From The Blog

Fujikawa Kouka-en

Poodles and Manicures

There is very little that really gets me fired up when it comes to bonsai discussions. Generally, a person’s opinion about something as subjective as art is just that; subjective.      However, I feel the issue of “Bonsai Groomers” or “Bonsai Hair Dressers” needs to be addressed.  I’ve been hearing about this for a few years now from bonsai artists and hobbyists outside of Japan.  A lack of understanding I fear, is the issue.

My past feeling on the issue of bonsai ownership was that to call it “your’s”, you needed to create and style it yourself or at least own it a year or so.  Looking back I now know this stems directly from my ego and need for validation.  A few years before moving to Japan, I came to the realization that my method of thinking was extremely short-sighted and “mono-generational”; if it’s not a word, you get the idea : ).  There are many bonsai in Japan that are older than the concept of the United States of America.  Keeping bonsai going as an art form is a priority here in Japan.  In America, things are getting started.  That is not to say there are not some really impressive bonsai in the States, the EU, etc. etc. You just can’t compare Japan to the Western world yet.

So, what is the argument?  Styling and maintaining some of the best bonsai on the planet is akin to styling hair?  This leaves me confused.  Yes, I’ve heard mumblings that Kouka-en is a “groomer” before.  Kouka-en does do exhibition preparation for clients.  We also care for clients’ trees here at the nursery for long periods of time.  I think it is difficult for some to understand the different dynamic of bonsai in Japan.  This is a business.  Caring for clients’ bonsai brings in steady income and gives the bonsai the best possible chance of achieving true greatness.  Much like other art forms like painting and sculpture, patronage by wealthy clients is what allows bonsai artists to contribute to the cultural fabric.  The average customer here does not have training for technical wiring, in-depth knowledge of the best maintenance practices, or space to care for a ton of bonsai at their home.

Many current bonsai refinement techniques (those developed in about the last 30-40 years) exist to a large extent due to professionals’ specialization in differerent species, styles, and sizes of trees.  In Japan, there are clearly defined roles that different businesses take.  Businesses do evolve of course, and this will be touched on later.  There are mass production field growers, smaller specialized field growers,  yamadori collectors (yes people still collect in Japan), and container growers as well.  The next step up are rough stock whole-salers and cheaper retail shops.  There are middle level bonsai gardens, people who specialize in initial styling etc. etc.  Collectors’ trees bounce in and out of the mix at all levels as collections are bought and sold.  The most serious collectors appreciate the value of a bonsai that has had multiple owners, an interesting story or two attached, and the obvious prestige or value of owning something culturally important.

This Crataegus cuneata was exhibited in San Francisco in 1940. Interesting right? If you read this earlier, my previous date o f 1917 was incorrect.

Many of the famous bonsai gardens people know internationally are at the top of this food chain.  The best bonsai gardens in Japan deal in often very old, immaculately refined, and highly priced bonsai with well documented histories.  This high-end business model has been around in Tokyo for at least 100 years. It really gained prominence during the Bonsai Boom (about 1984 to 1992) when the value of good bonsai, pots, stands, and suiseki skyrocketed.  Demand increased, so competition between businesses led to better and better refined trees, implementation of some new techniques, and higher quality standards.  Over the course of Japanese bonsai history, there have been multiple booms and busts. Whether it was formal upright black pines, satsuki azaleas, or the fabled “giant green blob style” where all you saw was a nebari, these booms directly influence bonsai world-wide.

An Acer palmatum semi-cascade we are making.

At Kouka-en, there are trees that were started from seedlings and still here that have received Kicho Bonsai, or Important Cultural Masterpiece status.  Fujikawa-san and I have looked though Kinbon and exhibition books together and this nursery has owned a number of famous trees at one time or another.

Trachelospurmum asiaticum semi cascade. Current size 1.5 x 1.5 meters. This tree will soon be grafted with T. asiaticum var. Nana. It will likely be one of the best in Japan in the future. Using the straight species as under stock allows you to get a big base, long branching, and you don't have to wait 200 years : ).


