Magnolia Liliiflora #2

After having seen several nice magnolia bonsai in Japan, both in publication and in person, they’ve become among my favorite species for bonsai cultivation. I was a bit sad to leave behind my previous magnolia project in Japan, but it’s in good hands and will develop into a great tree.

It’s rather difficult to find nice magnolia material stateside other than growing it yourself. The wood is soft and rots easily, while also being susceptible to fungal problems. Massive chops are not a great idea–rather using sacrifice branches in a series of stages to heal a large wound is preferable. If you follow me on Facebook as well as my previous blog post you can see what I’m talking about.

In search of new material, last spring I climbed up my parent’s magnolia tree to set an airlayer on older wood. With help from my parents the layer was periodically “jet hosed” and kept moist in the canopy of the tree. It was a bit slow to root and after having some intense summer heat waves, I opted to leave the layer on for a few more months. Last month the layer was separated with no issue and a healthy set of roots.

It’s somewhere up there haha

With a long characteristic drop branch, thick callousing, and some hollows it has a bit of a wild characteristic to it.

For the upcoming spring, I’ll repot the tree to clean out more of the spagnum moss and to remove some of the wood beneath the layer line. Cut backs won’t happen until after the tree flushes out. If I were to cut back hard during the winter, the remaining buds would have too much energy resulting in vigorous and coarse growth. Allow the tree to allocate energy over a greater surface area, then cutting back will help me produce finer branching and growth.

Producing fine branching and leaf reduction is achievable on magnolia with deliberate fertilizer use, lots of sun, and knowing when to cut back. Avoid over fertilizing, especially with nitrogen heavy ferts in the early spring as growth is emerging. Fertilizing more so after the growth has hardened off will ensure finer more usable branching (in the case of refinement).

A short post, but good to write on the blog again! Excited to develop this magnolia and I think it can become quite nice in the future!

The Next Step and Recent Work

After much consideration I’ve decided to head back to the states. I have carefully discussed with others as well as spent significant time assessing my own thoughts to come to this decision.

Everyone’s apprenticeship experience is different and it’s hard to assume a single mold , model, or stereotype of what it is, what one’s experience should be, and what they have difficulty with.

I am grateful to have had the experience to hone my talents and improve my skills. I have no regrets and I can confidently say I did nothing other than my best for my duration here.

Of course, there are still many things I lack for me to learn and to gain experience in. I understand how deep the breadth of knowledge bonsai encompasses and will seek to further my knowledge and skill.

I am grateful for the support I’ve received, and some kind members of the bonsai community who check on me on occasion and offer help.

As far as what comes next, I’m not too sure myself. On this blog I have been very transparent on my development from an hobbyist to the last 2 years, as an apprentice.

Although my skills have rapidly advanced the past 2 years, I can acknowledge and recognize that I still lack a lot of knowledge and experience necessary to become a “full fledged” professional.

I want to pursue bonsai to my highest ability. I want to stay true to myself. I want to be able to support myself and those I care about around me. I am not abandoning my path, but certainly this is a detour if any.

I’ll be back in the states next month. I need some time to assess my options and save some money.

Lastly I wanted to share some pine work I’ve recently completed. They both came out fairly clean and I am content with the results.

final result
before

I was debating removing the lowest branch. With a left moving trunk and the tree flowing back to the right you get a more dynamic design.

There was too much disconnect between the foliage and the trunk. In order to create a more powerful tree and to lose the disjointed feel, I compressed the trunk. A bend was already in place so it was fairly easily to push it further. Unfortunately the screws and wire I had on hand were not strong enough to hold the bend. I relocated the anchor screws onto a large jin and directly into the deadwood.

Lower branches set.

Since pulling the right side of the trunk down lifted everything on the left side, I had to compensate with guy wires hidden around the back and left side of the tree. Overall the design was able to be compacted quite a bit.

Done!

