After what seems like another age has past, I am back from a very busy period in Japan which took in four different exhibitions, a lot of work, meeting some new additions to the family and the worst cold I have had all year.
One of the reasons I went to Japan at this time of year was to see the Taikanten exhibition held in Kyoto. It was rumoured to be the last one ever due to the ending of the current sponsorship deal; this however turned out to not be true and it will be on next year. Still, I had kept the time free in my diary and told the Chief that I might be going over, which means I am going over. I flew over to Kansai airport, arrived at 5pm and was out drinking with some customers by 8.15. The pace did not relent from there.
The exhibition itself was a disappointment, there was a distinct lack of effort on the part of the professionals charged with preparing the trees for the show and I fear for the future of the show. Sadly this is becoming a common trend throughout Japanese Bonsai and due to the current economic climate, belts are being tightened and exhibitions are suffering as a result.
Other than this, my two days in Kyoto were enjoyable; I spent an afternoon with Mr. Morimae at the Choseki-kai Suiseki show and helped to clear up. The autumnal colours in Kyoto were beautiful this year due to a sudden drop in temperature and it was said to have been the best in many years. The crowds were testament to this and it was impossible to move around at times.
One of the other reasons for returning back was to also to be part of the Sakkafu-ten exhibition, the show for professionals, which was held at the Green Club in Ueno at the start of December. My senpai Akiyama-san won the prize for the best Azalea in show for the fourth time, equalling the number of times won by another Shunkaen graduate, the late Kawakami Mitsuhiro. Although the Chief is no longer a member of the professional’s union and does not display at the show, we still had a sales table there and were part of proceedings. The sales were pretty good due to one or two customers who bought some Japanese pots, which are seemingly unfashionable at the moment.
At the same time as the Sakkafu-ten, the annual exhibition of the Sakka Kyokai was held at the newly opened Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. This show is called the Sakka-ten…it all gets a bit difficult when they all sound the same, but they were very different shows. One had a tree by me in it, the other didn’t. I didn’t realise I was a member of the Japanese Sakka Kyokai until three days before the show when the Chief said, “So what are you going to display then?” Unbeknown to myself he had enrolled me and paid my dues in absentia , making it an obligation to show a tree. It made me smile because I had been enquiring about joining the European branch of the same association and the membership requirements are very difficult for a travelling professional such as myself…still perhaps I have found a back door?
Once the bomb had been dropped that I had to display something, the question was what? The Chief suggested I put some moss on a tree that had just come into the garden and was in a displayable state but I was not happy with the idea of displaying something which I had not worked on and was not a tree I would personally own myself. There was one tree in the garden which I had begun work on almost four years ago, a cascade red pine which was very much to my taste. I remember it arriving at the garden around this time of year and wishing that I could buy it. The tree needed a little work on it, but that was mainly branch removal and nothing too serious. It had a superbly flowing trunk line and ancient branches with bark developing on some of the secondary branches. At first glance it was a difficult tree with far too many branches and it had also been made back to front in my opinion, however I took it upon myself to try and find an understanding customer and convince him of my plans. One of the difficulties being a poor bonsai artist is affording the material to create beautiful trees. As with any art, it is essential to find a patron who can in effect sponsor you, so that you make beautiful trees together.
Thankfully there was one such man, Tanaka-san from nearby Yokohama. He was part of a group of ten or so Bonsai enthusiasts who came regularly to the garden and I became very friendly with most of them. Another one of the members was Murata Hideo, who was the owner of the literati red pine which I styled for a Bonsai Focus photo shoot; so it is obvious that we all shared a similar eye and taste in trees. This was not the case with this tree as it created a decisive split in the group. Walking around the garden with a few of the group I showed the tree to both Murata-san and Tanaka-san and asked them what they thought. I said that I had been looking long and hard at the tree and couldn’t decide which face to make the tree from. This was a little bit of a white lie but it got the ball rolling and it is essential for a young apprentice to not be too bold and brash with their ideas. Here the pair disagreed with Murata-san saying keep the present front, which was the easiest way to make the tree; and Tanaka-san saying reverse the tree and work the foliage in such a way so as to accentuate the crank in the branch which creates the apex.
