Shunkaen and Kobayashi

For the past two weeks, I have been exploring the city of Tokyo. I have seen countless temples, numerous landmarks, eaten a slew of different foods, and wandered through many gardens. But the most memorable aspect of my trip thus far has been my time visiting Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Edogawa, Tokyo prefecture. It is about an hour’s journey from downtown via public transportation and a short walk from the nearby bus stop. The museum was nestled in the middle of the Edogawa neighborhood. If it weren’t for the various black pines lining the wall up to the entrance, it would have blended in with the rest of the city.

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The entrance to Shunkaen.

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Walking up to the gardens.

Upon entering, a very large Japanese Black Pine welcomes you. This large specimen was approximately 4 feet wide and 5 feet tall sitting on a wooden planks. Its trunk was a thick mass fashioned in the informal upright style. An arm of dead wood ascends from behind the apex snaking towards the sky. This tree was an astounding 450 years old but has only been trained as a bonsai for a few decades. It was humbling being in the presence of such an ancient creature; I smile at all the wisdom this tree holds deep in its roots.

Here is a pic of this tree.

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After paying the underpriced entry fee of 800 yen, I walked around admiring the trees until an apprentice of Kobayashi named Jin greeted me. I just happened to visit the garden while a Japanese television show was at the garden shooting a bit for their program. I guess they loved the fact of a foreigner visiting the gardens since they followed Jin and I closely with cameras and microphones throughout the tour.

Here are some trees and views from the gardens:

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Shimpaku growing in a sideways pot. The tree is a cascade but is turned like this to strengthen it.

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Huge Japanese Black Pine. Approximately 350 years old.

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Japanese Black Pine. This one has a little frog resting in between its bark.

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Looking out from the tea room museum.

Jin first showed me a beautiful 5 needle pine estimated about 250 years old. He explained how this tree was collected from the mountains some 30 years ago and has been in training ever since. Jin told me this was one of the most valuable trees in the collection, worth $1 million! Observe the hollowed out trunk and how the live vein coils around it. Beautiful.

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Here is another $1 million tree. This one is a Shimpaku. I could just stare at this one forever. The trunk’s movements and intricate positioning of the branches make this a one-of-a-kind tree. The dead wood seems to have no end. It just winds and winds forever. Splendid.

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After Jin showed me some of the more valuable trees in the collection, he took me to the museum part of the gardens which acted like a mini-show of some of the garden’s most beautiful trees. He took me into a large tea house whose rooms served as exhibits. The building couldn’t have been more appropriate; elegantly designed and decorated reflecting the sophistication of the art and culture. Tatami mats covered the floors and rice screens lined the walls. Here are some of the trees I viewed:

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A myrtle trained in the windswept style. This tree was grown from seed approximately 40 years old.

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A classic Japanese Black Pine with wall scroll behind. This tree had a very mossy trunk which reflected its age of 250 years.

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A crape myrtle with pretty pink flowers. The blue pot accents the flower color beautifully.

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Same tree a little farther away. Notice the simplicity of the display.

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A Gardenia. This tree produces fragrant creamy white colored flowers in the spring. This tree is over 100 years old.

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A gorgeous green Japanese Maple. This tree has a different look each season with its ever changing foliage.

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A suiseki or viewing stone polished by Mother Nature. This one resebles a mountainside rigid like a camel’s back.

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Another stunning suiseki. This one looks like a mountainside pierced by a powerful waterfall.

After perusing the collection inside, Jin took me into a house on the side to enjoy some tea and conversation. He showed me books containing Kobayasi’s work and magazines where his collection has been featured. I even showed Jin some of my trees in which he gave constructive feedback for their future development. He then took me to the workshop where I finally met the famous Kobayashi. He was much humbler than I expected and very very nice. He was working on a large fig tree when I walked in. After greeting me, he made his way to a nearby chalkboard where he began writing in kanji. Jin took the chalk from him and began translating what was written.

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Kobayashi working on a tree as I entered the workshop.

