The National Bonsai Foundation’s latest bulletin is out and features my article further outlining my impressions of the bonsai industry in Japan and what lessons I think we can incoroprate here in the U.S. You can find it here.
In this post I wanted to share my experience with taking bonsai to the Green Club in Tokyo, how things are setup there, and a few first impressions .There are many blog posts explaining what the Green Club is so I will not go in depth here. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of bonsai pictures too.
Several days after the Kinbon photoshoot at Daijuen, activities shifted to preparing trees to take to the Green Club,which among other things serves as the bonsai sales area during Kokufu-ten.
The afternoon before we left was spent getting everything thing organized and loaded in the van. I was amazed at how efficiently the van was loaded.Each square inch of space was maximized to ensure everything fit and it would make the 3 hour trip undamaged.
The van also had a custom self installed, doubling the number of trees we could take. We finished just after sunset and hit the sack in preparation for an early start the next day.
Before leaving Daijuen we were joined by Mr. Suzuki’s son-in-law, Mr. Tanaka of Aichien and two of his apprentices, Juan Andrade and John Milton. They too had a van loaded with bonsai and together we would roll convoy to Tokyo.
The Green Club was a buzz with activity upon our arrival. Vans jockeying for position to unload, display tables being set up, and apprentices trying to anticipate what needed to be done.
Once the tables were setup we had some “free time” to look around but did not stray to far in case something needed to be lifted.
Here are a few observations from my time spent at the Club.
We often don’t think of bonsai as a business. For most of the world bonsai is a hobby, something we do for fun. As someone who makes his living caring for bonsai I had some idea of the professional bonsai world, but coming to Japan made me very aware of the business of bonsai.
For the top bonsai professionals in Japan the Green Club during Kokufu is very important to their livelihood. Selling trees and attracting clients is how these men feed their families. First and foremost its about sales. The Kokufu-ten draws people from all over world, many of whom are coming to shop for bonsai at the Green Club. This influences which trees are brought to sale.
You can think of each professional as a fisherman using his best lure to catch the biggest fish. Currently the biggest fish come from China, the recent growth of the Chinese economy has brought an appetite for high-end trees and pots. Therefore the lures used appeal to these fish the most, and the most appealing lures are big. As I walked around on the first floor I noticed that each pro had at least one massive tree for sale.
Another major component is the Green Club provides an opportunity for each nursery to show off their stuff. I heard on several occasions that the trees in the Green Club would be better that those in the exhibit. In many instances this was true.Sale trees consisted of historic bonsai, previous Kokufu winners, famous trees recently restyled, and bonsai previously unknown in the community. The point is to let everyone else know that you still have the skills to pay the bills. After all, the green in Green Club doesn’t just refer to the color of the trees.
The quantity and quality of the trees at the Green Club was unlike like anything thing I have ever seen in one location. As you can see there were not only big expensive trees but material at every stage of development. The more I walked around the more I was struck by the size of the bonsai industry in Japan and the number of businesses it supported. This left me with a question that I will try to answer in an upcoming post, What is fueling Japan’s bonsai industry and what can we learn from it?
Thanks for reading.
The nicest weather I experienced during the trip was on my third day in Japan, the rest of the trip was either cold and windy, cold and rainy, or cold and snowy. This day however was sunny and pleasant, which was great since the bonsai magazine Kinbon, was coming to do a photo shoot of the trees that were headed for Kokufu-ten.
These trees had already been photographed once before when they were judged a few weeks prior to my arrival. It was interesting to find out that all the bonsai in the Kokufu exhibit are judged and photographed almost a month before the actual show.
Since then they were being kept in the workshop, protected from the elements. This meant that my sempai Takuya and myself would be lifting trees for most of the day.
This needle juniper had some of the tightest foliage pads I’ve ever seen. This tree was from Gashoen, another bonsai nursery nearby, and Mr. Suzuki was taking it to the show for them.
Not the best picture of a very nice japanese black pine. For whatever reason the photos I take with my iphone don’t capture the whole image as it appears on the view finder.
Even from the back this semi cascade white pine looks awesome.
More trees were also being kept in the reception area which is where the photographer set up his backdrop. Since this beech was the closest tree it was the first one to be photographed.