Here’s a red pine I styled as well. The goals with this tree was to clean up the pads and design–meaning necessary branch cuts/thinning as well as pulling all the old needles. After doing so the entire tree could be wired.

before
after initial thinning
setting bottom branches. Nice equal spaced, bifurcating(as much as possible) branches will create clean and sustainable pads. It’s best to avoid stacking branches on top of each other.
Halfway
to account for the negative space on the right side of the tree, the back branches were used to provide depth while the upper right branches were compressed to connect the silhouette line.

Done! Repotted in a lightly larger container and roots slightly worked to accommodate for angle change. Looks a little messy in this photo with needles stacked over each other, but it turned out really clean in person! These 2 trees will be available for sale at Kokufu.

Restyling an itoigawa shinpaku

Recently Oyakata gave me a nice itoigawa shinpaku to work on. It came from one of our long time clients. He recently decided to part with a large portion of his collection which we are now selling on his behalf via consignment. In order to prepare the trees for sale and to hopefully raise the value, we’re touching up and restyling many of them.

I believe this tree is actually old field grown material, not yamadori. The twisted trunk is quite interesting and powerful and it was my intention to show it off more in the restyling. For more refined material like this, the shape and the rough design of the tree is effectively set. The goal is just to bring out and refine what’s already there.

The tree is quite healthy and full, but a lot of the good features are lost underneath the thick green crown. Prior to wiring, and in order to assess what can or can’t be used we start by cleaning the foliage. I start by removing downward growth, crotch growth, and overcrowded branches (3 more more branches from the same node). I still lack the foresight and experience to cut everything in one go, so I work in steps until I am left with only the branches essential to the design.

At this stage I did all the “obvious” work I mentioned earlier. It still feels quite heavy and I know more branches will end up being cut for the final shape. I told Oyakata that I felt the second pad (left side) was quite heavy. I wanted to cut out a thick branch and he agreed and advised me to do so. Oyakata also told me to cut out another branch further up the crown. Doing so would help “lighten” the crown more and expose the trunk.

I did not take a photo at this stage, but the areas in red were cut. Branches from opposing sides were pushed together to close the gap. A thick primary branch was exposed after removing the upper red region. To accentuate the movement of the exposed branching, I added a little shari. It’s subtle, but adds more interest.

With all the major cleaning and cut backs done I went ahead and wired the whole tree. My goal was to compact everything, break up heavy foliage masses into smaller sub pads, and to lighten up the crown. Doing so would make the tree feel more powerful and highlight the trunk which is the best feature of this tree.

Half way done

Since the overall orientation of the branches are set already I didn’t have to use any really heavy or thick gauge wire. I used a lot of small guy wires I hid in the branching to drop primaries then focused on wiring the branch from the secondaries out.

apex for last
finished tree
back on the benches

Overall it was a fun tree to work on and different than my previous projects. I’m still quite slow and every project is hard for me, but I learn a little on each one.

From my perspective there are 2 major influences that determines a tree’s design. First from the tree, and second from the “artist.” In the former we can take qualities or attributes of the tree (think movement, trunk) as “suggestions” that aid us in design or what to build the tree around. In the latter we impose what we value as an artist on the tree, and through techniques and time achieve the result. I think to make good bonsai you need to balance the two. I realize that I still lack a lot of experience in both aspects, being able to assess material well and applying techniques to achieve a result. I want to learn from any opportunity I get and hope to continue to better myself as a bonsai artist.

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.

before
initial cut backs
ugly ass apex

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

after

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!

A Year in Review

I’m soon approaching my 1 year mark of my apprenticeship in Japan. I recently took a brief visit to California last month for some work and to see family and friends. It’s given me some time to review my thoughts and feelings of my time invested so far. I wanted to be open and honest with both the excitement and growth I experience here, but equally the stress and difficulties I face.

spring work on a tosho

Bonsai undoubtedly is my greatest passion. It’s something I absolutely love and has served as a form of meditation and healing during stressful times in my past. While I have doubts of whether my decision was the right choice, I absolutely do not regret it as I made it myself. To that end I am grateful to members of the bonsai community who encouraged me and the family that supports me being here.

