Cultivating shrunken worlds in Bonsai-mura

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Omiya is one of greater Tokyo’s rare pockets of residential comfort that can accurately be defined as middle class — a trait it shares with places such as Chiba’s Ichikawa Mama or southwestern Tokyo’s Denenchofu district.

Bonsai-mura (literally: “Bonsai Village”) is a neighborhood of Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, strongly associated with the cultivation of dwarf trees, which came into existence less by intent than happenstance. Assessing the damage and losses from the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, bonsai growers in Tokyo’s Sendagi district decided to, quite literally, uproot and relocate to nearby Saitama. Among bonsai growers, the prefecture was already known for its rich, loamy soil — just right for the cultivation of potted trees. The residential English-style garden district we see in Omiya today, developed around the setting up of the area’s early bonsai nurseries.

An easy daytrip from Tokyo, the concentration of nurseries here may be the largest of its kind in Japan. Most are within a short walk of Omiya-koen Station and open to the public without appointment. Visitors can simply stroll in, admire the trees and even watch gardeners at work. This is exactly what I did on arriving at Fuyo-en, the closest nursery to the station. Hiroshi Takeyama, its owner, was watering his trees in the early morning sunlight, the spray creating small rainbows between the bonsai’s miniature landscapes. The trees here — in common with other nurseries — are set out on trellis tables, with generous spaces between the displays allowing barrier-free movement for visitors.

The tree-lined median opposite Fuyo-en leads to more nurseries, one of the most outstanding being Toju-en. The first person I stumble across is Hiromi Hamano, the head of the nursery, painstakingly pruning a pine tree. There are several other gardeners here, some of whom are repotting trees, working with the kind of silent concentration that’s common among gardeners at many of these nurseries.

Nearby is Mansei-en, which has been in the Kato family for five generations and prides itself on being the oldest nursery in the area. Known for its important collection of scrolls, some of its indoor bonsai are regarded as masterpieces.

Seiko-en is a little more difficult to find, tucked behind some fine old trees in a lane that seems almost rural. The friendly staff here are younger, their enthusiasm for bonsai more expressive. The English-speaking manager of the nursery obligingly shows me around the small, but well-proportioned grounds.

If bonsai is the art of planned growth, it is also the art of suggestion. In Japan’s humid summers, plants soon acquire a deceptive patina of age — wizened and gnarled trunks of relatively young bonsai give the impression of antiquity. And at the same time, a clever deployment of the space around a tree can evoke sky, sea breezes and shorelines, and, in the area where the roots of the tree are exposed, marshes and primeval forests — a spare and compact microcosm of nature. In his 1967 essay “The Bonsai Master,” the English poet James Kirkup wrote, “Here is an entire landscape in a flat dish: three tiny pines yearn together around a small, weather-beaten stone that suggests a cliff, lean against imaginary skies and legendary bays.”

At their best, bonsai artists are able to create miniature trees that express the essential nature of the fully sized tree. Beside the classic pine, plum and maple, bonsai vary from tropical varieties that thrive in steamy places like bathrooms and conservatories, to larches, miniature persimmon, and dwarf trees that bear tiny fruit, such as loquats, apricots, peaches, nectarines and quince.

In 1989, Omiya hosted the World Bonsai Convention, the first international bonsai event held in Japan, which put the area firmly on the map. Omiya will repeat that success in a few years, after it was announced in September that the town won its bid to host the 8th World Bonsai Convention in 2017. Fuyo-en’s Takeyama headed the bidding committee, and claims that the diversity of tree species in Omiya is “unparalleled in the world.”

Omiya has become a growing focus of interest for overseas students and admirers of bonsai. The link to bonsai in North America can be traced back to the period before World War I, when Japanese gardeners immigrated to the country, lending their skills to the creation of Japanese pavilions at horticultural expositions. More recent interest in the pastime — in the U.S. in particular — came from an unexpected source in 1984 with the release of the movie “The Karate Kid.” In the film, a bullied teenager learns self-defense from Mr. Miyagi, a karate master who also happens to be a mild-mannered bonsai expert.

It’s difficult to place a figure on the number of bonsai enthusiasts worldwide, but a conservative estimate suggests around 6 million and rising. A measure of its increasing global influence is the fact that many trees are now imported into Japan from not only neighboring countries such as China and Taiwan, but also Spain and Italy.

Bonsai may be enjoying a wave of interest in Europe, the U.S., South Africa and Asia, where climates, particularly in the warmer parts of those continents is conducive to cultivating dwarf trees, but Westerners have not always enthused about the art. A young Rudyard Kipling, exploring the streets of Tokyo at night in 1889, described stall holders selling flowers and shrubs under the light of smoky oil lamps. Their stock included “wicked little dwarf pines, stunted peach and plum trees, wisteria bushes clipped and twisted out of all likeness to wholesome plants.”

In a similar manner to pet owners who anthropomorphize their animals in an irrationally positive way, there is occasionally, even now, a reverse tendency among those with little more than a passing knowledge of bonsai to trash the art. Detractors contend that it is akin to the former Chinese custom of foot binding and that the deforming tools of bonsai — the wires and miniature saws — deprive the plants of their growth potential. Because a person would naturally feel stunted under similar conditions does not mean, of course, that a tree experiences the same agony.

For a true understanding and appreciation of the history and development of the subject, The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, with plenty of signs in English, provides an excellent introduction. Its collection consists largely of specimens from the former Takagi Bonsai Museum of Art, which was housed near Ichigaya Station in Tokyo. Many of the specimens on display are of great rarity and value, justifying, in some cases, the setting aside of an entire room to display them. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, paintings of bonsai and old manuals explaining techniques and cultivation methods add historical context to the exhibits. Masterpieces not only of bonsai, but pottery and glazing are on display, with some of the shallow trays and deeper pots vying in value with the trees themselves.

Workshops are held regularly at the museum, including classes for children. Bonsai, or “tray planting” as it translates, involves a number of techniques, such as manipulating the shape and size of a specimen by wiring the branches and trunk, pruning roots, clipping new growths and repotting in fresh, nutrient-rich soil, all of which can be learned at workshops, where students are exposed to both new and ancient trees and the links between them.

What is so astonishing about a 1,000-year-old bonsai is not its age, but the fact that so many generations of long-forgotten gardeners have not been remiss in tending the life form. It only takes the neglect of one owner to ruin a tree. “When you stand in front of a bonsai that is half a millennium old,” a worker at Toju-en confided, “you feel the brevity of your own life.”

Software producers in Japan have created digital bonsai plants that allow users to raise dwarf trees on their computers and follow instructions on how to water and trim their branches. Clearly, bonsai cultivation, in whatever form, remains both an ancient and contemporary practice — one bridging the chasms of time.

Getting there: Omiya-koen Station is on the Tobu Noda Line, located approximately one hour from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. All nurseries are a short, easy walk from Omiya-koen station. Many of the gardens are closed on Thursdays.