Once things were set up the photo shoot did not take as long as I thought. The displays had been thought out by Mr. Suzuki long in advacnce and it was simply a matter of us removing the tree, Mr. Suzuki changing the stand and then we were there with the next bonsai to photographed. Very effecient.
The next one up was one of my favorite trees. A bunjin white pine which had beautifully old shari.
Since this years Kokufu was a double show, meaning there were two sets of bonsai exhibited, each set was judged and awarded. This already famous Kichou, (Important Bonsai Masterpiece), root-over-rock JBP won “Best Conifer” of the second group.
In addition to the big trees there were several three-point-displays photographed.
Japanese White Pine with kumquat shohin and small fern. The kumquat was kept warm in a small plastic greenhouse inside the Suzuki home along with a few houseplants.
Another killer japanese white pine smiles for the camera.
The same semicascade white pine from above, but now paired with a shohin root-over-rock japanese maple, and perhaps the most famous accent plant ever.
I really liked the character of this tree, great trunk. It is a procumbens juniper or sonare in Japanese, with foliage as tight as your ever going to see.
Once photographed each tree was set out to catch some much needed rays. After we set this tree down I noticed something white around the nebari. It looked like the tree had some fungal issue.
Concerned, I asked Takuya about it, he smiled and said “Strong tree”. I am no stranger to mycorrhiza but I’ve never see it as abundant as this, it was growing up the nebari! Not only is this a strong tree but its another kichou bonsai.
This quince was one of the shohin used in another three-point-display. Not only is this tree top shelf, but check out the patina on its pot. Kokufu trees are transplanted into antique Chinese and Japanese pots for the exhibit then put back into their “growing” containers after the show.
The very last thing I did was give each tree a much needed watering. If you have the chance pick up a copy of Kinbon to see the actual photos. As always, thanks for reading.
For any serious bonsai enthusiast on the Eastern Seaboard, there was one place to have been on March 14th. Gateway Garden Center in Hokenssin, DE was host to over 400 bonsai being sold from the legendary Kennett Collection.
Almost all the trees had been imported from Japan and were being sold at amazing prices. I actually passed on buying things last month in Japan in anticipation of this sale.
Museum Curator Jack Sustic, myself, and Museum volunteer Ted Pickett drove up that morning and arrived an hour early. People had already began to muster, circling the perimeter trying to locate the trees they wanted.
There were buyers from Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and even Houston, Texas. Let me know if I missed any.
Jack at the starting gate waiting for his group to go. No one dared to try anything funny with what I assume were the first bouncers ever at a bonsai sale.
I was in shortly after Jack and was able to photograph the trees. Enjoy.
It was a great experience, even for those who didn’t get exactly what they wanted. Thank you to Mr. Paul and everyone involved in orchestrating this event. It’s exciting to know that so many fine bonsai have been distributed around the U.S. and I assume we will be seeing many of them in upcoming exhibitions.
At the end of January I was extremely blessed to have traveled to Japan for a 3 week “apprentice” style learning experience with Mr. Tohru Suzuki at the historic Daiju-en bonsai nursery in Okazaki. This trip was timed to coincide with the 88th Kokufu-ten exhibition where I would have the opportunity to assist Mr. Suzuki and the Daiju-en family with getting their trees to and from Tokyo. Before I share that experience I wanted to highlight the trees of Daiju-en.
When you think of pine bonsai you think of Daijuen. As a 3rd generation bonsai nursery, Daijuen and its founder Saichi Suzuki are credited with developing the now universal technique of de-candling used for Japanese Black Pine bonsai as well as the fast growing Japanese White Pine cultivar ‘Zuisho’.
For those who have never head the story, it goes like this: One day while in the nursery, Saichi noticed something out of the ordinary with several of his pines. Upon closer inspection the new spring growth had been completely eaten by caterpillars, leaving the trees with out any new shoots.
He set them aside to see what would happen, would they live of die? Not only did the trees live but they put out another flush of growth, only the new needles were much shorter. From that point on the practice of removing spring shoots to force a second flush of growth is applied wherever JBP are growth as bonsai.