Being in an immersive environment, naturally, has allowed me to hone down and really accelerate my skill and knowledge in bonsai. Bonsai is union of art and horticulture, and can’t exist without both. On one end I am pursuing aesthetics, learning how to style trees to create aesthetically beautiful and balanced shapes. On the flip side we have horticulture, knowing how to keep the tree healthy and the techniques to sustain the design we created. I have been very open about the work I post as a means to document my progression in skill and to share it with others : https://bontsai.com/work/

My last shinpaku I’ve styled in my apprenticeship:

hand carved deadwood features

Last white pine styled:

Recent black pine work

Contrasting my most recent work with my first few projects, I can definitely feel that I am learning and improving my technique (but still with plenty to learn):

First tree and shinpaku styled as an apprentice
first white pine styled
very first black pine I ever wired

Working as an apprentice in Japan has had many positive and exciting aspects to it. I’m spending most of my time doing something I’m passionate about and engaging. I’m surrounded by amazing trees and more importantly, I get to work on them too. Oyakata believes in a very hands on approach to commit things to memory and to hone the inherent “sense” people have when it comes to working on and styling trees.

But equally as prevalent there’s the mundane daily grind of sustaining a living here. Here at Kouka-en we live offsite meaning we’re provided our own apartments. As full time apprentices we’re paid, but just enough to cover living expenses. But we still need to manage expenses to be able to cover bills, food cost, as well as cooking and eating within reason. コンビニ (“konbini”) is the Japanese name for convenience stores. And boy they are mighty convenient–you pay your bills there, mail packages there, and get quality full meals. But by easily making one too many lunch trips a week it’s easy to go over budget. So to stay out of the red each month but to also allow me to save a bit, I cook the majority of my meals. Typically I don’t eat breakfast (often from waking up too late), lunch is a 50/50 split between packed meals and purchased bentos, and I usually cook dinner.

Here are my expenses for typical month. Gas bills are higher in the winter from using more hot water when I’m cold and lower in the summer when I don’t need hot showers.

After phone and internet I’m usually around the 35,000 to 40,000 yen mark, or a bit under $400 USD. We get 60,000 yen a month meaning that on average I can save about $200 a month. It’s fairly bare bones, but enough to sustain life as an apprentice. The trade off is the significant time sink that goes into cooking, which is of course, outside of apprentice hours.

freezing my ass off at Kokufu

Life as an apprentice is very much working inside a bubble. This is of course my own biased opinion and experience, it may differ at other nurseries or for other apprentices. We’re not really integrated or exposed to much of the greater Japanese culture, limited both by the interactions we have in the nursery and the breadth of the Japanese language we are exposed to and use. I have become painfully aware of this in my mixed attempts to carry out conversations with Japanese people I meet. Without a strong sense of community or family at the nursery I do feel quite isolated sometimes and a little lonely.

Simple hiragana board I made for other deshi. I left a space to write random practice sentences but Japanese I wrote there is super messed up and doesn’t make any sense. Oyakata’s dog left a fat turd in the workshop and I was trying to figure out how to say it in Japanese 😂😂

To remedy this as well as to improve my interactions with Japanese customers, I have been intent in practicing and self teaching myself Japanese. From my efforts prior to coming to Japan and this past year, I’m happy to say I can at least get by or make small talk with my barber or a bartender, but it’s never enough. By elevating the skill of my language ability, I hope to make Japanese friends who can help integrate me into their community. But admittedly with a full time schedule and 2 days off a month I have days where there’s an immense mental barrier for me to find the motivation and energy to practice and study.

I guess collectively, these are things that can wear people down long term which has made me realize the long term difficulties pursuing an apprenticeship as an foreigner in Japan. Between sacrificing some of my interpersonal relationships, and garnering skepticism from some friends and family I feel a nagging pressure in the back of my mind. That I have to succeed out here no matter the cost. But at the core of it I am doing this for myself and I’m strongly motivated to see things through.

All in all I can say its been a successful first year and I’m ready to tackle on another. I believe the difficulties and new experiences I undergo here will shape me into the best possible version I can be.

Many thanks to those of the community who follow and support me, it really does mean a lot. And also a big thanks to the Golden State Bonsai Federation (GSBF) that awarded me the Harry Hirao scholarship which was a big help the past year.