Working on the friendly rivalry between the two of them, I asked Tanaka-san if he would purchase the tree and let me work on it for him. To my surprise he said yes and the deal was made. Sadly my vision for the future involved half as many branches as Tanaka-san and a compromise was struck. Here again is one of the problem areas of working on a customer’s tree as a younger artist, sometimes you need to wait for the owner to see what you see in it and come to the conclusion that it is correct to remove that branch. Once you have gained their trust, then most people give you a free hand to do as you please but I was not at that stage then. The tree was wired up and styled to Tanaka-san’s liking and we were all happy. I worked on it another two times during my time at the garden and it progressed very well. After I left, the candle cutting was done poorly on one branch which weakened it (thankfully it was one which needed to be removed) but apart from that it continued to progress as it should do.
When the Chief asked me to show a tree that was the only one I had a strong connection to and so I called Tanaka-san to ask him if it was ok to display the tree under my own name. He was over the moon that I had asked him and said yes; he also said yes to my request to “perhaps prune one or two branches”. With only a few days before the show, I worked long into the night to achieve the image that I wanted to with the tree, one which achieved a good balance between foliage mass and trunk thickness, one which showed off the beautiful and natural lines of the trunk but more importantly one which showed off my interpretation of Bonsai.
From the rough and shaggy starting point I removed several branches including the weaker branch half way down the cascading branch and the front pointing branch in the apex. Both of these allow the viewer to see the trunk line and the apical trunk section much more clearly. The branches removed from the apex give it a much lighter feeling and a bit more direction. I spent about 8 hours in total preparing the tree, most of which was spent plucking the right number of old needles off so as to achieve a good balance over the whole tree. If this is done without thought and the same number are removed per branch throughout the whole tree, then the bottom always looks weaker than the top.
I only put four pieces of almost invisible wire on the tree in order to achieve the style I wanted. It would have been very easy to have wired out the whole tree and arranged the branches in a well organised and rounded foliage pad with a nice, flat bottom. This does not appeal to me however and I went for a much more natural style. Natural should not be misread as untidy or unkempt; it takes a good number of hours of touching to make it look so untouched. The chief is not a big fan of this style when putting a tree on display as it is difficult for the general public to understand as it can be misread as lack of effort, however he had the good grace to allow me the freedom to do as I pleased.
The exhibition was put on in one of the classrooms at the Bonsai museum in Omiya. It wasn’t the greatest location but it was an attempt to support the new museum which Yamada-san (the chairman of the Sakka Kyokai) was a big part of helping to become reality. We turned up and built some staging out of plywood boards and plastic beer cases. The rest of the morning was spent arranging the trees which we had brought along.
Part of the requirement for displaying is to spend a day at the show and offer information and explanation to the visitors. I went down the day after the Sakkafu-ten had finished and spent a day surprising people that not only could I speak Japanese but also I had a tree on display. I had telephoned Tanaka-san to ask him to come and visit which he did. Thankfully he was happy with the decisions I had made and approved of the tree. The other visitors were varied including a screen writer who wants to make a Bonsai movie, several young ladies and lots of older gentleman who asked my advice on everything from Black pine candle cutting to spraying for leaf mite on Azalea. Needless to say I had fun and it once again showed me the reason for doing bonsai and for spending 6 hours plucking old needles, driving for hours and lifting 26 beer cases and 10 plywood boards up a flight of stairs. An appreciative public make the difference and even if they do not know anything about Bonsai, most people can see the effort that gets put into the act of display.
The last three days of my stay were the busiest, with every day beginning at 5 am and finishing after midnight for one reason or another. It didn’t help that I had been suffering from a cold for over two weeks and still had not cleared up, but the end of the road was in sight. Thursday, despite being a very long day was very enjoyable as it was the monthly auction at Morimae’s. There are always a good number of professionals there and it is a good way to pick up material, pots and all the gossip and rumours. Sadly, due to the poor exchange rate and my lack of funds, very little was purchased.
Although it was less than a month there, it was an intense time and I learnt a great deal. I feel it is always important to keep in mind the reasons why you do Bonsai and for me once again, this has been shown to me by the reactions of long standing customers who were happy to see me again and invited me over to work; and also the visitors to the exhibition, many of whom were seeing Bonsai for the first time.