Bonsai-Japanese “Art Form” that has been reproducing Nature for more than 800 Years. | Japan Guide

What is bonsai?

Japan is 70% forest. Next to Finland, in terms of developed countries, it has the second highest ratio of forests in the world. Japanese people have lived surrounded by woodland and their very existence is intertwined with that of the trees. The people of Japan have incorporated trees into their lives using Bonsai; a hobby that can even be called an Art, where magnificent natural landscapes are created in small plant pots.
It is said that ornamental plants and trees were first planted in containers around 800 years ago, and today they are even popular overseas. There is even a World Bonsai Convention held once every four years, with the 8th convention due to be hosted in Saitama City, Japan in 2017. Bonsai enthusiasts from across the globe gather at the conventions to improve techniques and cement bonds of friendship. It seems that the Bonsai craze is set to further grow, as even smaller mini-Bonsai gain popularity amongst young people.

Japanese Five Needle Pine named Uzushio. © The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Shape into your Desire Form

An overseas visitor inspecting Bonsai.© KyodoNews

In all countries, people enjoy planting shrubs in pots. Looking at a potted plant placed in the corner of a room allows a sense of peace and healing. Potted plants bring a breath of fresh air to our daily lives, whether it is in the company office or in the home.

However, although such simple pot plants and Bonsai may seem similar, they are quite different.
Bonsai are not just a matter of planting some shrubs in a pot; instead they reproduce a natural scene in a pot. This means that trees that grow several meters high in nature, must be cultivated to match the size of the pot, and may range in height from a few dozen centimeters to around 1 meter.

However, trees are living things and so even though you may think you are training them into your desired shape, they can shoot buds or grow branches in unexpected places. As a result, you need to observe a tree’s form and almost “talk” to it; nurturing it over several years by pruning it and factoring in various needs such as sunlight, water and fertilizer etc. By so doing, the tree will finally take on the form you had envisaged. That is the real charm of Bonsai.

The Japanese Sense of Beauty
There are various different species of Bonsai. Among others, we use evergreen such as pine or traditional oak; species such as maple and Japanese elm whose leaves change with the four seasons; and plum or satsuki azalea whose flowers can be enjoyed. However, for many Japanese people “Bonsai” is likely to bring the pine tree to mind.

In addition, there are various styles in which trees can be potted and cultivated. The most basic style is that where the trunk grows straight up, getting gradually thinner from the root to the tips; a style called Chokkan (literally “straight trunk”). Then there is Shakan (literally “tilted trunk”), where the trunk is tilted to left or the right, as when a wind-swept tree grows at an angle in nature. Stretching the trunk by twisting it and bending it backwards and forwards, left and right, is called Moyogi (literally “patterned tree”).

“Black Pine” – named Seiran (literally “blue storm”) – a typical example of Chokkan. © The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

“Japanese Five Needle Pine” – beautiful with its harmony of tilted trunk and branches. © The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

The Japanese Apricot comes into blossom with beautiful flowers in early spring. © The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

The striking quince, with its tips flickering as if aflame. © The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum,Saitama

These Bonsai all have foliage carefully tended by hand and nurtured only by experts. Among them are a traditional oak and an Ezo pine that are 520 years old; standing around 1 meter tall they seem like “big trees” and the sight of them takes your breath away. Anyone can appreciate the Bonsai, such as those using the café, and in recent times foreign travelers have also been visiting, as well as Japanese Bonsai fans.