For readers subscribed to my blog, I apologize for the lack of updates as I have been primarily posting on Facebook and Instagram. I actually enjoy writing a good bit, it’s just a time consuming endeavor. I’ll try to crack out more articles for interesting work or projects I get in the future.

Bento Bank

I’ve been thinking a lot recently. What does bonsai mean to me and what am I doing in Japan? Tempted by an elusive apprenticeship and a deep passion driving me forward I took the jump and now I’m here. A relatively spacious, but run down riverside apartment in Osaka prefecture. Of a 30 day month, I get 2 off–typically spent catching up on rest, getting a haircut, and cleaning my apartment. It’s been challenging in some aspects, but so far manageable. Life has become very routine and since every day is spent working and learning something new my mind doesn’t have much time to wander.

Over looking the Ina River

Coming to Japan has been challenging for a few reasons. Of course, the apprenticeship itself which does not need to be overstated. Language, both inside and out of the nursery, is a big one.

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My current means of teaching myself Japanese

Small interactions in Japanese, which should be easy, can become a big mental drain and make getting through the day much harder. My worst interaction to date is when I accidentally dropped a 10 yen coin on my way to the convenience store. I had a habit of saving all my spare change and then using it all to near exact cost to cover the price of a bento. I was paying for a bento (already placed in the microwave) and after handing the clerk money I was promptly alerted that I was a few yen short. I had no other money on me and it was about 35 seconds too late to place it back in the refrigerated aisle. The clerk asked me what I wanted to do and what ensued was a butchered attempt in explaining that I would be back with the yen in 10 minutes. The clerk ended up using some of her own money so the register could pop open. I felt incredibly embarrassed and mashed the pedals on my mamachari back to Kouka-en to look for any forgotten change in my backpack. I ended up finding a 50 yen coin, came back to the combini and gave it to the clerk who was a bit perplexed. She asked me if it was okay in Japanese and was offering me change but I said it was fine and quickly left.

Thankfully situations like that are rather rare and my Japanese has improved significantly since arriving to Japan. Some days are better than others, and its an ongoing process to teach myself and improve.

The last aspect which is rather understated and something that took me time to understand was the transition from hobbyist to aspiring professional. As a hobbyist I’m only bound to my standards as the determining factor of whether something is good or if I enjoy it. As an aspiring professional my work is subject to the scrutiny of my peers, Oyakata, and hopefully would be future customers. Of course this is quite obvious and its why I’m pursuing an apprenticeship, but it didn’t really set in until recently. In light of this I’ve been trying to keep my mind open, study as much as I can, and learn as much as possible. 6 months in and many practice trees later I’m beginning to understand some of my bad habits as well as slight nuances that make a design better. I’ve been very transparent about my work and looking back I know many of my old projects are not good. I have a long ways to go but I am happy to have made some improvement to be able to continue to do so.

Last tree and second shinpaku styled at Kouka-en (January 2019)
First shinpaku and very first tree styled at Kouka-en (right)
Last black pine styled
First black pine styled (right)

As a last bit of self reflection in pursuing bonsai I not only want to improve and grow my work but to mature and grow as a person. Perhaps they go hand in hand. But as much as I mean that, quite contradictorily, I just want to be content with who I am.

To my old and new followers thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email!

Its hard for me to write often, but I’m active on my Facebook and instagram and regularly post pictures:

https://www.instagram.com/bontsai_/

New work and challenges in Japan

It’s been quite awhile since my last update. My typical day runs down as follows:

5:00-6:00 AM Wake up
                         Study Japanese or LINE (skype equivalent more popular in parts of                                          Asia) call to the states
8:00 AM           Begin work at Kouka-en
5-6:30 PM        Finish work and bike back
7-8:00 PM        By this time I try to finish grocery shopping, cooking, and household tasks
9:00 PM           Self study Japanese or oversea internet calls at this time
10:00 PM         Ideal sleep time

In reality my schedule varies quite a lot and recently I have not been consistent in my language studies as well as cooking. The latter I blame because of cheap half price grocery store bentos. They are a godsend. Cheap, delicious, and much healthier than the equivalent dollar menu hamburger from the states.

