Five Things to Know About the Japanese Art of Bonsai

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Bonsai is the Japanese art of the cultivation of miniature trees into living works of art. Its masters practice simple techniques that can take years of practice to perfect, all built around extraordinary amounts of patience. Trees grow slowly, season by season, and so the results of steps taken one year may take many years to observe. Mistakes can last a lifetime, but also can successes. Here are five things to know about the art.

1. ‘Bonsai’ Art Began in China Over a Thousand Years Ago

Bonsai, though today known as a distinctly Japanese art form, originated in China some 1300 years ago; indeed, the word bonsai is based on the Mandarin Chinese word pun-wan, pun meaning flat pot and wan, toy/plaything. The Chinese name is misleading, for the miniature trees were far from toys. Early Chinese animist beliefs held that the spiritual power of things, such as mountains and trees, could be harnessed through miniatures. Thus a small tree could be used to access the power of the largest tree in the forest.

Originally trees whose growth had been naturally stunted were collected, though as the trend emerged among the wealthy of giving such items as gifts, many of the techniques later honed in Japan were first developed in China to produce “artificial” miniature trees.

During the Kamakura period, when Chinese learning poured into Japan alongside the arrival of Buddhist monks, the art of growing trees in containers was introduced. The Japanese developed bonsai in line with their shaping of traditional Buddhism into Zen Buddhism. As Zen practitioners sought to find beauty in austerity, a tiny tree fit the bill perfectly.

2. There Are Three Main Techniques Employed in the Creation of a Bonsai

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To create a bonsai tree from a seedling, three basic techniques are employed.

The first and most important is to stunt the tree’s growth. A shallow pot helps, limiting the size and depth of the roots. Periodically, the tree is removed from the soil and the roots pruned back. This stunts the overall growth, but also stimulates new branches to form at the top of the tree, giving it a fuller appearance. This gets tricky; cut too much and the tree can die, or grow in a grotesque shape. Not enough pruning and the growth may exceed what a proper bonsai should look like.

The second technique is shaping the tree so that the trunk and branches either curve naturally, as if they were full size, or bend the branches in a dramatic fashion, as if to simulate a tree in the wind. This is done by twisting young branches into shape with copper wire and/or bits of string, similar to how crooked teeth are fixed with braces in teenagers. As with braces (and teenagers) it takes many years of patient work to get things right.

The last technique is performed sparingly, and sometimes not at all. To give the appearance of great age, scars are cut into the bark of the tree, and branches removed. A mistake can easily kill the tree.

The idea is to create something artificial that looks real, all without showing the hand of the artist while showing the influence of the artist. Got it?

3. There Are Many Styles Of Bonsai

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There are many schools, or styles, of bonsai, depending on what image the artist is trying to create. Vertical trees are thought to be elegant, and a more natural representation of nature. Several bonsai in one pot are an enormous challenge to the artist, showing his/her skill in balancing multiple growth rates over time. For many people, bonsai trees leaning against the wind, or seeming to grow out of a piece of mountain rock, are the most popular.

Bonsai artists choose their pots with great care; a properly cared for tree can live decades or more and thus needs a good home, plus the shape and color of the pot is very much a part of the aesthetic. Artists will include live moss in the setting, but never, never, never, any small figurines or other such design elements. Save those for fish tanks.

4. Omiya Bonsai Village is the Center of Japanese Bonsai Culture

Many nurseries and conservatories have bonsai collections, some outside of Japan quite elegant, but of course the best bonsai are on home turf. For most visitors, two locations in/near Tokyo are ideal.

Perhaps the best, accessible location is in the Tokyo suburb of Omiya, a day trip from the city center. Following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake which devastated Tokyo, thirty families of professional bonsai artists resettled in Omiya and set up what is considered now the center of Japanese bonsai culture, Omiya Bonsai Village. Visitors are very much welcome.

For those who want just a quick look inside Tokyo city limits, the Ueno Green Club is located in western Ueno Park and is home to several stands selling trees, tools and pots. Most stands only open on weekends, though if you are around in early February, there can be as many as one hundred stands set up for the bonsai festival. Keep in mind the emphasis is more on commerce than art, but there are still things worth seeing for the price of a subway ticket and a few hours.

5. There Are Multiple Resources To Learn Bonsai

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There are hundreds (thousands?) of books on bonsai available, along with websites and, in some larger cities, clubs that offer hands-on lessons. Bonsai can be purchased already grown for study and display in your home, or, you can dive in and give it a try. Proper tools make your chances of success greater, and if you cannot find them locally, they are of course available online.

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