Summer Blues and Lots of White Pines

The summer season at Kouka-en has been quite slow. Unlike the stressful intensity of the Kokufu period or the physical strain of repotting season, summer season here is a marathon. The persistent humidity, intense sun, and for me, an endless stream of mosquitoes put a damper on my energy. During this period, we’re neither acquiring nor selling many trees with most of our customers doing business during show season. In short this makes for lots of watering and long muggy days in the workshop. Aside from the occasional visitor or customer there are a significant amount of days in the summer where apprentices at Kouka-en are working by themselves. The isolation plays twofold, from the greater Japanese society, but from the bonsai community here as well. With Oyakata not around often, I feel a sense of responsibility not only to make sure things run smoothly but also to improve my Japanese more as well. Prior to and when I first arrived in Japan I’d regularly study 3-5 hours a day in an effort to grind and expedite my learning. My Japanese situationally has become decent, but overall lacking in many areas. Admittedly, as of recent, I have been neglecting this as the lack of Japanese people to talk to at the nursery and my own mental state of mind has made it hard to practice and study.

From a combination of unusual circumstances here as well as some personal problems I’ve been dealing with, its been a hard summer for me with bad depression and insomnia. I’ve taken up running and I frequently do 5-10k runs at 6:00 AM before I show up at Kouka-en, or in the evening. It’s given some balance in my schedule and has allowed me to focus my energy on something I have control over.

running route

I think about it often–what it means to pursue bonsai and to “follow my dreams.” Ultimately it’s a selfish pursuit, borne out of a consuming passion and desire to immerse myself in the art. Equally, bonsai should be something that brings people joy. It’s truly an art that can be appreciated irrespective of background or culture. I think about this often and envision the kind of career and community I want to build. How bonsai can not only improve my life, but the people I meet around me? I don’t have a firm grasp on it yet but the thought weighs in the back of my mind. For now I just do what I can, take it day by day, and always strive to my best.

I’ve been overall quite transparent about my apprenticeship life as well as my own work. I hope as I share my progress and my mistakes, people can learn from them as well. As I improve my own technique, I plan to write some educational articles regarding styling and setting a design. Over this summer I’ve styled quite a few white pines, some shinpaku, and a black pine. At this stage of my apprenticeship I get a wide array of projects. Some nice stuff that just needs detailed wiring to restore a silhouette, but also neglected overgrown or “problem” trees that need to be re-evaluated or drastically changed. I learn a bit each time, but also through experience realize the gaps in my knowledge.

Here is the last tree I styled. A chuhin sized zuisho white pine. The tree had quite small needles, an abundance of small branching. Both good attributes for a “medium to smaller” sized trees. Arguably, creating good and convincing “small” trees can be much harder than styling and creating larger bonsai. This is because branch placement becomes much more critical to the design. In a larger tree we have more flexibility in design in terms of the number of components (like foliage/branch pads) that make it up. But for a smaller tree, the same branches and pads occupy a much greater volume of the collective silhouette of the tree. It’s like building a Lego house from red builder bricks (exaggeration). Of course by utilizing species or dwarf varieties with naturally smaller foliage or obtainable tight internodes we can stretch the limiting factor and create convincing smaller trees.

Initially Oyakata’s request was to make “large” clean pads and layer them to create the silhouette. I was able to do this for the bottom primary branches and some of the back, but I really struggled to create fuller pads in the mid to top sections. Since this tree had been growing unrestricted essentially as a bush for many years, lots of interior growth had died back. Oyakata refers to inside branches as futokoro “ふところ” and for all bonsai, keeping the futokoro alive is important for design sustainability and depth.

Fuller pads on the bottom, but as you move up the tree they get progressively thinner. I ended up stacking thin single lines of foliage to create the silhouette but overall the tree is lacking clarity and structure aside from the outer shape. Creating the double apex was a bit of a challenge for me as well without prior experience in creating one. Overall it came out decent, but I know my work could be cleaner and the design can be improved upon in the future. Fortunately zuisho backbuds readily and there are already an abundance of backbuds on this tree. As the backbuds fill in, I would want to reduce the number of primary branches on this tree and have fewer but fuller foliage pads. This will make the tree look cleaner and create more structure instead of a collective foliage mass filling a silhouette.