I asked Mr. Suzuki about those first trees his grandfather set aside. He said that they were in the formal upright style and at that time they belonged to a customer. I asked if they were still around and he replied that they are still alive but were at another customers home. It would have been awesome to have seen the legendary “catepillar “trees, but there were plenty of historic bonsai at the nursery.
In conjunction with my last post about Peter Adams at the GSBF convention in 2009, I wanted to share these photos I took of the bonsai on exhibit . Please forgive some of the blurry photos, when I took these 4 years ago, I didn’t expect to be posting them online. Also I normally attribute the owner but again I failed to capture that info. Enjoy.
There were also a number of viewing stones on display.
Viewing stone, most likely from the Eel River.
Japanese Black Pine
San Jose Juniper
Dead wood detail
The workshop focused on bonsai design with trees brought in by students. There was some confusion with the description of the class since only a few people brought in trees. Once it became clear that Peter was going to do an original sketch of your tree, people quickly went to the vendor area and bought something.
What immediately struck me about Peter was his artistic ability. Its one thing to see his beautiful sketches in Bonsai Focus but to see him create these amazing drawings in person, and so quickly, was really inspiring. In one instance he was sketching upside down so the class could see what he talking about.
The other thing that was hard to ignore was his sense of humor. Even though he called the US his home he still had that dry Britsh wit. Rather than a formal classroom environment, Peter was cracking jokes and making everyone enjoy themselves, he said “after all, bonsai is supposed to be fun.”
I think the distinguishing factor of a true bonsai artist is represented in someone like Peter Adams. His had the ability to see the true potential within a piece of material and then have the skill to bring those designs to life through his sketches. I am very thankful I was able to have spent time with Peter Adams, if ever so briefly, because I am now challenged to look for all the possibilities within a bonsai, just like he did.
Earlier this year I had the amazing opportunity to spend a week with Ryan Neil at his bonsai garden just outside Portland, OR. The week consisted of being surrounded by some of the most awesome native material I’ve ever seen. Each day was spent in the workshop with Ryan and his French apprentice JP, styling one ancient tree after another. Here are just a few of the photos from my week.
Day 2. The Garden
Day 3: Project tree
Once the wood had been cleaned, Ryan began setting the major branches in place.Once the structural branches were set in place I continued wiring the smaller branches. This took the better part of several days.
Day 5: The Greenhouse
The greenhouse contained trees that had recently repotted or wired. This tree was very special because it came from John Naka’s collection. Even though I get to work on the 6 Naka trees at the Museum, I still have goosebumps when seeing any tree from the Naka collection.
Watch Ryan’s grafting technique here.
Day 6: Here comes the sun.
Day 7: Photoshoot
At the end of the week it was time to assess all that we got done.
I want to thank Ryan for his generosity and hospitality in inviting me to his place. I have been to numerous bonsai gardens but Bonsai Mirai is a truly magical place. If your wanting to take you bonsai skills to the next level, plan a trip to spend a week at Bonsai Mirai.
After viewing the Huntington’s Bonsai Collection and viewing stone exhibit, I made my way to the Ikebana House in search of American suiseki history. Inside was an exhibit featuring the viewing stones of Bob Watson, former head of the Huntington’s Japanese Garden and American suiseki pioneer. All following text is taken from the various labels within the exhibit which was written and curated by Jim Greaves, founder of the American Viewing Stone Resource Center.
‘Suiseki’ at the Ikebana House.
Robert Watson first exhibited ‘suiseki’, a “display of beautiful and unusual stones created solely by nature” in this Ikebana House in November of 1975. The recorded attendance for the week was an astonishing 2538 visitors with 171 recorded as attending his lecture on suiseki. There was a second show in the Ikebana House in 1976 and others through at least 1979 (recorded attendance of 600), but records of the stone exhibits are confusing and incomplete. There are enticing newspaper references to sponsorship by “the San Gabriel Valley Suiseki Club”, including a partial list of participating members. However, of these, only Cliff Johnson remembers exhibiting with Bob and he does not recall any such club. We assume the name was simply coined for one of the exhibits when other friends exhibited a few stones along with Bob.
