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

Sunday 12 December 2010

Shows and no snow...

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.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Aiseki Kai Newsletter

The California Aiseki Kai newsletter is now out. It is one of the best, if not the best Suiseki only newsletters out there and I look forward to it every month.

As I mentioned below, after the Stone symposium, I was asked to write something regarding my approach to stones, so I did. You can find it in the newsletter which I think is a worthy read here

Here it is on my site though....

Over thinking and under feeling: a difference in approach from West to East

After my experiences at both the 2008 and 2010 ISAS symposia and along with reading much of the discussion and debate on the internet, it is obvious that the approach many people take to Suiseki differs greatly. It is not my place to criticise or denigrate opposing points of view but rather explain the why behind mine and hope that it helps others to understand their own. After a few years involvement within the Bonsai and Suiseki world in the west, both European and American, I have noticed that there is one particular topic which is very rarely discussed. Many enthusiasts and professionals wax lyrical about what is or is not a Suiseki and how to understand it in simplified terms and conditions; however I have yet to find many people who talk about why they do Suiseki. Although there are many reasons and none is superior to any other, we are all entitled to our opinions and tastes yet we are seemingly afraid to openly discuss our motivation.

My initial experiences of Suiseki were entirely in a Japanese environment and I was lucky enough to be exposed to very high quality stones in a traditional environment. At first I found it strange that lumps of rock could be revered in such a way however as time passed I began to truly enjoy the appreciation of Suiseki in a deeper and philosophical way. After coming into contact with Bonsai and Suiseki I began to reconsider the logic which I had previously studied during a degree course in Physics as stones spoke to me of a world beyond my immediate comprehension. Suiseki is, to quote from the new Matsuura book, “anything but scientific” and allowed me to “feel the poetics and beauty of all things in nature.” Stones which have a provenance of over 500 years can tell us many stories but more importantly, if approached with the correct mind they can give us an insight into ourselves and the way in which see the world around us.

Many of the Japanese aesthetic ideals are concerned with the passage of time and an implicit understanding that death is inevitable yet not to be feared. We are impermanent and the universe continues with or without us and Suiseki is a reminder of this. A stone which was created before humanity and will outlast us, yet in this infinitesimal period of time has been appreciated by many, creating a chain of linked experience and shared history which varies according to the individual who gazes upon it. Therein lies the rub, the problem of the individual, and in the case of the appreciation of an Eastern practice through Western eyes, a significantly different mindset.

The logical mindset of the West at times has difficulty embracing the Eastern approach where less emphasis is placed on the quantification of reality and is more interested in the understanding of it through experience, observation and empathy. Rather than seek to define what is observed and conclude an eternal and universal truth, it accepts that “while I see this as x, tomorrow it may be y and for another viewer it may be z.” While a Japanese viewer may see a red mountain stone which reminds him of Mt. Wakakusa, an Italian may see Mt. Sassolungo in the autumn and another viewer may see himself walking through the hills surrounding his Pennsylvanian childhood home. It is true that all viewers see a mountain but in different contexts. This can be taken even further with more abstract stones, particularly object stones. In one figure stone different viewers can see dragons, dogs, people or whatever takes their fancy. An individual and particular appreciation of stones without the limitation of explicit names, either poetic or categorical, is a large part of the enjoyment of Suiseki.

For me the beauty of Suiseki is the lack of Aristotelian logic and the limitless possibilities a stone can offer the viewer. Without mystery and ambiguity, the beauty of a stone is lost and it becomes a rock, a geological formation with value only as a curio. The Japanese are well renowned to favour black and smooth stones with a quiet and simplistic appearance. Such a stone creates a blank canvas in which the viewer can see a rich tapestry of internal feelings which are destroyed by external considerations such as the geological composition or the positioning of the signature on a scroll.

Approaching Suiseki through an either/or logic limits the ability of an enthusiast to appreciate Suiseki. There is a greater depth to the practice of Suiseki and whilst classification of stones is an important entry point into the deep and mysterious world, it is just that, an entry point. Others of a more spiritual or artistic bent will look to take further steps along the path provided by Suiseki to a deeper and more personal, particular understanding. As I stated at the beginning, I firmly believe that no one reason for doing Suiseki is superior to any other, for many the joy of collecting is the sole motivation and for others the classification and naming of stones brings pleasure. As you have seen in Wil’s excellent series of notes from Japan, the umbrella of Suiseki is wide and varied, however the motivation of each group and school of thought is clear, distinct and evolves over time. Each can exist peacefully next to each other as they are all different viewpoints of the same thing. It is unfair to expect everybody to sit meditating in front of stones to get a deeper understanding of the nature of the Universe (this is something which very rarely happens in my life); equally I feel that it is unfair to force everybody into the same way of thinking and interpretation which is something that taxonomy and the literal naming of stones does.

When approaching the discussion of Suiseki, the motivation of others as well as one’s own motivation for doing suiseki must be considered. While I find the debates created by adherence to rigid systems on both sides of the argument both counterproductive and circular, it is not in keeping with the spirit of Suiseki to add fuel to the fire or ridicule anybody else. Self improvement is not achieved by pushing others down, but rather by examining one’s own position. I do not look to speak for the Japanese and my personal approach to Suiseki is something which is rooted in both West and Eastern thinking and feeling. I have found in Suiseki aesthetic ideas which resonate within and allow me to see through different eyes. Over time and without a conscious thought process, philosophical questions posed in quantum mechanics lectures began to explain themselves in ways which I am yet to fully understand. Only through further study and dedication will it become clearer.

Just my humble opinion like...

Back from some wandering again...or was it just wondering

I said in my previous post, which was over a month ago that I would be more prolific with posting but that clearly hasn't happened. I hope anybody that follows this is actually still there. I feel it is necessary to post stuff to help people to understand what I do and what I am thinking but, like my dislike of living life through a lens, I have been more focused on learning and experiencing new things...some of which have been incredible and given me a different outlook on Bonsai, others simply good fun.

