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

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


A trying few days at Shunkaen has once again revealed the nature of life and death to me, giving me an insight into the hearts of those around. We often talk of dead wood, shari and jin but how many of us actually stop to think and contemplate what that actually stands for. No matter what nature throws at a tree, no matter how severe and harsh the conditions become, somehow it finds a way to survive. In difficult times, it pays to take time with your trees and to take strength from them.

However, that is an aside to what has been taking up most of my time recently. The Bon in both the title of this post and BON-sai refers to the pot. One of the two characters used to write the word means pot, so by that logic, 50% of the image and importance of a pot, comes from the container it planted in. This is one part of the more traditional side of Japanese Bonsai that I particularly enjoy, and one sadly that is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Due to the political situation in China way back when, many of their items of cultural heritage were destroyed in the revolution. Thankfully the Japanese had been shipping Bonsai pots and other ceramics, tables and whathaveyou for the previous hundred odd years. This means that the best examples of Chinese Bonsai pottery were in Japan...not any more. With their growing economic might, the Chinese are bulk buying their heritage back at an alarming rate, meaning that Japanese Bonsai heritage is fast disappearing. As much as this may be disappointing for some, it is the nature of the world. As a result The Chief is getting a lot of interest from the Chinese to sell many of his masterpieces.

Over the Kokufu period we are having what amounts to a garage sale...but of a bit higher class. The Chief put an advert in Kinbon saying that we had over 1000 antique Chinese pots. I doubted we had that many but after spending three days pulling them all out of the various hiding places we have for them, it has left in no doubt whatsoever. Naganuma described it as "making him feel queasy when he looked at them".

What was good for me though was meeting many of the pots again for the first time in a few years. Every pot that came out had memories attached to it. I can remember what tree was in which pot, the time it went to Kokufu, the customer who owned it previously....there were a few very special friends, and a few that I wished were still mine!

Along with setting up the pots, I have also been helping some Italian friends and customers to find special pots for their trees. It is reassuring to know that there are people out there willing to spend a little more money to find something that is worthy of the high quality trees that are around in Europe and the US at the moment. Without wishing to sounds as if I am snake-oil salesman, the prices of a decent aged Tokoname pot or a semi-antique Chinese pot are not really that much more than you will pay for a new Chinese pot at some places in Europe. If following the Japanese ideas of Bonsai then surely it is important to pay equal attention to the pot. If following a more European or American idea, such as using a native tree in a native pot, then the same rules apply. Thankfully there are many great potters out there who specialise in bespoke pots, in the UK we have both John Pitt and Andy Stone Monkey Pearson for a start. Either way is fine, the point I am making that as we are rounding the corner into spring and repotting season...maybe it is time for an image change.

Anyway...things cntinue on. I have a few days to get our scant number of trees ready for the Kokufu. One is a Kicho Bonsai (Important Masterpiece) so it should get in anyway, the others....well we shall see.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Into the blue...

Look at me...blogging regularly and everything! This week has been as always, full of fun and excitement. On Tuesday I went to a Satsuki auction with the remit from the Chief (who was in China) to buy anything on his tab. I bought wisely, also picking up things for myself for customers here who wanted smaller trees. I also managed to finally get a pot for an Italian customer who had been patiently waiting for something of the correct size to come up.

Needless to say, all of the things I had bought for the Chief were WRONG! I was describing them to him in the car on the way home from the airport and without even seeing them he was tearing me a new one so to speak. It now turns out that I was not buying for him, but rather have to now pay for a lot of azaleas myself. Thankfully the ones I did get are saleable and hopefully will go at the Kokufu sales area. If not then I may have to work longer than I expected.

I did buy a beautiful little tree for myself, hoping to make it and display it in a few years, however, one of the old hands here took a shine to it. Uematsu-san, a man who has taught me that even as you reach 80, it is still possible to work like a trooper, play like a sailor and have a laugh and a joke while you are at it. He comes almost every day and sits, drinks tea, makes fun of us but is always looking out for the apprentices. A kind word at exactly the right time and sharp wit and dirty talk at all other times.

The tree in question is an Aozora shohin/chuhin sized araki (fresh from the field). I love Aozora, not just the flowers, but the word itself. It means Blue Sky, or rather the brilliantly deep and shimmering azure sky that you get in the late winter early spring in Japan.Both the word and the sky have a freshness and a sense of new beginning about them. The song, Kaze wo Atsumete by a bunch of 70’s Japanese hippies, featured in (the terrible) film “Lost in Translation” kind of sums it up perfectly, longing to soar into the empty blue sky.

Back to earth, the tree was soon marked as sold before I even had the chance to try and persuade him to take one of the others. Still, we made an agreement that I would work on it whenever I came back and in that way it would remain my tree (kind of). Being a good friend and having received plenty of unwanted pots and much appreciated good advice in the past, I let him have it for a little more than I paid for it, and included the styling and repotting.