Kouka-en started as a grower of roses, perennials, and field-grown bonsai.  Then, transitioned into the satsuki azalea trade by collecting rough stock and refining it.  Next, the focus shifted to deciduous and broad-leaf evergreens.  Now, there is a mix of just about everything here.  Many other top bonsai gardens like Shunka-en started out as a grower before evolving into the current business model.  With such a diverse history of creation, refinement, and maintenance, the monicker of groomer is wrong.  Being at the top of the food chain is an honor, and refinement work requires knowledge of the preceding steps needed for bonsai creation.  I look forward to the day when bonsai is highly specialized in America and abroad.

Here's another jasmine decades after grafting. This cascade is in the top three, if not best cascade jasmine in the world. Trachelospurmum is a species Kouka-en specializes in.

My friend Glen Lord said it best “there’s something romantic about a single-species nursery”.  It will truly be a wonderful day when we have that level of sophistication.  Thanks for reading. I’ve got a mani-pedi to do on a Stewartia monadelpha, so I’m signing off : ).





  1. John Callaway - May 30, 2012 7:04 pm

    Two more terms that make me cringe are “Cookie Cutter Bonsai” and “Paint by Number Bonsai”. Drives me nuts.

  2. Jeremiah Lee - May 30, 2012 7:12 pm

    well done!

  3. Michael T - May 30, 2012 9:01 pm

    Here’s a bone to pick, I can’t stand the habit of western bonsaists to copy all things japanese, including species, terminology, asian gardens and the like. I appreciate the admiration of japanese bonsai. It’s obviously worthy of the admiration, but there’s a simple failure to just recognize that nebari is simply rootage and so on.

    • Owen - May 30, 2012 9:11 pm

      To some extent I agree. One of my next posts will be on the matter. I tend to use Japanese terminology when it’s understood by the majority. Or there just isn’t a word that matches. Some people like to know the Japanese word as there is a history behind it.

      I’m in kind of a middle area on the matter.

    • John Callaway - May 31, 2012 11:56 am

      I’m a fan of using common (non deragatory) terms. For the Japanese art of bonsai that includes the use of nebari, for example, to describe good basal flare and root spread. I liken it to Kleenex for tissues and Coke for any carbonated beverage (in most of the southern US).

  4. CJ - May 31, 2012 12:48 am

    Hi Owen. A pleasure to have met u last year in Kyoto. Good read. Keep up the good works.

    • Owen - May 31, 2012 7:55 am

      The tea trees and bottlebrush on you blog are very cool : ).

      • CJ - June 1, 2012 8:40 am

        Thanks. The tea trees are very difficult to look after. I am still learning. I have 17 varieties of tea trees. Some of them are “easier” to handle than others. The bottlebrushes are as hardy as the JBP. Bare-root, complete defoliation, no problem.

  5. Elliott Farkas - June 2, 2012 11:55 am

    As usual, full of insite. Another thing we have to do in the US, that is done in Japan and to some extent in Europe, is to be able to proudly show a tree that you did not create. The name tag should show the owner’s and artist’s name. The point being is that best trees get into a show no matter what.
    We have room in Bonsai for arttist’s, owners, maitainer’s, etc, just like Japan. It realy bug’s me when I see someone who grew and trained a tree for decades, had to sell it due to his or her age, sickness, or whatever, then the new owner does a repot and it’s in a show as “my tree”. with the new owner basking in the glory of the artist.
    It’s ok if your not the artist. You should get kudo’s for recognising a nice piece of art, purchasing it and sharing it with other’s.
    This goes a long way to make it profitable to some people who make Bonsai their vocation and the more people making a living at it, the better the quality of trees we will have.
    It’s very hard for me to except money for Bonsai because its such a spiritual thing for me, but I know that the bigger the profits are, the stiffer the competition will be which will drive the overall quality of our trees up.


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