Welcome to the Saruyama Blog, intermittent and generally off topic. Occasionally you might see some trees...and weird ones at that.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

And I'm spent...

A tough two and half weeks finally draws to a close with a long drawn out stretch of burning the midnight oil. A plethora of pots, stands, stones and books needed to be packed up and sent, and seeing as this was all my own doing, it was difficult to do during the day when the Chief required me to be doing all manner of stuff. Still, everything got done eventually and now I'm done and ready to go home.

My relationship with the Chief continues to evolve and change as we both get older and less dependent on each other. It is a double edged sword for a master to see his apprentice begin to work successfully on his (or her) own, on the one hand he is happy that his efforts in producing a capable professional have been successful, but on the other hand, the more the apprentice is busy with his own life, the less time he can spend helping out. Apprenticeships in other fields can involve the idea of noren-waki, or splitting the curtain. Now this is not schoolboy terminology for some deviant practice, but it means that an apprentice can take on the name of the shop where he studied and open a branch, traditionally in a town far far away. This concept is still alive today particularly in the restaurant trade, where an aspiring chef would study under a master and then once capable of producing food of the same quality, he goes and spreads the sushi or whatever. It was an early form of franchising I guess.

Now, in the bonsai world, there are no curtains to split, but what occasionally happens is that a student will take one of the characters from the name of his masters nursery if he is starting up a new nursery, other than that there are no similarities, and to be honest, the bonsai world is unique to a certain extent at how much you are still umbilically tied to your master throughout the rest of your career. You are expected to help out, work together and create a family. This is perhaps due to the lack of definite schools that you would see in much more historically rich art forms such as tea or ikebana. The lack of organisation gives the bonsai world a fluidity which can be very useful, but also plenty of grey areas. The politics of business can be difficult to read and change with the wind. Thankfully the Chief is fairly open about such things and openly discusses things in front of his apprentices. This year in particular I have been very appreciative of standing under the Shunkaen umbrella. It adds a certain weight to business transactions that some people studying at other nurseries simply will struggle to get. I told the Chief this last night in our manfully tearful farewell chat. We don't speak a lot, but there is still a comfortable ease and a feeling of missing the time that we used to spend together. Even now, on the balance of it, I have spent more waking hours in my life with the Chief than I have with Lady Saruyama.

During the demo up at Willowbog, Ryan made a comment when asked about the massive number of foreign short term students/pseudo apprentices in Japan at the moment. I had never thought about it before, but staying for just a short term means that you do not become part of the family and the bond is weaker. On average, three years is enough to learn the skills for an apprentice to become proficient at bonsai, and for some it appears to be only two; so why stay the extra years?

Although I have been busy with my own business and spent very little time with the Chief, we had a few select moments where we jumped back in time. I can't speak for him, but it was a heart warming moment to know that even as things change and evolve, the core remains the same. The one moment above all else that sticks out is the sheer fun that we had displaying this tree.

It arrived in the garden on the 13th on the request of a client who wishes to sell it as it belonged to his late father. It is a relatively famous white pine with the name Seiki no yume. Or....dream of the generation? Dream of the century? Dream of the future? The thing with some of these names is they are difficult to translate...but in japanese it is a pretty bust ass name. It was originally grown and named by Murata Kyuzo of Kyuka-en fame and the author of the "four seasons of bonsai" book, (or something similar) which is possibly one of the top three must have books for any bonsai enthusiast, especially those who are tired of big trees and dead wood. For an understanding of where my aesthetic influences come from, read this book.

Murata was a dude, he did bonsai in the old school way because he wrote the old school manual. Trees made slowly, not overly worked and showing very little signs of the human influence that very definitely and deliberately shaped them. If you are looking for "naturalistic style", look no further. This tree and the naming of it is testament to his commitment to bonsai for the future generations. The name implies the tree has a future to be excited about, even if, and perhaps especially because, you will not be there to see it yourself. What a difference to the "I want it now and I want it for me" attitude that is prevalent in modern bonsai, and I don't just mean in the west, the same applies in Japan too.

Well, getting back to the Chiefly moment, we set up the display together, the Chief calling me over to be his sounding board and lifter and shifter. It is difficult to describe the sheer joy that you can have putting a display together, watching the combination of items come together and work in harmony. We sat and worked our way through a number of scrolls, pulling them out and discussing them and their suitability, all the time talking about (or rather being talked at) the importance of tree, the name and the possibilities for showing this in a display.

The Chief, despite his name and powerful aura, does have listening ears and asks the opinions of those around him. I soon learnt early in my apprenticeship that he likes to be contradicted from time to time, as long as the point is valid as it often gives a better result and stops him from getting stuck in a rut. The trouble with the current apprentices is that they haven't the ability to say no to him, nor the wherewithal to think outside of the box. We used to have great fun (and occasionally not so much fun) putting displays together back in the day. It is one of the things I dearly miss from my time spent here.

Textbook rule freaks will surely point some basic flaws in the display but I personally thought that the stone flowing off to the wrong side gave the display an even more expansive feel. It is something we talked about, and it was on my goading that he did it. He wanted to, but thought people may contradict him, so I said, "rules don't matter for someone like you"', at which he gave a cheeky smile. The migrating birds flying up and over the mountains away to a warmer, better life somewhere far beyond the enclosed space that a tokonoma can come to represent. I felt moved not only by the experience of playing display with the Chief again for the first time in ages, but also by the story of the tree, and both the history present and the future yet to come.

A fitting tribute to my stay perhaps, and as a fitting tribute to the Chief...

Onwards and upwards.



  1. I've already made my sentiments clear regarding your writings Peter, & for fear of repetition, I'll not issue a slight variation.
    Thank you as always.
    Thank you, and thank you. :)

  2. also ,, thank you !

  3. Man!!! If You quit Bonsai, which i hope dearly You don't,... Just Keep Writting! ;-) I've been drinking the posts like they were Bee.. hummm Water!

  4. Old school is good. http://www.phoenixbonsai.com/KMurata.html

  5. Couldn't agree more with you Peter about Murata's book and approach. One of the first books I bought about bonsai and one of the few I look through every year.

  6. My three favorite books spend most of their time in the bathroom (by the loo actually haha) four seasons by Murata.... Forest, rock plantings and ezo spruce by Suburo Kato and 'Bonsai' - Kunio Kobayashi. I find them more relaxing than most other books, and enjoy reading them in peace !

    Excelent and interesting series of writings Peter, they get better and better when you do them more often ;-) .Have you got time to pop into the swindon show this sunday?