I have just returned from a month long trip to the US which took in two major conventions and plenty of private work and clubs in between. The first convention was one which is very close to my heart as it is the only purely stone orientated convention and it is run by a good friend and spiritual brother of mine, Sean Smith. This year I was invited to speak about Japanese Suiseki Aesthetics, a topic which made me think greatly and do some academic research into things which I had taken for granted or simply accepted. I was very worried that my talk would be dry and too academic but it was warmly received, particularly by those people who are much more learned than me. The world of Japanese Aesthetics is a very vague and indistinct one, the concept of beauty for the Japanese is something difficult to define and comes from the heart more than the head. It was good practice for me to try and make it come from the head and along with a lot of the discussion that took place at the event, I wrote an article for the California Aiseki Kai newsletter which will be published soon. I will link it here when it goes up.

Mr. Morimae of Wabi fame also came and spoke and I had the honour of translating for him for some of the time, if you can call it an honour, it was a trying and difficult ordeal but I made it through relatively unscathed. He talked a lot about many of the things I had spent the summer thinking about. This is not unsurprising as he is the organiser of the Genkoukai, the group who put on a very special exhibition in Kyoto at the end of January. At the end of January I had seriously considered quitting Bonsai for various reasons which need not be discussed here, but after visiting their small but refined exhibition and speaking with several of the key figures in the group and also taking time to sit down with the Chief and discuss why we do Bonsai, I decided that my short term annoyance with the shady side of Bonsai was not as important as having a grand view of things and the necessity to concentrate on the path rather than the goal.

After a few months of ruminating on this, Mr. Morimae spoke at great length of the importance of approaching Suiseki with the correct heart and mind. Rather than looking to criticise and look for the negative, it is better to be more accepting and appreciative of the effort that has been put into it. This was something that I had felt at the Newstead exhibition in the middle of September. Whilst the overall level of quality of individual trees had decreased slightly, the overall level of effort and spirit had increased dramatically. There were many new names and faces who were trying hard rather than resting on their laurels. This would feature again later in my trip

After the show I spent a few weeks on the North East coast, mainly with Sean Smith but also up in Rochester, NY and also down at one of the greatest single collections of Bonsai in the west, the Kennet Collection. During my time with Sean, we spent many a night discussing the future of Suiseki in the west and how we can both best serve the small but dedicated number of enthusiasts. The Cuba Libre's certainly helped the conversations flow but it was refreshing to speak freely and openly about the problems and the positives that come up. Sean also taught me a few new techniques and it was incredible to watch a true craftsman at work. I commissioned him to make a new box for an antique scroll I purchased. I was very happy not only with the final result but also to have been able to watch him in action. It also gave me another insight into why rather than simply how.

One of the other highlights of the trip was the fact that I got to experience an American Halloween for the first time...including carving my very first pumpkin. Staying with Sean meant that I got to hang out with his daughter who, along with most girls/women I meet, seemed to enjoying making fun of me, calling me "Accent Boy" and moking my clear and perfect speech. I did get even though by beating her at pumpkin carving and the Disco numbers on Just Dance on the Wii. I challenge anybody to beat me on it...my rendition of "Ring my Bell" will go down in history.

I have just written another page of text but due to the wonder that is windows and this stupid blogging tool, it has been lost. I am an analog person. I need to sleep so I shall add to this again later.

Monday 27 September 2010

It has been a while since my last blog entry. I have had a lot on and also been thinking a lot about various different things. A lot has happened in the interim period, a lot of workshops, a trip to Poland, Newstead show and a lot of research for my talk at the Stone Symposium next week.

I am leaving for the US soon for a month or so but I will have lots of updates while I am away...trips are always interesting and I always discover a new aspect of Bonsai.

My work with Bonsaibasho.com has continued, Phil has put more videos up, rather than link them all here, just follow this link to find them http://www.youtube.com/user/bonsaibasho. We have done one for wiring as well which Phil is getting all giddy about. I look forward to that series. It did involve me wiring a tree all day which is something I am not used to doing any more.

I had a trip to Ibuki Bonsai in Poland recently to work with Mariusz there, it was a very interesting trip and we worked on some good trees. Not the greatest pics but we had fun and got on very well.

This is a wonderful mugo pine which I tweaked and put on the road to an exhibition. I cannot claim much of the credit here, all we did was refinement work...but the small touches are some of the most important ones...a tiny bit of space here, the uncovering of a root or a branch and the whole tree changes.

The exhibition at Newstead was a great weekend. John Hanby did a great job with the show as always and there was a great atmosphere in the place. A lot of people commented on it. A lot of new trees as well, not all to the highest standard in the world, but well presented and lots of new faces which is great for the Bonsai community. The Shohin was of the highest quality, I give massive credit to John Armitage for promoting shohin via the BSA and for such talented people as Duncan Hield and Mark and Ritta Cooper for putting on the best Shohin display I have seen outside of Japan. Many of the trees have come from Japan but most a long time ago. I was very happy to see a fully developed and well ramified Zelkova that was brought over five years ago as a stump, when I first met Mark and Ritta in Japan, I am very much looking forward to the Shohin event in March 2011. We have a thriving Shohin scene in the UK which is, in the most part, down to the hard work of John Armitage.

Suiseki has been playing a large part of my life for the last few weeks, as has Japanese Aesthetics. I have been doing a lot of research and preparation for my talk. I even went down to the British Library to read over some old books. Made me feel like an unwashed student again. It was great to learn some new things and read in words and solidify ideas that I had experienced with my eyes and thoughts. It has pushed me closer to the ever elusive book. I will be discussing that with the Chief in November. More as it comes.

For anybody that loves ceramics, please check out Stone Monkey and his tea bowls. They are outstandingly good and I bought one yesterday as a present for myself. He goes from strength to strength with his works and will certainly take on the mantle of the UK's greatest potter as the current generation begin to wind down production.

Must try harder on the blog front....

Thursday 5 August 2010

A long journey finished, another begins...

Apologies for not posting anything recently, most of the recent stuff has been a bit off on a tangent anyway, sorry for that, seems to have bored most people into silence. One of the reasons for my silence is that I have been on a bit of a trek recently, physically as well as mentally. 3000 miles in three days solid driving...nice. It has taken me a week to get over it! More on that later. you can find out a little back ground detail in this new article here

More of the Bonsai Basho videos have gone on line....part one of a series on tools. It is for beginners mainly I guess but there will be something in it for anyone who uses Bonsai tools. I know I go on about it a lot and it now means I have to practice what I preach.