With the exception of a few local newspapers clippings that feature one or two of the stones, no photographs have been found of any of these early exhibits in the Ikebana House. Various accounts note the Tiger Stone, Rain Shelter, Pinnacles, Castle on the Rhine, Glacier, Frozen Wave, and the large Butte (from Palos Verdes). We have labeled these cited stones and marked with a dot those stones for which photographs appeared in local papers. It is very likely that most of the stones you see mounted on daiza (custom fitted wooden bases) were shown in one or more of his exhibits. Bob’s original ‘poetic’ titles are printed in Bold.
All of these stones were collected by Bob Watson, however, most unmounted stones were probably never formally exhibited. Indeed, several were discovered among boxes and loose stones in his backyard when he held sales later in his life. For historical accuracy in representing his viewpoint, or rather, in not wishing to misrepresent his viewpoint, those stones that were likely never displayed by Bob are indicated with a black dot. With the exception of those stones displayed out in the bonsai court, the extent to which Bob presented loose stones in suiban is unknown. It appears that he owned very few suiban. One of the two suiban that we are certain belonged to him is the large, fine gray rectangular suiban from the Tokoname pottery used with an Indian Blanket stone.
In conversations, Bob emphasized the importance of understanding Japanese practice. He was openly disdainful and dismissive of the ‘new’ collectors. Ironically, the purism he preached was not reflected in his own practice; over time it has become apparent that a great number of his ‘natural’ suiseki were enhanced with heavy surface coatings of oil and varnish and even coloring to a degree that virtually no one would consider acceptable today. The Butte Stone from Palos Verdes is actually a white limestone that he apparently dyed yellow by soaking in a coffee or tea solution. This may not be as strange as if first sounds, because the myriad of Japanese Suiskei magazines and publications of the 60s and 70s were replete with instructions for altering stones ( and to a much greater extent than Bob ever did). Many of these stones have received a single flat cut to assist in positioning and mounting. Of the stones he found, only the ‘thread’ stone from Canada has been physically altered and polished to create a biseki (beautiful stone). The small purchased Asian stones have also been worked and polished.
“Robert Watson was the head gardener responsible for the last grand expansion of the Huntington’s Japanese Garden prior to this past year’s renovations and addition of the tea-house.”In 1968 his efforts added the original bonsai court and, most famously the karesansui or dry landscape garden commonly known as the ‘Zen Garden’. Less known, Bob displayed suiseki in the Japanese Garden at the Huntington and introduced the Japanese art of stone appreciation to non-Japanese Americans. His followers eventually combined forces with members of the Japanese community to create a vibrant suiseki-viewing stone presence in Southern California. One of Bob’s stones, a rugged mountain stone collected from Garnet Hill, has remained in continuous display for 40 years and may now be seen at the entrance to the this exhibit. Appropriately, we are also showing two bonsai that were donated by Bob to start the Bonsai Court in the Japanese Garden.
Toyama ,Distant Mountain Stone. One of the earliest American viewing stones published in color. (1974)
Glacier Stone, Hyoga-ishi, British Columbia.This distant mountain stone is the best example of Bob’s ‘suiseki’ style stones.
Indian Blanket Stones, Saddle Peak Hills, California. (Note that this area is now closed to collecting).
” Tokoname Suiban, This fine Tokoname ceramic that Bob purchased in the 1970’s is one of the few that he owned. It would have been too valuable to use for display in the garden.”
“ Mountain Range, Garnet Hill, California. This is the first large natural (uncut) for which Bob and Cliff Johnson made a daiza.”
Garnet Hill, Palms Springs, Riverside County (Discovered as early as 1964) The first productive desert site, Garnet Hill was long known by geologists as a source for ventifacts created by the strong winds whipping down the Coachella Valley. Unlike most desert sites, this site has considerable granite and a signature composite of fossilized oyster shell and limestone.
Garnet Hill, Palm Springs
“Watson purchased Japanese artwork,tea articles, and several suiseki, but only these few have been located:1. Sun Flower Stone, Korea. 2. Biseki (beautiful stone), China. 3. Biseki, Japan. 4. Furuya-ishi, Japan. 5. Chrysanthemum Stone, Japan.”
Tea Cady, Object Stone, Keisho-seki, British Columbia.
