Living in Japan for a few months was quite the eye opener for a simple Mid-Western wood worker, such as myself. I went with a hungry mind and excited spirit at the prospects of learning about a different culture. My real motivation to commit three months to a land half way around the world was curiosity about the Bonsai.
I fell in love with the graceful and delicate lines the Japanese incorporated into the art of growing these miniature trees. I could study at home, but what I really wanted, was to immerse myself into the mindset that created such beauty. I landed at Narita International Airport on a dreary day and tired from the trip.
I wanted to get to my Ryokan and just stretch out for a while before heading into the bustle of the city. When my taxi turned down the narrow street leading to my hotel, I noticed a tow truck hauling a rather expensive car out of the lane. I realized that life goes on no matter if it’s Stuebenville, Ohio or Tokyo, Japan. It may have been unkind to find comfort in someone’s else’s “bad day”, but somehow witnessing this ordinary event set me at ease.
After getting my bearings, I contacted Kenji-san who was going to be my guide and host for much of my time. Kenji knew the world of Bonsai, and we had been communicating through emails for about a year. When he understood my passion for wood, and how much I respected the art within it, he and I became very good long distance friends.
Kenji and his family owned a sizable nursery a short train ride outside of the city and that’s where I found myself headed mid-morning on my second day in Japan. I stepped off the train and met Kenji Kobayashi-san who was wearing a smile that could have stretched a mile. We jumped in his truck which displayed the name Kobayashi Teien (gardens) on the front door panel. I was filled with questions.
Bonsai tree planting was not original to Japan, but first introduced in China and known as penjing. It took the Japanese sense of patience and the natural occurrence of small spaces that brought the life into the art.
Bonsai means small pot. Any tree can be grown as a Bonsai tree. Even bushes are often Bonsai planted to achieve a dwarfed outcome. A single seedling can start life in a pot the size of a sewing thimble. It can remain in that pot for years before being transplanted to a container about twice the size. The grower decides the plans for the plant before the seedling becomes big enough to outgrow its original home.
Artificially controlling the growth of the plant through trimming the greens and branches above and the root system below the soil, forces the tree to drive its energy inward. Due to the constant monitoring of the Bonsai’s growth, the plant thrives under unusual circumstances. There is an element of magic to this delicate and time-consuming operation. The upper green growth is shaped and guided to follow a natural beauty of a tree a thousand times its size. The trunk and branches are trained with patience and a great deal of time to meander as if windblown or to take the shape of the most perfect specimen imaginable.
This wood art is ancient and some of the plants are hundreds of years old. The oldest known Bonsai resides at the Tokyo Imperial Palace and can be traced back 500 hundred years. This Five Needle Pine is a source of great pride and considered a national treasure.
I had so much to learn when I first met my Japanese hosts. My time with Kenji and the Kobayashi family proved to be an experience of a lifetime. Not only did I accomplish gaining insight to the art of growing Bonsai, I made life-long friends. I consider my time and hands-on experience to have been a great honor which I’ve added and carried back to my basic appreciation of the art of wood.