Just yesterday I worked on a phenomenal collected yew that a student of mine had picked up for an absolute bargain price. I wish that I had gotten to it first....as per usual I didnt have my camera with me so I will wait for him to send me some pictures. We will get round to sand blasting it over the winter or next year. I am in the process of building a sand blasting kit, so expect some pictures of that soon. Have four days of workshops from tomorrow so will get some pictures there as well. I really need to work on this self promotion thing....

Saturday 24 July 2010

Pesticide problems

Phil over at Bonsai Basho towers has been a busy boy. He has finished the video for the azalea transformation. It can be seen here on You tube or if you pop over to www.bonsaibasho.com and register you can see them both plus an exclusive bit of text explaining what is going on.

We also did a video about the problem that has been facing a lot of people up and down the country this year, spider mites on Junipers. The video misses out a bit of the explaination of the problem so I will be adding text to it asap. but here it is. Please excuse the poor quality of explaination. It was all one cut stuff and some of it was unusable due to back ground interference.

Now the pesticide problem is one which I alluded to in my last post and it one which prompted a response regarding DDT. Now before we start I will state that I am all for the environment and living in close relation to the earth, I do not agree with widespread and unrestrained use of agro chemicals, I wish we didn't live in a world where demand for cheaper and standardised produce was driven by profit obsessed behemoths such as Tesco...that said, the myths and junk science that surround the DDT are legend showing us the fundamental difficulty with such issues. The problem lies with the burden of proof that is required by scientists, but not by environmental campaigners who are happy with anecdotal evidence and the policy makers who are at the mercy of lobbyists and voters. Sadly I fall somewhere between the two camps, I require a certain amount of proof, and in the case of the egg shell thinning of birds, for every research paper proving DDT was the cause in the dec line, there is another paper to prove that it wasn't.. A very good article can be found here which links to much of the evidence both for and against.

What is abundantly clear is that the anecdotal evidence of the post-war decline in predatory birds can be attributed to, but in a purely scientific way, it cannot be proved beyond doubt that DDT was the singular cause. The ban of its use on a widespread and unrestrained scale in the western world is a good thing, as shown by the increase in numbers of predatory birds throughout the world since the DDT ban.

This leads me to the point about Defra and the banning of pesticides seemingly at random. The lack of scientific rigour and common sense in their haphazard way of deciding what is good and what is bad is astounding.

Take the case of Bifenthrin, recently banned in the latest cull of chemicals. It was the active component of Rose Clear 3, a very useful contact pesticide. Bifenthrin is a Pyrethroid, a synthetic version of Pyrethrin, an organic chemical obtained from Chrsanthemum flowers. Both Bifenthrin and Pyrethrin are of low toxicity to mammals, but high toxicity to aquatic life. Neither are carcinogenic.

Bifenthrin was banned in the cull, but Pyrethrin is still available on the shelves of garden centres up and down the country. If Pyrethrin gets into the water system, it will just as fatal as Bifenthrin...just as fatal as bleach or Jeyes Fluid. If both build up in humans through consumption of crops which have been sprayed with it, neither will be dangerous. Apart from the slightly longer half life in soil of bifenthrin, what is the difference? Perhaps the word organic? More importantly, what is Rose Clear 4 now made from?

Careful examnation shows that the active ingredient is Acetamprid, which unlike bifenthrin, is a systemic insecticide, not a contact killer. It is a neonicotinoid, which is a synthetic replacement for Nicotine, a traditional pesticide. The problem lies with anecdotal evidence from France, Germany, Italy and Canada which prove a strong link between the use of neonicotinoids and the tremendous decline in Bee population.

Colony Collapse Disorder has been attributed to may things but there is a strong, yet unproven anecdotal link between the collapse of bee colonies and the presence of such pesticides as Acetamprid, the replacement for the relatively harmless Bifenthrin. As early ago as the 1990's French Bee Keepers made the link between the rise in the use of neonicotinoids and the decline of bees and honey production. Whilst Bifenthrin is toxic to bees if used indiscriminately and sprayed directly onto a colony, it does not have the same effect as Acetamprid.

One the one hand Defra claim to protect the countryside, one the other hand they are a Bureaucratic monster which does no good what so ever, causing more harm. On the decision to ban bifenthrin, from the Defra website...

"In March 2009, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health voted on the European Commission’s proposal for the non-inclusion of bifenthrin in Annex I of Directive 91/414/EEC. The Commission proposal for bifenthrin did not achieve a Qualified Majority agreement. Under Directive 91/414/EEC a “non-opinion” in Standing Committee means the dossier is referred to the Council, which then has three months to act. If a decision is not taken within three months, the Commission will adopt its original proposal by default."

Which means that because they couldn't be bothered to reach a majority vote either way, and nobody could be bothered to do any research to figure out what was worth doing. Agro Chemical companies couldn't be bothered to shoulder the burden of proof as they have many more toxic chemicals which are yet to be banned left to sell. It is not as if Defra don't have money to burn...£350 million wasted on a computer system that doesn't work , a rebranding and new website. All this while money to allow farmers to create land for birds to nest on and thrive in is desperately needed.

Through a complete lack of common sense and blind following of EU legislation and disregard for true science and direct observation, problems like this continue to occur. When the bee population of this country continues to decline, as more and more colonies collapse, the blame must surely lie with Defra. Their random nature shows a lack of leadership and policy.

That is why I think Defra are idiots.

Friday 16 July 2010

Waltzing Monkey

Now that the world cup is finished, the accounts are finished and I have got no more excuses, its back to some good old hard work. I have some Sisyphean cleaning tasks to do which will have me longing for receipts and spreadsheets.

I did promise that there would be some new content via Bonsai Basho...and here it is...in all its embarrassing entirety. I am not camera shy, I am naturally like that.

There will be a full text to go with the second part, Phil at Bonsaibasho.com is finding it difficult to edit my monotone drone. It will get done soon though. This is the tree in question....

During the discussions we had making this, I told Phil that I do not like the use of the word "Master" to describe what I am and it reminded me of a documentary I heard a while ago about the continuing tradition of Wandergeselle, or Journeymen, in Germany and neighbouring countries. It was the second time I had thought of this recently as I am very much a Journeyman and have gone through a similar process.