All in all I have been doing well though. My Japanese listening skills rapidly improved and my speaking (although still quite grammatically poor at times) has become passable for basic communication. I was quite terrified of getting haircuts here for awhile but I’m able to get the approximate cut I want only using Japanese now. It’s still quite a long road to fluency but it’s a start.

I’ve also been told many times that appearance wise I am passable for Japanese. At times I benefit from this allowing myself to blend in, living a normal life and at others I find myself in situations far beyond my language ability. I’ve gotten used to explaining that I recently came from America and I’m not of Japanese heritage to escape otherwise difficult and awkward exchanges.

My skills have been gradually improving as well. I’m used to learning by example and teaching myself. There are many excellent trees in Kouka-en and when I find myself in a rut on how to wire or style a particular branch I often walk outside and look for examples from the trees on display. Typically watering, routine, or seasonal work will take priority over styling trees. Recently I’ve been occupied with just that so I haven’t been able to share new projects. However my current project is looking promising so when it’s done I hope it can showcase my improvement.

Since my last update quite a lot has happened. 3 tyhoons, several practice trees finished, an auction, lots of maintenance/seasonal work, and recently my family paid a visit.

Typhoons are entirely new to me having lived in Southern California for most of my life. 100+ km winds seemed pretty exciting at first until I realized it meant hand carrying more than a few heavy trees inside. The shuffle was done 3 times over September and October and I’m quite happy to see typhoon season end. Autumn is here with warm days and cool nights. Expansive partly cloudy skies, whose cool tones will soon contrast with the warm colors of the leaves below. Autumn is by far my favorite season and the weather has been very enjoyable.

Anyhow enough words. Please see everything for yourself:

Before & afters, click for larger image.

 

 

Here are some photos from Mino Park and Arashiyama as well:

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Recently I was also awarded the Harry Hirao Scholarship from the Golden State Bonsai Federation. I am very honored and have Doyle Saito to thank for encouraging me to apply.

Anyhow, it’s a rather short update but that’s about it for now. I’ll look to crack out longer and better quality articles in the months ahead. I’ve been inconsistent and rather lazy about writing recently. However please do follow me on my Facebook and instagram. I share many photos and small updates that aren’t posted on the blog!

https://www.facebook.com/bontsaitree

https://www.instagram.com/bontsai_/

 

 

 

Into the Mountains

Apprenticeship life has been difficult in some aspects and a big change from what I’ve been doing, but all in all manageable. From what I understand I have it easy compared to past generations  but regardless of the past, I will develop this experience as my own and make the most out of it. Anyhow I’ll let this act as a segway to my day’s activities for friends and family who’ve asked how I’ve been doing in Japan.

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Both from the limited days I get off as well as the unpredictability as to when I get them off, I felt almost obligated to do something and explore the city that has temporarily become my home.

Setting into the metropolis seemed like a daunting adventure and I was not too keen hustling with the large crowds. So I grabbed my trusty bike that I painstakingly brought from California and set forth into the mountains.

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Cycling for me has only brought good things in my life. Better physical health and fitness, good friends, and a clarity in the mind when I feel stressed and bogged down. Or so I thought.

I quickly realized I overestimated my physical abilities as I keeled over to the side of the road, the contents of my breakfast ready for some esophageal action. I reassessed, determined that I could not complete the entire route and would instead explore the area I was already in.

Roadside overlooks laid the city before me, encompassing both my apartment and my workplace.The sounds of cicadas roared through the humid overcast air, something I’d never experience in California. Coming to Japan, which has been a very surreal experience for me, has started to feel more normal. I am here.

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I progressed further along the route I found a few shrines where I paid my respects, praying for a safe ride and energy to bike further. The roads became empty. Silent. And as the grade leveled out I was able to focus less on my tired body and more on the surrounding scenery and the cool air blowing across my damp skin. This is the feeling I wanted. Calm, relaxed, and focused.