A Watson Prophecy
“Over a period of twenty-five years the American public has come to know and enjoy the beauty and pleasures found in bonsai. In the future, I feel certain that an equal enjoyment will be found in suiseki, as people see and learn more about these creations of nature. It is my hope that a sponsor may be found who would be willing to finance the formation of collection of suseki, biseki, meiseki and top quality mineral specimens to be house in a suitable building for public viewing…”
Robert T. Watson
International Bonsai Digets presents Bonsai Gems, 1974
Biographical Information and Abbreviated ‘Suiseki’ Timeline
Robert Truesdell Watson, born 2/6/1912
Served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was stationed in Japan after the War.
Became interested in bonsai as early as 1944
1964- Became a full-time gardener at the Huntington Library. Reportedly began exploring his local deserts in search of stones suitable for suiseki. Discovered the Garnet Hill site outside of Palm Springs.
1968-Opening of the Huntington Zen Garden and Bonsai Court designed by Bob.
1969 or 70- Trip to Japan where he purchased suiseki for his personal collection. Unfortunately these stones have been dispersed.
1971- Met Cliff Johnson at the Santa Anita Bonsai Club and invited him home to see stones. First collecting trip with Cliff Johnson to Garnett Hill near Palm Springs. Round Lake Hill site with direction from Bob Sharp, geologist at Cal Tech.
1972-In an article , Bonsai Had Interesting Beginning, he noted suiseki are on display in the Huntington bonsai court.-Star News.
1973- Los Angeles Meiseki Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History: the first significant suiseki exhibition in the United States.
1974- Pacific Asia Museum exhibition of suiseki shown with 17th and 18th century Japanese prints during the Mishima-Pasadena Sister City Celebration. National Bonsai Convention, Pasadena : Watson was featured lecturer on suiseki. International Bonsai Digest-Bonsai Gems (1974); Suiseki, a short introduction including photographs of two stones from the Dumont Dunes area. Bob expresses the hope that a public suiseki collection will be created. Year of the first collecting trip to British Columbia (possibly early 1975)
1975-First Suiseki show in the Ikebana House, Huntington Library [Attendance:2538]; Nov 7 & No 8 lectures: “Suiseki, the Oriental art of appreciating beautiful and unusual stones created solely by nature. [Attendance: 171]
1976- International Bonsai Digest -Bicentennial Edition: Thoughts on Suiseki with photos of the Tiger Stripe Stone, Glacier Stone and Garnet Hill Mountain. [The Bicentennial gift of 5 suiseki to the U.S. National Arboretum stimulates the formation of the National Viewing Stone collection of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum, Washington D.C. Melba Tucker donated an Indian Blanket Stone from Death Valley that was collected by Bob, Subsequently published in Awakening the Soul.]
1977- Bonsai- Magazine of Bonsai, Japanese Gardens, Saikei & Suiseki: photo of Glacier Stone (Bonsai Vol. xvi, No. 7, p217)
1978- Bonsai- Magazine of Bonsai, Japanese Gardens, Saikei & Suiseki: photo of Tiger Stone mislabeled as from California. (Bonsai Vol. xvii, No. 5).
1977-80- Los Angeles County Arbretum Suiseki Exhibit. Display done with Cliff Johnson and included Japanese antiques and furniture. Lecture “Suiseki” Robert Watson, Head Gardener, Japanese Garden (March 18, 1980).
1983-84- Attended first formative meeting of California Aiseki Kai, but did not continue participation with the club.
1984- Publication of The Jpanese Art of Stone Appreciation, the first and still the most important book on suiseki in English: photos of Bob’s stones including the Glacier Stone, Tiger-stripe Stone, Garnet Hill Mountain and large Butte.
1986- Bob Watson retired from Huntington Library. Pacific Asia Museum Exhibition with Cliff Johnson (date uncertain).
January,1991- First Annual California Aiseki Kai Suiseki and Viewing Stone Exhibition at the Huntington Library-A special selection of 7 Watson desert stones honored Bob.
1991- Robert T. Watson died.
Any trip to the Huntington Library should include a visit their renowned bonsai collection. On my recent visit to the Huntington Gardens to see the annual Aiseki Kai exhibit, I made sure to stop by the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s (GSBF) bonsai collection despite a rare cold and rainy day in Southern California.