According to the oracle of Wikipedia...."The word 'journeyman' comes from the French word journee, meaning the period of one day; this refers to their right to charge a fee for each day's work. They would normally be employed by a master craftsman but would live apart and might have a family of their own. A journeyman could not employ others. In contrast, an apprentice would be bound to a master, usually for a fixed term of seven years, and lived with the master as a member of the household, receiving most or all of their compensation in terms of food and lodging."

Since the early days of the industrial revolution apprenticeships have declined in the UK as machines have replaced the need for skilled labour, a trend which continues today. The number of self-service check out tills in supermarkets and B&Q is abhorrent and should be boycotted at every opportunity. The rise of the capitalist industries also destroyed the power of the guild who controlled the progressions of an apprentice through being a Journeyman and who finally decided if the craftsman could become a Master. While the guilds did impose restrictions on trade and who could practice the trade and where, they did ensure a standard of quality which made European craftsmanship of the 18th/19th century a thing of beauty.

There is no guild of Bonsai artists so who determines the Mastery of it as an art or craft? The use of the term Master in the bonsai community is free, unrestrained and in many cases self awarded. We have a culture of frowning upon the sale and subsequent display of a masterpiece tree created by the great artists, so is commercial success a good yard stick for mastery? This is certainly true in the art world where the works created are a commercial product, yet in the artistic Bonsai community this is not strictly true.

Apprenticeships declined in the UK to the point where it was less than 1% of total employment in 1990. I have always felt that we have a snobbish attitude to craftsmen or tradesmen in the UK. The idea that intelligence is vastly superior to skill and ability is endemic in society. During my schooling the entire education system was geared towards academic excellence rather than the ability to create anything and we are now seeing the effect of this in society with our almost non-existent manufacturing industry and our dependence on the service sector...which would make you think that service would improve, but that simple piece of logic seems to have bypassed the current generation of bar staff in most London pubs. I always felt pressured to go to University and was never given any other option, when I discussed my desire to be a gardener at the age of 17, my careers adviser laughed at me and told me it would be a waste of talent. I do not regret it and it was a worthwhile learning experience, however I would not do it now, with the debt burden, possible new graduate tax and 70 applicants for every graduate job. With news today that University applications are at a record level and over 100,000 people will be rejected, what for them? Will the traditional apprenticeship make a return or will the country create more non jobs. I'm sure Defra need a few more idiots on their staff to ban every chemical that is of any use to us.

Anyway....that went off a bit political and I didn't mean for it to. I have recently come to appreciate my status as a Journeyman Bonsai-ist and will continue my years of being a jolly swagman.

Friday 9 July 2010

The Divine Comedy

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

One of the things the Chief never taught me as part of my apprenticeship was the importance of keeping good records...mainly because he never did. There was one time the tax man came knocking and we shut up shop for two days whilst they went over the books for the last six years...it was not a pleasant time.

Now I am settled and not a non-dom, I am at the mercy of Her Majesty and her Revenue collecting suits. The last week has been sat trying to get to grips with Excel, Receipts from a year ago and looking over my bank accounts for the last year. Where did all that money go?

It is an interesting but very very painful process. I have never felt so grown up. It is like voting for the first time. I have to go to the accountant this afternoon so hopefully what I have done has not been in vain.

A Japanese friend of mine said to me the other day having read my blog...."Philosophers do not make good businessmen". I understand this very much now. I must be serious from now on.

On a lighter note...I will be up Bonsai Basho towers on Sunday so expect some new stuff next week. We are getting the video camera out...so expect some hardcore bonsai.

After that I think its only fair that next week we have a day off....

Sunday 4 July 2010

Back from the Internet wilderness

Apologies for the lack of updates, I don't do it nearly enough I know...like many things in life I guess.

I have lots of excuses, mainly the World Cup and Virgin Media related. At least England have crashed out in shame, Japan have gone out in glory and America went down fighting. Virgin Media crash down any which way but online and have no way of telling me why or when they will do what I am paying them for. Still, touch wood, there have been no problems for the last three or four days.

I have written this little piece about the second national show in the states. Enjoy.

I will be doing some stuff this next week for Bonsai Basho hopefully. Keep it peeled. Planning on doing something tool related...seemed to be obsessed a bit at the moment

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Tool Time 2 - Return of the Tool

Just got back from a two week trip to the US. Texas and the national convention in Rochester. It was a busy but very fun time. A full report later.

Watching the world cup in the US was a great experience, seeing the US sports channels doing a great job presenting it was an eye opener, no smarmy Lineker, cliched and critical Hansen and no coverage of the biggest tool of our time, John Terry. Never before has a footballer filled me with such despair for the human race. How has this man become a national icon? What kind of a society do we live in where a tool like Jay-T can command such press coverage and admiration from some quarters. Crying like a baby because his job is boring? Go and live in North Korea, I'm sure they are not worried about the boredom of their training camp, they have to go home having being beaten by Ronal-doh. Speaking of which I had a difficult time trying to explain to a bar full of Americans why I was supporting North Korea against Portugal and cursing everytime they scored. I am not part of the axis of evil, I just don't like cheating cry babies, even if they are good.

Anyway, the trip gave me and the Chief some time together and we had fun, as you can see here.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Tool time

Due to the unnaturally hot weather today, I decide to try and stay out of the sun, given the tendency of bald spots to burn and necks to turn red. I have spent the day pottering around the house doing odd jobs and checking on the home brew, replying to emails and doing a bit of preparation before going off to Texas next week.

I decided to do something which I should have done a while ago and I spent an hour cleaning my tools. This is something I have always been quite fastidious about but have let it slip recently. It is essential to maintain tools on a regular basis so that cutting edges stay sharp, joints do not rust and so that disease cannot spread. As I travel to many bonsai gardens across the world there is potential for spreading fungal diseases and I do not want to be responsible for the Bonsai version of Dutch Elm.

Sounds corny but clean tools mean a clean mind and a focus on the job ahead. Even the greatest artists in the world had to clean their own paintbrushes. I have been meaning to write a whole "How-to" thing about tool maintenance, I approached Bonsai Focus about it but they were not overly keen to get on with it. I need someone who can do some good photos and maybe some videos to help me out here...

One of the reasons my tools were so dirty were because I had been doing a few days work with Ian of British Bonsai. Here is the before and after of one little Juniper that we worked on. The aim is to get it in to BSA 2012. Without wanting to sound patronising, it is a pretty little tree and has enough character to hold its own amongst other container grown trees. I look forward to its development. It will never be a world beater but it is what it is. More details to follow.