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Soon after I turned around and began a quick descent down the mountain. The steep grade and tight turns proved to be a bit beyond my handling skills. My rims got hot from the incessant use of brakes and my rear tire slid from poor cornering and loose gravel. I made it back in one piece, heart rate slightly elevated. But filled with a sense of accomplishment having made it up the mountain and back.

 


 

For those not on Facebook or instagram here is recent work I styled. I’ve been learning a lot and have been improving with each tree:

Wiring was rough and this tree took me a really long time to complete. The apex was especially challenging. It was my very first tree styled here at Kouka-en. Oyakata’s verdict was not good, but not bad for a first time.

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Here is the second white pine I styled, I don’t have the first on my computer at the moment. I did branch selection myself, but made some mistakes. The two lowest branches were originally bar branches at the same level which is a big no no. Oyakata had me remove that branch which I then jinned.

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The last tree I worked on is a shohin white pine. This one was particularly challenging to do since I needed to think more about branch placement and design. I was allowed to do branch selection but ended up removing an important branch. The branch that I jinned in the front should not have been cut off and incorporated in the design instead. With this tree there is also another big correction Oyakata made that I can’t attribute to my work. Initially to fill in the right side of the apex I bent a long branch counter clockwise. This enabled me to get the foliage nice and tight by the crown but exposed a big outside curve in the front of the tree, another big no no. The branch had to be rebent in the reverse direction to hide the curve, which is the tree pictured here:

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I still have a lot to improve on and my wiring needs a lot of work. My pace of work is still pretty slow as well since to make up for my lack of skill and experience, I have to spend more time thinking about each tree. I will constantly aim to improve my understand of bonsai design as well as my technique. But it’s a start.

Dai Ichi Bonsai Kai 33rd Annual Show

This past weekend I was able to attend Saturday of the weekend Dai Ichi Kai show in Gardena. I saw lots of familiar faces including Jason and Doyle Saito who I met at the Bonsai-a-thon in February. I’ve been putting a lot of work in my website and pushing content on social media so it was great to be approached by people who heard by word of mouth or through my site about my apprenticeship in Japan. Even if you do not know me personally, if you ever see me in person please say hi. I’m always up for a conversation about bonsai or anything.

Vendors had a decent variety of tree and pots. Although I didn’t find anything worth picking up I did grab a Si-Diao carving tool in anticipation of the Will Baddeley workshop next week.

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A beginner’s workshop was held in the morning but I did not participate as it looked like they had plenty of instructors. The material provided was excellent though and I give props to whoever sourced it for this show.

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It was great to catch up with many familiar faces and also to talk Kaya in person, who like me is pursuing bonsai professionally. I did not photograph all the trees at the show, but did get the tokoname display as well as a few trees I found interesting.

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The demonstrator for this show was actually Kaya. He worked on a procumbens he brought through the airport from Hayward. Not without difficulties as the pot cracked post TSA inspection. Having had brought a tree through TSA before I can attest to the additional inspection and strange stares from onlookers.

Overall the demonstration was pretty successful.

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Those who watch the live streams on Facebook, give a big thanks to Jason Saito who’s doing the behind the scenes work and filming.

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Assistance from a club member

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Getting somewhere

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Unfortunately I could not stay for the dinner and Sunday I drove back to Riverside. All in all it was an enjoyable show and I was happy to meet and talk to many new people. Next week I’ll be attending the Will Baddely workshop, courtesy of John and Bob who sponsored the fee cost. Should be a good time and I intend to write a post on the event.

Many thanks to all my past and new readers. It’s been a busy month and slow in terms of updates and content. Sometimes I’ll post pictures/updates on my Facebook and Instagram when I don’t have time to write. If you’re on any of those platforms be sure to follow me there. (they’re linked on the sidebar of my homepage)

Hope you’ve enjoyed this update and have a great day!

Julian

Bonsai-a-thon XXII

I attended the Bonsai-a-thon, held annually at the Huntington Gardens, this past Saturday. Not only as an observer, but a participant this time around. I arrived at the gardens quite early, around 7:30 AM or so. It was very brisk, as evidenced by the thick layer of frost coating my car. The past week of weather has been highly unusually for Southern California. Temperatures in December were uncharacteristically warm with highs in the mid 80s in contrast to the near freezing temperatures over the past several days.