Post styling

Here’s another white pine I styled. It’s a client owned tree currently on consignment at Kouka-en. It was really healthy when I worked on it, which is a great plus, but too much so. Branches were really thick and strong and the apex was nightmarish with a thick whorl of fused branches. The goal was to cut out and eliminate as many of these thick branches as possible and restyle the tree using softer finer growth.

initial cut backs
ugly ass apex

After cutting out lots of branching and putting on some wire this is the result:


This next white pine is maybe my favorite tree I’ve styled so far. As learning apprentices our practice projects also include neglected trees that never sold or had some past issue like losing primary branching. As “low value” trees in the nursery they provide learning opportunity for apprentices at minimal financial risk to our boss should we mess up or do a poor job. This white pine was one such tree. It was styled in Kouka-en by a previous apprentice around 2013 as “practice” tree too. At some point unfortunately the tree lost many branches and aside from maintaining the tree no work was really done for many years.

Tree before I styled it (2019)
(2013 photo)

Much of the original branching and design was lost but it also made for a great opportunity to re-evaluate a new one. Before styling a tree I always set a criteria or goal I want to work towards. At quick glance these were the obvious issues I needed to address:
1) Establish a silhouette
2) Bring down branches in the top to create an apex
3) Break up heavy foliage masses

The first criteria was the most challenging. Since a lot of the primary branches in the front were dead or sparse, it was important to utilize back branches to create depth. You can’t always just swing branches from the back to the front. Doing so can look contrived and you also sacrifice how the back of the tree looks as well. Bonsai is multi-faceted so it’s important to consider how a tree looks not just from one angle. Basically I needed the back branches to look good from the front too!

The second criteria is more obvious. Generally speaking as we move up the tree we want to see less of the trunk. This means to bring down branches and to draw them towards the front.

Lastly were to address the big clumps of foliage currently comprising the tree. Wiring them into big massive pads would feel unbalanced and you’d lose interest in the design. Instead it was important to break them up in smaller sub pads.

a bit more then halfway done

The major challenge after this part was addressing the massive primary branch in the upper left. Overall it’s quite an undesirable branch. Thick, heavy, and also too long. Unfortunately there was no finer growth to cut back to. To reduce the length of the branch and to bring foliage closer to the trunk, I applied raffia then did two large bends. First to swing the large branch towards the back, close to the base of the branch. Second, from the midway point, to swing it back forward. This compresses the branch and visually, from the front, the length is effectively shortened.

raffia applied, as a note wrap the raffia in the direction you apply the wire. This will keep the raffia tight and prevent it from unraveling as you bend the branch
after applying wire and setting the pad

After this it was ez pz with relatively simple apex work.

finished tree

Overall it was a fun tree to style and felt good to come up with a new design.

I finally got to work on some nice shohin shinpaku too. It was a big contrast from the large shinpaku I styled and shared on my last post:

In the previous tree the goal was to establish a design, but for more refined trees the goal is to restore it. The work is a little different and something I lack experience in.

It was a hard tree for me to wire with the abundance of small branching. I think my work could definitely could be cleaner, but I’ll improve with successive trees.

Well that’s it for now. I know an update has been long overdue and I’ve been putting off for awhile. Quite frankly I am not doing too well, but I’m hoping the changing season and Taikan-ten prep will change the pacing and mood of things.

Thanks for taking a read and feel free to leave any comments of feedback! I know my blog posts are infrequent but I regularly post on my Instagram and Facebook so be sure to follow me there!


3 thoughts on “Summer Blues and Lots of White Pines”

  1. Julian, you have a great knack for expressing through your words the things that you are doing to make these trees work. That tall white pine came out beautifully, and I think better than the previous style. Thanks for posting and keep your head up!

    Liked by 1 person

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