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.

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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.