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I talked to the usual vendors there, Barry as well as Frank who always sells his cork jades at a steal of a price. Arriving at the early hours of the show, I was able to get first pick and nabbed some of the nicer ones on table.

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I also had a chance to meet up with some of the members from the bonsainut forum. Colin who has been working at and apprenticing at California Bonsai Studio has been a vendor the past few years. Christian, who is a young enthusiast like myself, was also at the show and enjoyed talking to him.

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After talking for a bit I headed out to the greenhouse where a Huntington sponsored beginners bonsai workshop was held. I’ve done quite of bit of teaching and mentoring in a diverse range of topics to different age demographics but never quite something like a bonsai workshop. I was contacted by Keith a few months back who coordinates many of the events and volunteering at the Huntington. I was a bit cautious in accepting as I wasn’t sure my current skills in bonsai were up to par, but I’m glad I did. The material provided was excellent, and the students very friendly and eager to learn.

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After I was given a student I didn’t realize that they were supposed to go pick their tree. A large group crowded around the table and I’d thought it be slim pickings when we got there. To my surprise there was an excellent procumbens left with good nebari (root flare), a trunk line, and many possible branch options. As per usual I often get carried away in the work and development that I forget to take before pictures to track my progress.

*Found a before short courtesy of Keith Martin

I discussed with my student the criteria for styling a tree and the qualities we desire. To start, a wide root base lends stability and age to the tree. Secondly we need a good trunk line with nice movement. The front of the tree that expressed these 2 attributes best would be our starting point.

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Here is a shot of the tree after the first stage of work:

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Next any downward pointing growth, weak or dead foliage, as well as any branches that were too thick or too small to be used were removed. In the above photo you can see 2 jins (branch stubs) that show where 2 large branches were removed.

The cleaning stage in my opinion is the most important. It helps reveal the tree and can bring potential design options to clarity. Conversely if you were to try to style the tree right off the bat you’re liable to remove a branch that may have been critical to the design of the tree.

A second concept I discussed was depth and illusion. Sometimes it’d may be difficult or impossible to shorten or lengthen a given branch. But by changing the angle we position the tree the branch can be visually shortened. Imagine a ladder leaning against the wall. Looking at it head on the height of the ladder extends from the upper point of contact to the ground. In reality we know it’s much longer, but in bonsai its the visual length we care about.

With this in mind I suggested that we tilt the tree significantly forward. Doing so brings the apex forward while lengthening the lowest left branch and the drop branch on the right.

From here we wired the trees and tried to from distinctive pads with negative space.

Branch placement set

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After further cleaning and potting. This tree ended up being the only tree in the entire workshop that was placed in an actual bonsai pot. Because the tree was tilted so significantly one side of the root system was considerably raised. The provided workshop pots were extremely shallow and small. Placing the root system in such a container would risk the health of the tree. I advised my student that she could leave it in there temporarily but to repot it in a deeper container of her choice as soon as possible. I mentioned that she could buy a pot at the show on the spot and she was completely on board. We picked a reasonably priced round that was met our criteria best and used it for the tree.

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To have a very clean image and well executed design detail wiring every branch makes a huge difference. Unfortunately we were tight on time and had to stop here. All in all I think it turned out well and I hope I was able to effectively pass on knowledge to a new bonsai enthusiast. Ann, the student I worked with, picked on very fast and did a good job on cleaning as well as wiring for the very first time. Many bonsai enthusiasts quit after their first tree often from it dying or from the overwhelming amount of information involving bonsai care and development. Bonsai does have a steep learning curve, but it’s a very addictive and gratifying hobby. Perhaps some of the new students today will pulled in and become patrons of the art.

 

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Lastly here are some photos of the trees on display. I missed the demos but there were many excellent trees local artists styled.

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All in all it was a great show. Great group of people and made many new friends. Teaching a bonsai class was an interesting experience that I’d be open to doing again. Till next time.

Julian