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.

Image result for genki integrated course in elementary japanese
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_/