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Reflections on Bonsai

Bonsai? Why?

Bonsai? Why?

I have been reluctant to write a blog up until now as you need to have something novel, or at least somewhat interesting to say.  I have built up enough experiences and mastered “Hidden Crane Sweeping Technique”, so it’s time to share what has happened thus far and update when I have something worth saying.  My first year and a half here at Kouka-en in Osaka, Japan has been a humbling one.  Following time-tested and well executed training techniques on a wide variety of species has opened my eyes to what is possible for bonsai improvement and how to do it.  That and learning a new language to accomplish tasks in an environment where mistakes are not acceptable has a profound effect on you.  The top of my head has a permanent bruise;  Fujikawa-san is skilled at not leaving marks from years of practice so I must blame the low doorways I suppose….

There are a number of excellent blogs related to the art of bonsai, so I will try not to overlap topics covered by other apprentices currently in Japan (Peter Tea, Matt Reel, Tyler Sherrod, etc.) or other professionals actively posting (Michael Hagerdorn, Peter Warren, etc).   The YouTube series “Bonsai Art of Japan” is a project I work very hard on with the creator and wonderfully talented producer Bjorn Bjorholm.  I’m sure the series will be referenced often so if you haven’t seen any of the now 25 some-odd episodes, start watching : ).  Future posts will include horticultural tricks, styling pointers, etc.  The subject of my first post will be on why we train bonsai:

The question of “why” I train bonsai let alone dropped everything (career, relationship, truck, etc) and moved to Japan has crossed the lips of many family members, friends, and acquaintances.  Oddly enough, Japanese people seem more surprised than Westerners when I tell them what I do.  We all get asked the question eventually I suppose.  My motives for becoming an apprenctice were very simple.  First, I would be able to follow a passion for the art and potentially make a living doing it.  Second, I’d be able to teach others about the art so their level of appreciation and enjoyment would rise.  Third, I’d get to live in Kansai Prefecture close to all the gardens and natural scenic beauty of Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka.  This motive really has had a profound influence on my understanding and styling of bonsai as experiencing ancient specimens of the species we covet for bonsai outside of Japan really helps understand their habits in old age.  Last but not least, training bonsai is an extension of my previous career in the world of horticulture.  I’ve always enjoyed the sense of accomplishment and tangible results associated with seeing plants recover, germinating seeds, and so on.   Bonsai is on a whole different level as the process is longer and the results all the more fulfilling.

When just getting into bonsai while at The University of Georgia, a friend posed the “why” question.  On the surface, I suppose bonsai is an odd addiction…. (ahem) I mean hobby.  I asked him “Why do you play golf?”.  He reflected for a moment and let it go.  I feel there are a few similarities between the two activities that may help others defend their passion for bonsai.  For example, slicing into the woods repeatedly all day then hitting a fluid drive onto the green just once makes a whole day of effort and cursing melt away.  Countless hours butchering defenseless trees as you cut your teeth on this art form all become validated when you get your first honest compliment on a well-trained tree.   Purchasing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars worth of equipement for golf does not make you better.   The same goes for bonsai, although buying stuff for both does make it easier at times.  What is it about bonsai that causes people to ask us to defend our hobby?

A fellow blogger, Bonsai Eejit, has the coolest and most profound logos I’ve ever seen.  Being “chained” to our bonsai is a choice we make.  Are we all masochists I wonder?  How many hours a week do you spend thinking about or caring for your trees?  Few other hobbies require the logistical acumen we bonsai people have to care for our little ones while away from home.  Yesterday, I went with Fujikawa-san to evaluate and possibly purchase a collection of bonsai and pots.  The collector was no longer capable of caring for the trees and his wife was responsible for watering.  She lasted about two months apparently before placing a call to us.   Many of the trees were at various stages of wilting or death.  She was so excited to see us : ).   The point is you have to love bonsai deep down or you’ll never make it past the 1 gallon garden center juniper massacres.  These questions are posed not to dissuade you from doing bonsai, but to commend you for all the effort. Whatever your motivations are, they are valid.  People really into bonsai have found an outlet for their creative expression and that is what matters.  It’s easy to get caught up in all crap we have to deal with in our lives, but that short break from the grind we receive when appreciating our trees makes it all worth it.


  1. Jim Reich Jr - May 24, 2012 9:28 am

    Profound. Thanks. Nicely Done.

  2. Jeremiah Lee - May 25, 2012 1:04 pm

    Well done, hope this is the first great post of many!
    I really feel you on this:
    “It’s easy to get caught up in all crap we have to deal with in our lives, but that short break from the grind we receive when appreciating our trees makes it all worth it.”
    Is there a way to change the amount to donate? thanks

    • Owen - May 26, 2012 8:28 am

      I’ll have the Paypal all worked out here this evening. Thank you for your support.

  3. Elliott Farkas - May 25, 2012 11:57 pm

    That’s a good topic. I don’t know what to tell people when they ask why I’m so obsessed with Bonsai. I don’t know exactly why (or maybe I don’t know how to explain it)??
    I am currently being followed around for a documentary on bonsai. More exactly, it’s a documentary on people who have devoted their lives to Bonsai and why. the videographer kept trying to find different ways of asking what it is that drives me on, trying to get a good answer, Finaly as he had me dead-heading a purple star flower for the camera, all I could come up with was “its either Bonsai or heroin”!
    If you take one of those test’s with like 10 questions to determine if your a drug addict, and I apply it to Bonsai, the answer is yes to all the questions except maybe the one about have I ever stolen or cheated for my drug of choice (Bonsai). I guess there it is, I’m an addict.
    Anyways, I love your video series and I look forward to getting a study group together with you when your done in the Los Angeles area.
    Please keep it up and hang in there!!

    • Owen - May 26, 2012 8:27 am

      I’ve considered a funny “BA” t-shirt with 12 steps and all that, but it seemed in poor taste. The video sounds very interesting. The videographer should get in touch with Thorhammer Beowulf (yes that is his real name and yes, it is the coolest name ever) down in Australia. He’s doing his Doctoral Thesis on how Westerners interpret and adapt bonsai among other things. I will try and get you his contact info.

      • Elliott Farkas - May 26, 2012 11:55 am

        Thorhammer Beowulf? didn’t they open for metallica at the meadowlands last year?
        Yeah, that contact would be great. I’ll pass it on. Some big names in Bonsai have shown interest in this documentary. they are going to be interviewed via skype.
        when I’m ready for recovery, I’ll hit you up for one of those 12 step shirts. I’ll take a size 6x equator.

  4. Mike Blanton - May 27, 2012 9:24 am

    Great job man I knew you would make things happen. People, this is a little different post. If you are looking for a good young bonsai artist look no further. Owen and I have work long nites in my garage and long days also. So, if you want a young super new artist that will be returning to the states and need some bonsai work, jump on this guy because he is going to book up fast.

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