Styling a satsuki araki is getting a balance of not cutting off too much foliage and creating the absolute base framework from which the rest of the tree can be created. Araki are generally made in one of two ways, literally in the field or in growing beds of Kanuma soil. Some are trees which are initially styled in pots and then placed in growing beds to thicken up. When they are collected they are full strength and have enough power to be seriously pruned back and bare rooted, root washed and potted up at the same time. The one point to be careful with is to ensure that there is enough pulling power in the branches, by that I mean foliage at the tips, to create the desire for roots. With a pot grown Satsuki that has a fine root system it is possible to complete defoliate, prune back to branch stumps and expect it to bounce back immediately. With an araki that will have almost no fine roots, there is the worry that the engine won’t start and it will not get started in the spring. Leaving foliage, even if it is unwanted in the final design, will give the initial kick start to start growth at both ends. Once roots have established, new shoots have sprouted it is then possible to cut back to the desired shape. So with that in mind, I removed some of the major branches, many of the smaller branches and created the basic shape. It is not advisable to wire initially, particularly as there will be another serious prune back in the next year. The first year after this process should be devoted to pure growth, both on top and below.

The main branch placement was good, the bend in the trunk is a little forced and unnatural but that can be hidden or helped by the foliage placement. A lot of work still needs to be done, the first branch on the left needs to be seriously cut back and remade from a shoot coming from the underside of the branch. Apart from that there was not much to worry about as the material was good. 90% of creating a good Bonsai is choosing the correct material, the other 9% is horticultural ability, the last 1% is artistic and technical ability. The most important thing is to choose a good starting point, for most people, you cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear. I have made a few silk purses into sows ears though...

I have full pictures of the repotting which I will make a mini article out of, once the time presents itself. Anyway, the tree turned out well and although I wanted to keep it, both me and Ue-san are happy with the outcome and it gives us an excuse to continue our slightly bizarre friendship.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The future of Bonsai

Over the last few weeks being back in Japan, I often think about the path I have taken, sometimes coming back here feels like a backwards step. Once you have become your own boss and can wake up at 10 am and watch some TV before pottering around the garden, it is difficult to then get up again at 6 and get shouted at for something that you didn't do. Still, it isn't a backwards step, I am still learning many things, some of which not directly related to Bonsai at all.

One thing that has been apparent to me is the lack of cooperation between professionals in the west which is something that came as a bit of a shock to me. In Japan although there are rivalries and affiliations to bear in mind, there is a sense of togetherness and helping each other in the pursuit of making a living from Bonsai. If I have a customer that wants a tree from another professional and I push him towards buying it, then the seller will be grateful and give something back and not necessarily in monetary form, it maybe that he then intorduces a customer to me or lets me have a tree at a discounted price. I myself try to continue in this spirit and I hope that comes across to those I deal with. It seems counter productive to consider everybody as a rival when everybody has a different set of skills or aesthetic eye to bring to the table.

One fellow professional who I would very much like to help out (although he doesn't need it) is the man of the moment, Ryan Neil.

We spent a lot of our apprenticeship years in Japan at the same time, although I was a couple of years ahead and had been through the difficult patches of dealing with the Japanese system and mindset of a traditional Bonsai garden, so when we could meet secretly I was able to advise him on how to ignore the bad bits and focus on the good bits. In return, he would get me drunk and thenmake sure I got on the train home.

Now he is back in the US and starting to build his empire on a hill top in Oregon, just outside Portland in a town rather amusingly named Warren. I was lucky enough to visit him before we both went to the GSBF conference in October last year adn was amazed at what he had built so quickly. It puts me to shame...but then our objectives in life are different so it doesn't pay to compare yourself against others. His vision for Bonsai is pure and totally ego-free and he approaches it wtith a pure heart which is thoroughly refreshing. Obviously his skills are phenomenal having spent six years at the feet of Kimura, the only westerner to have done such a feat. There are not that many Japanese that have made it either.

Next weekend he will be headlining at Noelanders, so any of you lucky enough to be going, watch and learn all you can. Buy him a beer afterwards as well.

What is the reason for this outpouring of bromance? His new website has opened and go take a look.

The Chief is in China now for a few days so I can get down to some Bonsai work, I have a few trees of my own to work on, bought for a Kinbon photoshoot, but then the Chief trumped my paltry purchases and got me a humongous Juniper to work on (he wanted the pot). I will clean them up and put them up here.

The future of Bonsai is, like our trees, what we make of it. With the right heart, the right instruction and the right trees, there is no reason why our Bonsai future cannot be bright.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Happy New Year

Once again a month has passed since I last wrote and so as a late christmas present and a celebration of the new year,here are some pictures for you. One is of my favourite ume, the other is one of my favourite stones which has just had a new daiza made for it by Suzuki Koji.

As per usual at this time of year I am back in Japan,this time with incredible sinus problems and the feeling that I am not as young as I used to be. It is always a busy time of year as we have an exhibition on here, a celebration of the new year for all our customers. Everybody comes along and says hello so we are constantly entertaining and trying to find new trees and pots for people who have new plans for their new years bonus!

Kokufu is around the corner so I have been working on a few of the trees for that, thankfully we are not putting too many in and they are in a good condition anyway so there is not too much to do there. The location is changing this year and the number of exhibits is slightly down, so we have decided to not try any trees that are on the borderline of being accepted. Tomorrow Kinbon is coming to do a photoshoot on a tree that Valentin will be working on, he is the german apprentice who is featured in this months issue of Bonsai Focus. He is leaving in a few months after three years here. Due to immigration problems he was unable to complete the five years that is commonly required but he is a good lad and has come on very well. I look forward to working with him in Europe in the future. As I am the senior apprentice I will now have someone to carry my bags!

Anyway, enough...please enjoy the pictures. I should try to make a gallery page...but.... Happy New year and I hope all your Bonsai wake up in the spring!