Japan

Japanese Web Retailers

There are some retailers in Japan with an amazing selection of bonsai tools and accessories, and shipping is surprisingly affordable. In fact, I’ve found the shipping of these sites to be less expensive than what many American bonsai retailers can offer me. Two of these retailers I can recommend with confidence.

The first is Bonsai Network Japan.

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They have a huge selection of Masakuni, Yoshi, and Nobuichi tools. Also available is a variety of display accessories, copper wire, and books including lots of Kokufu album back issues. To get a shipping price, you must assemble your order and submit it for a quote. To give you an idea, I ordered a large book, knob cutters, grafting tape, and wire cutters. The box was 30 x 20 x 15 cm and weighed over 1 kg. Air shipping from Japan Post was under $12! It arrived in exactly 13 days as promised, with no surprise custom fees. Maki from J-Bonsai is extremely helpful and is clearly experienced in shipping to other countries. I highly recommend this retailer.

Another great retailer is Kaneshin Bonsai Tools.

CaptureAs the name implies, Kaneshin only sells one brand of tools, but their selection is incredible and the tools have a great reputation. They sell just about everything you could want and more. A nice thing about this website is that you can calculate the shipping costs yourself based on the weight of the items ordered. Obviously things get expensive as the size of the order increases, but I would say the economy shipping prices are pretty fair, especially compared to what I’ve seen some vendors in the US quote me.

 


New Old Keizan Pot

I recently got this Keizan pot from Matt Ouwinga of Kaede Bonsai-en, Chicago. I’m not sure exactly how old it is but the patina definitely suggests a few decades of heavy use. I’m not a hardcore pot collector therefore the chip in one of the feet doesn’t bother me much. As far as I’m concerned, it made the pot a bit more affordable. While I didn’t buy this pot for a specific tree, it is extremely versatile and I’m sure I won’t have a problem pairing a tree with it, mostly likely a Thuja.

I have Peter Tea to thank (blame?) for getting me into aged pots. Before I went to Aichi-en I had never really seen old pots in person but once I got my hands on some I was hooked. While I can’t necessarily afford the higher end antique Chinese pots, I have come to appreciate the subdued look of a heavily used pot over a brand new one.

I think it is important to recognize that in order to continue to raise the level of bonsai display in North America, we not only need better trees but better pots as well. Peter Tea and Matt Ouwinga are each a driving force in bringing old Chinese and Japanese pots into North America, and I am grateful for that. My wallet, on the other hand, is perhaps not so enthusiastic.

Apparently this is “Post Your Keizan Pot Week”. Jonas at Bonsai Tonight also posted a beautiful Keizan pot earlier today, which motivated me to post mine.

    13.5" x 10" x 3.75"

13.5″ x 10″ x 3.75″ with chip

The patina is probably the most valuable aspect of this pot.

The patina is probably the most valuable aspect of this pot.

Keizan branded pots are made in the Tokoname region by Shizuo Hisada.

Keizan branded pots are made in the Tokoname region by Shizuo Hisada.


A Unique Composition

This is a very interesting trident maple that I did some winter cutting on at Aichi-en back in December. I think Mr. Tanaka’s father started this tree something like 30 years ago. The development of branching and ramification has begun relatively recently, but with the rate at which tridents grow in Nagoya and techniques of the Aichi-en crew, this tree should progress rapidly.

What makes it interesting is that it is planted on (not in) a natural crescent stone. I like this planting because it shows the variety of bonsai that you can find in Japan. I’ve heard the term cookie-cutter used to describe Japanese tree before, but I really don’t think it makes sense. Definitely not for this tree, and not even for the rows of black pines I saw in Japan and in Kokufu albums. Once trees develop age and bonsai maturity, they seem to develop their own character that could not be duplicated if you tried.

I like how the curve of the stone is continued in the curve of the trunk. The dropping branch is a recurring motif on tridents at Aichi-en.

The stone acts as a basin that fills with water. There are roots growing in there, and an entire ecosystem it seems.


Passing Along a Japanese Black Pine at Aichi-en

During my short stay at Aichi-en last December one of the pines I worked on lead to a hierarchical styling session. First I gave the tree my best shot, then apprentice Peter Tea tweaked it, and finally the resident master Junichiro Tanaka offered his improvements. This was an incredible learning experience that started (for me) in the morning and went well into the night in the smoke-filled workshop.

Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii). Probably purchased as inexpensive material from an auction. Mr. Tanaka thought it was collected as a tree with a nice base but a scraggly and bare top that was compressed by a bonsai artist several years ago.

After needle plucking. The contorted nature of the upper trunk is much more clear now. Branch selection had already been completed a couple of years ago. The tree was planted at a good angle, and all it needed was some wire and branch placement. Easy, right? Well, the task became much more challenging when I knew my work would be critiqued by two bonsai professionals!

Wiring this tree was quite the experience. First of all, my wiring skill is still very amateur. Secondly, I was using #10 Japanese copper in very tight spots on this incredibly contorted tree. Thirdly, I often underestimated the required wire diameter for many of these branches. Young, vigorous branches are very hard to bend compared to old branches. As a result, I probably ended up rewiring many parts of this tree 2-3 times!

All wired and ready for further manipulations.

To make the tree more compact, a guy wire was used to further compress the contorted trunkline.

This is as far as I took the tree. There is a small branch under the paper towel that I wanted to remove, but would not unless I got permission. I knew that Mr. Tanaka likes to use every available branch to increase the fullness of the tree. This is important when you are a bonsai professional. (He ended up keeping the branch :P)
 

While this was the best I could do, I was still not happy. I thought the lowest branch was too lanky and needed to be brought forward. Also, the branch on the right needed to be embracing the trunk more. However, I was not confident enough to make these bends as I felt I had already brought those brittle young branches to their limit. In the process of shaping this tree, I had already cracked several branches. So, I called over Peter.

Enter Peter Tea. Here is is fixing some of my shoddy wiring :)

The result of Peter's adjustments. The improvement is quite remarkable. Two things really stand out. (1) For the first branch, he combined what I had separated into two pads into one pad. The resulting pad is much more full with a nice round top. (2) He managed to bring in that branch on the right for a much nicer and more compact image. Peter is MUCH more confident and capable at setting pine branches than I am! I was really blown away with Peter's improvements, and thought that the work was definitely done.

Enter Mr. Tanaka. "Hmmmmm...."

When he picked up the branch cutters, Peter and I were like "seriously?"

Here is the final result, after three people taking their shots at the tree. Mr. Tanaka cut off one of the main branches and opened up the 'window' to the interesting upper portion of the trunk. The resulting branch is not as full, but it has excellent basic structure. While the the branch may looks sparse now, the value of the tree will definitely increase down the road because it has good basic structure in the primary branch.

 

Working on this tree was one of the most challenging and fun bonsai experiences I have had. Reminiscing on this work session really got me thinking… I hope I get the chance to go back to Nagoya some day soon!


An Incredible Grafted (Setsu-goyou) Miyajima White Pine in Japan

Grafted Miyajima White Pine (Pinus parviflora) have a bad reputation because it is difficult to find a specimen with a smooth graft between the black pine base and white pine top. This is probably because the black pine base grows faster and more strongly than the white pine top.

While visiting a private garden in Japan, I saw this masterpiece grafted miyajima white pine. The trunk line was practically flawless, with hardly any swelling or unsightly graft transition (unfortunately not visible in the picture). This is rare even in Japan, making this a very special tree.

To make things even more incredible, the owner told us that this tree had not been detail wired in nearly 30 years! I found that almost impossible to believe. That would be the ultimate display of bonsai maturity and maintenance techniques.

Masterpiece grafted (setsu-goyou) Miyajima White Pine


A Pricey Little Japanese Black Pine

One thing that I found very interesting on my trip to Japan was the prices of bonsai. Take this stunning little (about 20 cm) japanese black pine below for example: it set the owner back ¥1,000,000 (about $12,500).

A cool million yen in the palm of your hand.

Why is this tree so expensive? Probably a number of reasons… small trees seem to be desirable right now, the bark was very good, the nebari and taper were both almost “perfect”, and the branch placement and ramification were outstanding. It is small details like this that make the difference between a ¥10,000 tree and a ¥1,000,000 tree in Japan. Nevertheless, a ¥10,000 tree in Japan is still pretty damn nice 🙂

I wonder if this tree would sell for $12K in North America? Europe? Maybe that isn’t even a fair question to ask given the difference in the markets for bonsai.