Looking forward to next week’s trip to Texas and Rochester to see some of the best Bonsai in the States and catch up with some friends.

Monday 24 May 2010

The Problem with Yamadori

I recently went over to the Netherlands and Belgium to work with Bonsai Focus and Marc Noelanders respectively. I had a few moments of understanding about the state of the Bonsai market at the moment. One of the reasons you don’t see me in the magazine so much is that I am working on some long term projects. When I graduated/got kicked out of Japan in 2007, Farrand and I discussed doing articles for them, which of course I was very happy to do. One of the problems he faces is that there are too many instant Bonsai articles, just as there are too many demonstrations in which a tree is presented only in the initial styled state. I was not particularly happy to continue this tradition and suggested that we work on some long term projects together where I would come along several times a year and we would work the trees through to finish. This takes the pressure of both me and the tree.

Several of the project trees have worked superbly, several will never see the magazine, but such is the nature of Bonsai. Of the ones which are working well, including one which I styled this trip are some collected trees which are being taken slowly yet steadily to completion. Here lays the trick, allowing the tree chance to grow and put on roots, something which freshly collected trees inevitably lack. They are being gently guided into the shape we want, rather than forced and pushed.

Over dinner we discussed the current depressed state of the Bonsai market and what can be done to stimulate it. Talk turned to what I think is the seriously inflated prices in the Yamadori market and my disbelief that people are prepared to pay vast sums of money for something which has, literally in some cases, just been ripped off a mountain side with barely any roots and no guarantee if it will live or die.

Arriving in Belgium to do a demo at the club in Hasselt, which Marc Noelanders arranged, we again discussed the state of the Bonsai world. He said that he was trying hard to teach the club members and people who he gives workshops to that whilst the best results can be obtained from Yamadori trees, they are not something which will happen overnight, they are long term projects based more upon careful horticultural practice than artistic prowess. In order to fulfil the artistic whims and fantasies of many bonsai enthusiasts, it is better to look at material which is well established. Garden centre material or imported Bonsai material which has been well established in a pot, with plenty of roots and usable branches. This is something I whole heartedly agree with and we both spoke of the problem faced when doing workshops when students turn up with some piece of collected material that wobbles in the pot, has branches with foliage at the end of very long branches and has been planted at the wrong angle by a collector more interested in making a quick profit than a decent piece of usable material.

The ideal process for dealing with most Yamadori is to develop a pot full of roots before working the rest of the tree. This can be done at the same time as gradually chasing back the foliage from the branch tips, creating back budding within the tree. This requires an incredible amount of self control to not rush ahead and create an instant image, however if done correctly, the final result will be much better and a sustainable design, not one which will spring out of shape once the wire is removed.

I do not disagree with the use of Yamadori, I have many myself, but I do disagree with the inflated prices for rootless, freshly dug trees that have very little chance of becoming a decent finished tree. I hope that a modicum of self control and long term planning begins to become apparent in both the buying and selling of material before Bonsai self implodes.

Rant over.

Monday 10 May 2010

Ichiban Inspiration

Ichiban Inspiration

I have been meaning to write about this for a long time, but as per usual, never got round to it. One thing after another and too many distractions. I am now on a train and have just finished my book, the thoroughly recommended ”The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts and so I have finally gotten around to it.

Many years ago, Marco Invernizzi asked me if I knew anybody who made tools in Japan as he was planning to make his own, I thought little of it at the time and put him in contact with the few people I knew, not, however Masakuni as we did not deal with him, rather his brother Ezuro. The two brothers worked under their father making tools until a falling out and they acrimoniously split up. The Masakuni brand continued and Ezuro went off and made his own tools, specialising in Ikebana scissors as much as Bonsai. The handmade tools he makes are a joy to behold and I am the proud owner of a pair which cost more than I am prepared to admit online. This is merely an aside though.

When the Ichiban was released, I was a little sceptical and thought that it looked a bit funny and the seven tools in one was just a gimmick, however when I looked at Marco’s website and saw the thorough design process which he went through I was very much taken aback. What really struck me was the outside of the box thinking which drew on Marco’s pre-bonsai background, namely his design studies.

The foundation for the creation of the tool lies in the amalgamation of both parts of Marco’s experiences, his formal design studies and his extensive Bonsai activities, including several years of apprenticeship at Kimura. For all that is spoken of Kimura’s artistry as being held up as the premier standard, the majority of people fail to recognise both his craftsmanship and horticultural skills. Craftsmanship should not be mistaken for a lack of artistry, rather a complete understanding and mastery of the tools and materials required to make such things. The economic use of wire, tools, time and movement when making a tree for example are the fundamental principles upon which being a professional bonsai artist is based on. Here within lies the beauty of the Ichiban for the average bonsai hobbyist.

One of the first lessons I was taught, after being able to wire to a sufficient standard, was to make it quick, and then once I had learnt to do it quickly, it had to be done quicker and with less wire. One of the tricks to this is using a wire caddy for lower gauge wire, having it close to hand and most importantly, never putting down tools and then picking them straight back up again. Repeated over the course of a day it becomes very time consuming and attention breaking. Constantly searching for tools can destroy a train of thought. I am terrible for this, putting my scissors in my back pocket one minute, side pocket another, then my jacket pocket and then behind the tree (I am the same with train tickets and my wallet as well). The trick is to have a pair of wire cutters that fits into the palm of your hand or, in the case of the Ichiban, flicks back to rest on the forearm.

Without wishing to go too much into a declaration of love for either Marco or the Ichiban I will just say that an incredible amount of thought and experience has gone into it and that should not be criticised. Some of the features are a little debatable, the hammer for example would be a struggle to use with a larger chisel. I use a 14 oz hammer and that is just about heavy enough, however the ergonomically designed scissors and wire cutter feature alone warrants the price tag. I am going to use the Ichiban more myself and see just how useful it can be.

The main reason for my writing about the Ichiban is not for promoting it in itself, but what it stands for; something new in a world where there is little to be invented or bettered. Variations on a theme are possible, the Ichiban is a very clever and unique one, but what it represents is a bringing together of ideas from outside the Bonsai mentality and breathing a bit of fresh air into our world. Not only the design aspect but also the very professionally done advertising campaign and the whole Ichiban club idea. Very few people have actually attempted to be so professional and blend other worlds together in such a way. For all the bad publicity he may get and criticisms of being arrogant or egotistical, I say Bravo Marco.