“Three concepts”, Jin said, “go into the art of bonsai. The first concept is Character which is communicated in one or all three ways: the trunk, the branches, and the roots. These parts of the tree tell a story. They give the tree a personality, a soul so to speak, which makes it unique and interesting like a human. The second concept is Harmony and is very important for the overall aesthetic display of the tree. A bonsai with a breath taking trunk will look unappealing with un-manicured branches. Or a tree with fantastic branch structure will look odd in the wrong pot. This harmony of bonsai features is a direct representation of the harmony one must have with nature to fully appreciate the bonsai. The last concept is Elegance which is rather self-descriptive. No matter what style or species of bonsai, elegancy is the ruling concepts for the design. Without elegancy, it fails to transcend the status of being a tree to being art. All three concepts are vital for a bonsai masterpiece. It is a full understanding and application of these concepts that separate Masters from Hobbyists.” They are the basic rules for designing bonsai I will from this point forward consciously implement into my work.

Once the theory class was done, it was time for the practical portion. Jin brought out a 5 needle pine that was growing in a shallow terra cotta pot. It had an already beautifully twisted trunk but needed some design on its branches to maintain the harmony. Jin pulled out rolls of wire of differing thickness and asked me which grade would be best to bend the top portion of the trunk. I selected the grade that was just thick enough so as to bend the branch but avoid unnecessary “gaudiness” once the tree is wired. Remember, bonsais  should look elegant and beautiful in every stage of the training process. Wiring is a strict discipline pertaining to those rules. Jin proceeded to demonstrating how to properly wire. He said it makes use of all ten fingers and flexibility in the wrists. Similarly to how David Nguy taught wiring during my workshop with him back in Novemeber, Jin showed how one must “walk” the fingers through the wiring process, eliminating any holes in the wire when it is not snug around the brach. Another important thing about wiring as Jin mentioned was the spacing between each twist around a branch must be equal. This is for two reasons: (1) it puts less strain on the branch since the tension is evenly displaced and (2) it just looks good (which I’m sure by now you’ve realized that “looking good” is always on the mind when designing a bonsai).

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The tree before we wired. Notice how interesting the trunk is.

As you can see, the tree had many branches to be wired, so we spent a good 20 minutes wiring every branch. Jin would get the wire started and I would wrap it around the branch, making sure to not cross wire, snag leaves, and cut the wire back too short as to leave a little tag for removing it. This is what the tree looked like after being all wired up.

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Finally we bent the tree. Jin commented on how the trunk zig zags back and forth and therefore the top part of the trunk which leads to the apex must follow suit. He positioned the branches in a “dip” style where the branch dips towards the ground than bends back up to the sly. He said how in nature, tree branches will bend down during the winter because the snow on the branches weigh it down, then will begin growing up to the sky in spring when the sun is bright and the snow is melting. This explains the roller-coaster-like shape we see in pine specimens. Here is what the tree looks like all wired and bent. Not too shabby.

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After the wiring session, which may I remind you was entirely recorded for a television program, the director wanted to interview me as part of the show. So Jin and I sat facing each other with the bonsai we just worked on sitting on a table between us. The director was crouching behind Jin, asking him questions in Japanese that he translated into English. I would answer and Jin would translate it back to the camera. Some of the questions were like “How did you get started into bonsai?” and “How did you find this place?” and “What makes you like it?” My favorite question was “How would you describe Bonsai in two words?” I responded with “Nature’s Art” because it truly is an art gifted to us by Nature. Nature supplies the materials, we supply the spirit, the soul, the characteristics of what bonsai represents to us. It was a very exciting portion of my experience. I have never been interviewed for a television program. I hope I looked good!

This brought me to the end of my day at Shunkaen. It was a remarkable experience, one that will forever be a part of my spirit as I continue to study and practice this amazing art. I don’t know if it’s because I was in Japan or in the presence of such an accomplished bonsai master but I felt a sense of total inspiration and understanding stem from this visit. I will forever question and learn about the mysteries of bonsai but for a few moments I felt clarity in the art. I feel like I can create trees as magnificent as the ones I’ve seen and that it is no longer an unattainable dream. I am excited to get back to the States and work on my trees. This was truly a life changing experience!

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Jin and I, Kobayashi’s amazing apprentice.

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Kobayashi and I. What an inspirational guy!

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Got Kobayashi’s autograph!

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