From The Blog


Fujikawa Kouka-en, Progressions, Refinement Techniques, Styling, Works in Progress

Battling some Needle Junipers and Bonsai Friends

We bonsai people are an interesting breed.  One reason I chose to follow this path is the people I would get to meet.  We have found something that inspires us, relaxes us, etc and come together for exhibitions and other functions to share our love of this art and place our creations out in the open for others to see.  I will never forget the first time I exhibited.  It was like taking my soul out, placing it on the table, and waiting for it to be praised or stomped on.  You have my word I’ll never do the latter.  That Nashville Bonsai Society exhibition was also the starting point for multiple friendships that I have sustained to this day. A group of men who I have named the Taimadera Crew visit Kouka-en a few times a year from a city on the outskirts of Nara.  A Buddhist temple in their town named Taimadera is the local landmark and renowned for a giant mandala said to made in one night.  The men come from different walks of life but have found common ground in bonsai.  A bonsai compound of sorts evolved on one of their properties that I had the chance to visit last year.  Meetings are frequent and the convenience level of sharing the workload on watering and other tasks is quite high.  They are some of my favorite clients as they come through the gate brimming with energy and can’t wait to see what is new. Bonsai teaching for the most part here in Japan is quite different from the standard protocol I’m used to in the United States.  I speak only about what I’ve been exposed to in this region of course.  The Crew always comes prepared with a list of very pointed questions about techniques and proper timing for their application when they visit.  Fujikawa-san shares cultural information freely with clients and often demonstrates then and there if the timing is right for the work. One member of the Crew recently purchased a Pinus densiflora I styled and documented HERE.  Three weeks ago, another member eyed a Juniperus rigida on the turn-table I was half-way finished with and told Fujikawa-san he’d buy it on the spot.  I quickly received the “don’t screw this up” glare from my sensei. I’ll spare you most of the details as this is one of a number of Juniperus rigida I have had the privilege of styling in the last few months.  The main issue with this tree was that it was in need of wiring badly.  We figure it had not been styled for about 5 years and maintained only by pruning.  Many of the lowest branches are really weak and the top far too strong.  The nice thing about older Juniperus rigida, Chamaecyparis obtusa, Cryptomeria japonica, and other “pad forming” conifers is that a few guy wires can often put the tree back in line.  This tree however, needed about 20 guy wires and quite a bit of detail wiring.  As tosho go, the foliage on this one was about a 5 out of 10 on the pain scale.  The slightly scared expressions on the faces of grocery store workers after a long day of tosho or black pine work never gets old.  Not only are they scared I can’t communicate with them, but my arms are shades of black and / or covered with raised red dots : ).

“Contemplation” by Pino

Revamping the lower branches required lots of careful fine wire work to maximize the appearance of volume.  The weakening of these lower branches could have been avoided if the previous owner had A.  Been knowledgeable enough to thin the upper two thirds of the tree properly through previous instruction or B.  Enlisted the help of a bonsai professional earlier before this issue arose.  Now that I’ve caught your attention……. If you have or want to have nice bonsai, hiring someone like me can sustain, improve, or save the bonsai in your collection.  A second set of trained eyes can evaluate your collection objectively without emotional attachment or preconceived notions of a tree’s future.  Accepting your current level of experience / technical skill level can be really empowering.  When I acquired a really nice field-grown hinoki about 6 years ago, I took the tree to Warren Hill; someone who had re-potted old hinoki numerous times.  Seems logical right?

Back to the tree.  Here is what I had to work with and the result.  


After adding volume to this and a few other lower branches, the remainder of the tree took quite a while to thin and detail wire.  Pads were shaped not just for the present, but for the next few years of new shoot growth and filling in.  Some of the tosho here at Kouka-en have new growth shortened up to four times a year.  With this much yearly growth, leaving spaces for future flushes is necessary.   Adding little details like this to the layout of the pads really brought the feeling of age back into this tosho.  Removal of thick branches was a priority.