What then for me? Where does this leave the Monkey mountain in all of this? I have long thought of the parallels between my pre-bonsai world, Physics, and the current life I ended up in. I am constantly asked about how I went from Physics to Bonsai as they are seemingly worlds apart. I personally think of them as being very closely linked, but perhaps I am clutching at straws. One of the reasons I went back to Japan and became an apprentice was the profound effect reading “The Tao of Physics” had on me. Fresh out of University and the equations of quantum mechanics and Cosmology still fresh in my head, I struggled to make head or tail of what it meant in my head. Concepts such as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Relativity still puzzle me to this day. The mathematics of them are reasonably easy to comprehend, but the actual meaning is difficult. All of the great physicists had the same problem, they struggled to believe that what was mathematically and theoretically sound and valid, could actually be true. Einstein himself famously said “God does not play dice”.

Reading “The Tao..” which illustrated the remarkable similarities between modern Western scientific theory and ancient Eastern religion/spirituality/belief lead to a moment of enlightenment for me. Many of the concepts I had struggled with were illustrated by Japanese aesthetic ideas which were present in Bonsai, for example the relative relationships between matter and space and the observer/observed or creating foliage pads using crystalline structure patterns. For me, Bonsai represented a way in which I could understand some preconcieved ideas and gave me a wealth of different perspectives on life.

I have often struggled to put my thoughts into words in a way in which I am happy with, I fear that I would need to do more research and dig out my old text books at which point my theory, or my spirit will break in two. Either way I feel that seeing Marco succeed in such a way as to utilise his past and present experience is enough to spur me to combine mine in some way.

Sunday 25 April 2010

UBI, Panic on the streets of Europe and the Lurgy

I had been asked to go to the UBI show in San Marino last weekend as a judge and demonstrator...and seeing as I was going anyway, it seemed only logical that I go and trade as well, seeing as the Italians were renowned for buying things Bonsai related.

The monkey mobile was packed up to the rafters with most of my stock and we set out Tuesday afternoon, meeting up with the intrepid and experienced European campaigner John Pitt (and his good lady wife) at Maidstone services before heading off to the Continent together. John is a good friend/colleague and it seemed only natural to travel down and stick together, and it worked out well for us as we got the best trading spot and joined forces to create a corner of a foreign field that was forever England...well at least for three dayMe and  Johns it was. My thanks and appreciation go out to the Pitts for making it a much more enjoyable experience.

The drive down was fine, except when I found out that I was paying 30% more on the French toll roads than Mr. Pitt because my van is only slightly taller than his...I felt persecuted and thought about taking it up with the authorities before realising my GCSE level french would fall apart and I would end up getting directions to the beach and talking about what I did at the weekend....J'ai écouté des disques et j'ai mangé du fromage

The event was good, despite the rain, location was fabulous and I met a lot of people, especially my friends from Sardinia who came over and helped with the wiring. For some reason I am drawn to people from different countries who are down to earth, stubborn and do not suffer fools...yet have a reputation which precedes them. Texas, Sardinia...Yorkshire. I will have pictures of the demonstration tree when I can get them.

The sales area can be seen in this video here....I took out all the big guns, hoping to sell at least one of them...needless to say I came back with a truck just as full as I went out with. Despite heavily reduced prices on the final day, I simply couldnt give the trees away. What was pleasantly suprising is that I managed to sell many of the antique Chinese pots to some very discerning customers. I also got invites to several gigs this year and next. I will be coming to Poland, Turin and some blokes back yard sometime in the near future.

The demonstration and judging went well as far as I could tell, there was no fireworks after the decision was made so it was all good. Some of the pictures can be seen here

Marco and Carlos Van der Vaart were the two other demonstrators and it was impressive to see Marco at work, it was the first time I had ever actually seen him working and there is something different about the way he works. Although I only got a few minutes to watch, I actually learnt quite a lot from him. I also had a good look at the Ichiban in action and more on that later. Carlos was good value as well, he helped finish the wiring on my tree. A great bloke but he kept worrying about the chaos on the roads due to the Volcano no fly fiasco. He put the fear of god into Mr. Pitt and myself so the plan was to hot-foot it back to Blightly asap. The drive home took around 28 hours, stopping every now and again for a coffee or 40 winks. I also started to feel sick and feverish as we were leaving San Marino which deteriorated quickly the more I pushed on to get home. The result was this last week was spent in bed. Hot lemon and honey combined with reading trashy novels and watching even trashier TV. I regret ever starting to watch 24 season 7.

Was it worth it? Very much so...it has marked the end of a year based entirely in England and has given me plenty to think on with regards to how I go ahead in the future.

Monday 5 April 2010

Busy busy on Monkey Mountain

Been a very busy few weeks down at Monkey Mountain HQ. That week of sitting in front of a computer did not materialise and my odometer has another extra few miles on it. Still, it’s all been fun and plenty of good work has been achieved. I have had to schedule time for some of my own trees as well, most of it done early in the morning or late at night, but I am up to date and nothing has suffered yet.

One of the things I had to do was to repot my infamous Rosemary, known as "the tick tock tree", apparently because it was due to die sometime in the summer of 2007. I have written a history on this tree which was due to be published by an Italian publication but they don’t seem to have gotten around to it, so it will go up on here. Needless to say the tree is still health and alive despite the fact it has now spent close to four and a half years growing in the UK. I was told, very politely, by many of the established members of the Bonsai community that it would be dead in six months.

It spent the winter in a plastic box because I was ordered to return the pot it had been growing in for several years, the one it was displayed in at both the Best of British and the BCI event in St. Vincent 2008. Despite the fact I had bought the pot outright, the Chief had already made an arrangement with a Chinese buyer to take the pot when I had returned with it and so I was in a bit of a pickle. The pot had to make it back safely, and so, on Christmas Eve, in the Yorkshire snow, I took the tree out of the pot and put it into a plastic box where it sat, surrounded by soil until the winter. It was in a heated and lighted greenhouse as per usual but it did look a sorry state and for that I apologised.

