable.
Anyhow enough words. Please see everything for yourself:
Before & afters, click for larger image.
Here are some photos from Mino Park and Arashiyama as well:
Apprenticeship life has been difficult in some aspects and a big change from what I’ve been doing, but all in all manageable. From what I understand I have it easy compared to past generations but regardless of the past, I will develop this experience as my own and make the most out of it. Anyhow I’ll let this act as a segway to my day’s activities for friends and family who’ve asked how I’ve been doing in Japan.
Both from the limited days I get off as well as the unpredictability as to when I get them off, I felt almost obligated to do something and explore the city that has temporarily become my home.
Setting into the metropolis seemed like a daunting adventure and I was not too keen hustling with the large crowds. So I grabbed my trusty bike that I painstakingly brought from California and set forth into the mountains.
Cycling for me has only brought good things in my life. Better physical health and fitness, good friends, and a clarity in the mind when I feel stressed and bogged down. Or so I thought.
I quickly realized I overestimated my physical abilities as I keeled over to the side of the road, the contents of my breakfast ready for some esophageal action. I reassessed, determined that I could not complete the entire route and would instead explore the area I was already in.
Roadside overlooks laid the city before me, encompassing both my apartment and my workplace.The sounds of cicadas roared through the humid overcast air, something I’d never experience in California. Coming to Japan, which has been a very surreal experience for me, has started to feel more normal. I am here.
I progressed further along the route I found a few shrines where I paid my respects, praying for a safe ride and energy to bike further. The roads became empty. Silent. And as the grade leveled out I was able to focus less on my tired body and more on the surrounding scenery and the cool air blowing across my damp skin. This is the feeling I wanted. Calm, relaxed, and focused.
Soon after I turned around and began a quick descent down the mountain. The steep grade and tight turns proved to be a bit beyond my handling skills. My rims got hot from the incessant use of brakes and my rear tire slid from poor cornering and loose gravel. I made it back in one piece, heart rate slightly elevated. But filled with a sense of accomplishment having made it up the mountain and back.
For those not on Facebook or instagram here is recent work I styled. I’ve been learning a lot and have been improving with each tree:
Wiring was rough and this tree took me a really long time to complete. The apex was especially challenging. It was my very first tree styled here at Kouka-en. Oyakata’s verdict was not good, but not bad for a first time.
Today’s the day. What can I say? I guess I feel anxious, a little afraid, but equally excited at the same time. The whole idea of moving to Japan has been pretty surreal. Although I’ve been preparing the past few months it feels like nothing has changed. I’ve been preoccupied with graduating, then moving, followed by a month to spare to tidy loose ends and spend time with loved ones. It took awhile but as I finish packing and write this article reality has set in. FUCK. I guess I’m moving after all lol.
In a sense I feel overwhelmed in that there were many thing I’ve been working on and will need to work on in the months to come. But I’m not that bogged down. I’ve been blessed to have a family supportive of my goals and members of the bonsai community who are rooting for me. The opportunity to challenge myself and put my all in a passion ain’t a bad motivator as well.
But I’m only at the start of the road. There’s a lot set before me I’ll need to accomplish before I can call myself a bonsai professional. But I’m hopeful and will try my best to move forward from here.
It’s been quite a hiatus since I posted any bonsai work or events so I’d thought I share some developmental work on a ficus I squeezed in yesterday:
Tree in 2014:
2016, after ground layering for new nebari:
Tree defoliated and cut back in February 2018:
Growing healthy and strong by late summer:
I realized I needed to remove some primary branches and establish a better trunk line. I opted for an angle change as well and set the tree’s future as a semi-cascade: (yesterday)
Pruning cuts carved and front bulge carved out. Ficus callus over very quickly in Southern California. Some more cut back and a little wiring:
Looks like the branches on the right are very thick but that’s just several branches overlapping together in the photo. Next year if I’m able to work on it during a visit home I’ll do some more structural cut backs. The tree will be left in the care of my parents. Perhaps I can provide instructor overseas or convince them to learn and try to develop it.
Sphagnum covering the exposed roots due to angle change:
Bonus macro photo of a junebug I caught the same day:
Still reading? I also dabbled a bit in pottery. Very first pots I’ve ever made. Hand dug earthenware clay, and woodfired kiln built by myself. Fun project!
Not all of em survived lol
Well that’s it, thanks for taking a read! Wish me some luck, if you are inclined, and I will do my best in Japan!