The final product came out well. Here is the tree after styling….

….. and a photo from yesterday after new growth has started and die-back from styling has been removed.

Here’s something to consider when styling or refining a bonsai.  Take a photo in black and white of a tree some time.  Areas with too much “visual weight” and flaws in the silhouette can become more glaring; both before and after styling.    What issues do you see in the tree before styling?  New strengths achieved in the final product?

Here is another tosho that only needed a bit of pruning and detail wiring.  Next year, a smaller pot will really make this tree pop.  A fair number of branches had to be removed, so a “full” image will take a while.  This one was a 2 out of 10 on the pain scale.  Bonsai refinement is a process of course, and achieving a design takes priority over instant gratification


Taken yesterday after a few weeks of rebound time.

Thanks for reading.  Upcoming posts will be on another cool Juniperus rigida restyle and more day trips to cultural sites around Kansai Prefecture.


  1. Elliott Farkas - October 4, 2012 2:27 pm

    Great info, Owen. You and Bjorn are one of the very few Japanese trained (or in training), that will share the finer details of refinement like creating pads. It’s almost like the “catch a man a fish, you have fed him for a day, teach a man to fish, you have fed him for life” mentality. In other words, the finer details are reseved for apprentices only (maybe not even then), so that client needs to come back again and again as he is not taught all the skills completely. usualy in a workshop, you will spend the day wiring and such, and then 20 minutes before the end of the day, the instructor jumps in to do the final tweaking without explaining what he is doing. It’s done to perpetuate the need of hiring that instructor again, cause you are never taught how to bring the tree that last little step yourself.
    I understand that trained instructors need a permanent source of income to survive and need to make sure the student has a need to hire him over and over again, but I’m glad you guys are filling in some gaps in what is being taught out there, at least while your still in Japan ;0

    • Owen - October 7, 2012 9:35 am

      Bjorn and I like providing students with all the necessary information to create and refine their bonsai. Bonsai is such a complicated art-form that filling in some of the information gaps will not dry up all the work : ). I will be in America starting in December (2012) and state-side for a while. I’d be happy to fill in other information gaps in person. Nothing is top-secret with me. It’s how bonsai as an art-form will progress in America and elsewhere.

  2. Dylan - October 4, 2012 3:10 pm

    Hey Owen,

    Awesome post per usual! love the before and afters. Keep up the good work!

  3. Marcus Watts - October 4, 2012 4:04 pm

    Nice post. I like the pain scale ;-)
    Here is my observation based on a tree i have:
    My best rigida has two completely seperate live veins with their own roots. One feeds the bottom branch, the second feeds the rest of the tree – this makes the bottom branch actually the top of it’s own tree (with its own roots), so it does not become weak – the middle of my tree is the weaker area as it has the lowest branches fed by a vein that has to supply higher branches. It makes me think a seperate vein could be defined to supply weak lower branches, then they are as strong as the top.

    • Owen - October 7, 2012 9:24 am

      I understand your logic, but I think the major reason for weak branches in this case is lack of sunlight to a given area and / or mite infestations. Another issue can arise from re-potting and weakening the roots on a “side” of the root ball. Many live veins cannot be easily distinguished as to where they go.

      As for your tree, the idea does make sense. Just make sure you don’t “define” away a branch by cutting off it’s sap flow from below :).

  4. Owen - October 6, 2012 11:48 pm

    The apex of this tree will “round out” in the next few years, however this tree will probably always have a less domed look due to branching and thickness of the trunk. When doing a restyle like this, one major goal is to compact the tree as much as possible to set the stage for sustainability and future filling in.

    As for the height, I would say it is possible to drop the height a good few inches, but you have to weigh the pro’s and con’s of cutting large branches off vs an attractive tree in the nearer future. I would make the tree 2-3 inches shorter myself, but it would take about 3 years to accomplish and the new owner may opt to have that work done one day.


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