It over wintered very well and at the start of March it had already woken up and was beginning to grow. Root tips were beginning to move and she was off again. I had hoped to pick up a pot of exactly the same dimensions so I could just slip the well established root ball back into the pot without any disturbance. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and I had to settle for a nice Tokoname pot I had on hand. I chose this as it reflects well the maritime nature of the Rosemary and it also gives it a slightly new look. It went in relatively easily, I had to wash the soil out and mould the roots into the pot, but minimal disturbance was caused and I am confident of no major problems. The new soil mix is roughly equal parts of Akadama, pumice and perlite all of which are small particle size. I have been using this for the last year. Seems ok. Apologies for the picture. I dont have a studio.

I also got around to potting up this little Juniper I have had for years. One of the problems with travelling around so much is missing out on working on trees at the right time. This has suffered from that. It should have been on display by now but it is lagging behind. It was something I picked up from Toju-en, Hamano’s garden where Kimura and Suzuki both studied. The current generation have a stand near us at the Green Club and they press-ganged me into buying it several years ago. He still remembers it and asks every year. Next year I will take a picture of it! It is in a Stone Monkey pot, one of a few that I have of his superb work. The original pictures of the tree can be found here

Another tree I have recently come across is one I bought from the first gentleman of UK Bonsai, Ken Leaver. I was at his a week or so ago and came across this azalea and thought I should buy it. It has incredible mochi-komi and had been growing in that tight pot for ever.

A repot and a quick prune later and we are in business. Assuming it can get over the severe repot into such a small pot, again a beautiful Stone Monkey creation with a bamboo style lip, then it will be all stations go. A literati style Azalea with great natural movement and a superbly flared nebari. Obviously there is alot of work to be done up top but it is not bad for £19.

More articles and that to follow. Trips to Spain and Italy coming up over the next week along with a debate on the topic, Eastern Tradition vs. Bonsai as Art. I will let you guess which side they asked me to defend.

Monday 22 March 2010

The Joy of Bonsai and the Unjoy of Van Keys

The Joy of Bonsai and the Unjoy of Van Keys

long but enjoyable weekend was had down in Bath, it has been a long time coming, but it was well worth it. Sales went better than expected, mainly due to a beautiful blackthorn and a superb assistant in the shape of our lass. It was my first show proper in the UK and I tried to bring my own feel to both the table and the demo that I did.

I did a repotting/rootgrafting demo on the Sunday...one tree, the air layered trident I have worked on for ages went very well, many good questions and interested viewers so I was pleased with that. The second tree I did, an air layered zelkova was a disaster...half the trunk was dead so grafting was not an option. Such is life I guess. Should have checked before hand. Still, I wanted to do something a bit different rather than just wire and style a tree and that I did.

The show itself was interesting, many familiar trees and some not so. The innovations exhibition was having its first outing and Simon Temblett did a good job of finding some different ideas and new ways of displaying Bonsai. I was invited to do something which I did, not many people actually thought it was part of the innovations show, I guess it was not radical enough for people. I just suppose that I am not one for rocking the boat...still, it pleased me and the wife so thats all that matters.

The brief was to display something different and relevant to you. I sat and looked at that which is available to me and at the things I hold dear. How is it possible to mix classical Japanese aesthetic priciples with something intrinsically English? How is it possible to represent the coming season? What I came up with is a Sakura (Cherry) in a 300 year old beautifully patinated Shirokochi White glazed pot, displayed on a black laquered Shin-nuri board with the accompanying item an old Yorkshire cricket ball which has travelled around the world with me as a reminder of home.

To obtain the correct timing for the flowers to open mid show was particularly fun. I had it hidden in the dark and cold, checking every day and worrying until just before the show when it was carefully packed in the van and it then spent the night in the hotel room with us to swell those buds to bursting point. They held off until it was time to go on show adn the first flowers began to open just after lunch on the Saturday.

The other highlight of the show for me was the appearance of a tree that I sold last summer to a good friend of mine who has looked after it better than I ever could. One of the most beautiful trees I have seen in the UK and in full bloom.

The only downer on the whole weekend was the Unjoy of snapping my van key in two at a service station on the way home. I didnt even think it was possible but apparently it is. I would like to think it was my Hulk like strength. Many thanks to the bloke who drove out and sorted us out at 8pm on a Sunday night.

More updates later, I have a week or so of sitting in front of the computer so I shall blog a little if I can.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Back in the UK...

Well that was a very long and busy month. I was on TV twice in two days, Kokufu came and went with a blur of sales and snow and I made it back eventually with bags and contents eventually intact. More on that later when I get things downloaded and sorted.

First job back was the thoroughly enjoyable BSA Shohin show up at Willowbog. Second time for me this year and it was yet again a pleasure. I demonstrated and judged the show along with the inimitable Marco Invernizzi, a man who never ceases to amaze me. As promised, my little Rose made it to the ball. I found a pot suitable for it and the season. It is a Taisho period (1920's) Japanese pot. Size wise it was perfect and the colours were subtle enough to work. I displayed it on a delicate modern stand made from mulberry wood. and used a simple picture of a Bush warbler sat on a Ume branch. The accent was a small planting sat on top of an arrangement of small wooden gears. I picked those up at the Kokufu sales area and was thoroughly pleased with myself. Whilst walking back to our sales area, a professional whose eye and taste I respect noticed me holding them and told me that he often used them in the past. Taimi-san, this one is for you.

The reason for such a minimal display is that I wanted to show that something delicate and not worked could have character and presence. I also wanted to show that there are alternative, dare I say "innovative" ways of displaying Shohin Bonsai, we are not limited to the tried and tested Tana-Kazari method.

Anyway, must get off to bed. Its 3.43 am

Wednesday 3 February 2010


Has been a trying few days for one reason and another. The end of an apprenticeship is always difficult, especially when having started business on your own. The chief has begun to push me towars a return to Japan...just gently but there is a strong desire there from him. Things have been a little strained. I am looking forward to some kind of release soon. maybe I will just get pissed tonight.

I came across this picture from the Kyoto exhibition on the S-Cube blog. This is the Bonsai that moves me. Expect a full report in an upcoming Wabi. Please enjoy.

Sunday 31 January 2010

Sunday 31 Jan 2010

Kensho shimashita

Yesterday was a long yet very fruitful day. A trip down to Kyoto on the night bus to see what was a very enlightening exhibition of 13 Bonsai and Suiseki displays held in the grounds of a temple.

It was here, sat in the warm sun, listening to the people enjoying themselves without pretence and backstabbing that I realised why I do what I do It's quite simply incredibly good fun.

I didnt have a flash of enlightenment, more a slow realisation throughout the day that this is what I do it for. To listen, discuss and study that which is beyond the normal realms of my experiences, and to make it my own.

Bonsai is more than just trees in pots, Suiseki is more than just rocks on wood. This runs deep.

I have a book planned.

Friday 29 Jan 2010

Wabi-Sabi and the art of Bonsai

Got drunk again last night with the boys, I had given them a really hard time over the last couple of days as pressure built up over various things and The Chief, being chiefly decided to diffuse the situation by going away for a day, taking with him one of the pressure points. A relaxing day was had, listening to the ipod, wiring a humongous Juniper.

It gave me the opportunity to think about an upcoming debate which I have been asked to participate in. Eastern Tradition vs. Western Innovation. Organised by ABBA, I will be up against the vanguard of UK bonsai in the shape of Simon Temblett who I respect a great deal. I haven't givenm it much thought but yesterday I went through a few trains of thought and solidified some ideas, mainly about the Japanese aesthetic vs. the Western interpretation. I am not sure of teh best way of getting my point across to the audience because I'm not sure i have one. Perhaps teh best thing to do is drink half a bottle of sake before I begin..."now lishen ere..."

After work had finished and we were sat around the campfire, a few shandys got things going and I started by asking them what they thought. I got some surprising answers which I should have written down at the time as I have no recollection of what they were, just that they surprised me. I will endeavour to write something solid in the near future when I have the time.

Woke up this morning and discussed with The Chief the translation of the Keido manuals for the only school of traditional display...of which he now has the last remaining copies. We should have a semi-translation in time for Kokufu. It is interesting stuff and requires a wider knowledge than I have so I am pushing myself to read more and further myself.

One thing I do realise is that this incredibly poor resolution picture is, for me, intrisically more beautiful than the tree in full bloom. Sounds a bit poncy and weird but the reason that life can be so beautiful is that eventually we die. Bonsai is the same.

Monday 25 Jan 2010 Hungover Day

The Japanese have a term for what happened last night...yakezake

the word combines the characters for "despair, desperation, abandonment" and "alcohol".

I have a term for how I feel this morning. It combines the words "sick as" and "dog". I expect no sympathy.

The Persian philosopher and astronomer Omar Khayyám said it best...

And much as Wine has played the Infidel
And robbed me of my robe of Honour, well ...
I often wonder what the vintners buy
One half so precious as the stuff they sell

For some we loved, the loveliest and best
That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed,
Have drunk their glass a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest

But helpless pieces in the game He plays
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days
He hither and thither moves, and checks ... and slays
Then one by one, back in the Closet lays

"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

Not bad for the bloke who first moved towards non-euclidean geometry and developed binomial theorem to the power n. I bet he got those ideas when he was on the razz.

Needless to say yesterday was a bit of a tough day. Still today we have a photoshoot and for once it isnt me, I get to watch my kohai Naganuma nervously cutting branches while i laugh in the background.

Monday 25 Jan 2010

Judgement Day

Today is arguably the most important day for Bonsai professionals in Japan. More important than the exhibition itself, today is the judgment day for Kokufu. For many, the weeks of preparation and cajoling customers to display their trees is now coming to the final point of...was it all worth it?

For those younger and less well known professionals who struggle to get good customers who can appreciate and afford trees at the level required to get into the exhibition, it can be make or break time. If they have sold the promise that the tree can get in to the show and it doesn't then there is a lot of explaining to be done at around 4 pm today. If it does get into the show then there is the chance of a much longer association with the customer and possibility of selling a new tree for next year.

Displaying trees at such a prestiguous exhibition is not cheap...just the fees to Bonsai association run to around $1000, not to mention the cost of table, pot, accent rental, preparing and transporting the tree. For some people it will cost over $2000 to send the tree to the show. If that kind of money has been invested in vain, then there is a lot of apologising to be done.

Entering trees is a difficult balance of realism and expectation. Some of the trees we have to force the customer to enter, even if they are clearly top class, whereas some of the trees entered are done so because the customer desperately wants to despite our best advice against it. One of our trees falls into this category. Although knowing that the tree had a very low chance of getting in, I prepared it as best as I could, the pot was changed to a very old Chinese antique pot, the foliage perfectly arranged and the moss was painstakingly put together piece by piece. That alone took six hours.. It looks good but still in my heart I know that it will be lucky to get in. After finishing the preparations, I phoned the owner, who likes me and we get on well, and invited him to come and inspect it. He was very happy , declaring it to be a new tree but then asked the difficult question which I was dreading and had prepared several well scripted answers for..."Will it get in?". The stock answer is..."a lot depends on what else has been entered, but if I were the judge, it would get in", followed by a reassuringly cheeky smile. Today we shall see if I too have to apologise and blame the luck of the gods.

Yesterday the trees were taken to the judging, which is held under strict security at the Green Club in Ueno. I am not allowed to go this part of the process because I stick out like a sore thumb and I am considered persona non grata by many of the judges and people in the association. If they see me carrying a tree then the chances of it getting in are reduced. My senpai Akiyama took his and our trees yesterday and managed to get them on to the benches undetected. On his return we began the long, dark wait...and then lightened it up with drink. Lots of drink.

Drinking is a part of life here and one which is generally most enjoyable as I am partial to the odd shandy after a days work. Last night was a weird mixture of tension, resignation and expectation. We talked about who had entered what, which famous tree was there and what pot it was in, how many similar trees to ours were there and the chances ours would be selected. Inevitably the conversation turned to women and normal service was resumed. One of the current apprentices, Naganuma is a great bloke to have when drinking, his stories and way of thinking is frankly not suitable for print.

Anyway, today, there will be 8 torturous hours of tension followed by a phone call telling me to come down to the Green Club, possibly to help pack the van up with all our trees which failed to get in, or possibly to double check that the actually did get in!

The gnawing feeling in my stomach and restlessness is why I came back and why I will be coming back again next year...well that and the beer that will be drunk tonight...hopefully in celebration.

red pine