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

Monday 30 May 2011

Satsuki show and a day off?

This blogging lark is becoming quite regular. I guess it is because I am all alone and have no money to go out drinking if I get any free time.

Last night was spent working on getting a ahead start on the post flower pruning of the hundreds of satsuki that we have here. Trees that are not going to be on display or are not up for sale are worked first, removing the flowers and flower buds so that the tree does not tire itself out. Pruning back satsuki is an essential technique for keeping them healthy. It generates new growth which keeps the tree going, and it also enables the branches to ramify and develop. Pruning needs to be done before the end of June so that the new growth will have time to set flower buds. A good explanation can be fund in this months Bonsai Focus.

I have a funny relationship with Satsuki...I have been doing them sice I started Bonsai, they are fun to do and have taught me some essential skills, but compared to thin trunked aged pines and twisted Junipers, they lack a certain depth. Without a doubt they are very pretty when in flower and can be interesting when styled but...they are not beautiful. Don't get me wrong, I love them, especially Aozora and Hoshi no Kagayaki which are not only lovely trees but have wonderful names, "Azure Sky" and "Brilliant Star"...cute and pretty.

The closest you come to wabi-sabi with an azalea is the pile of semi finished flowers and unopened flower buds on the floor when pruning. The flowers work so hard to be pretty and they are discarded by the way side. Buds which have yet to open are robbed of their potential and thrown in the mud. There is something quite lonely about a deflowered tree, slightly naked, used and then put back on the bench. For one week, it is the centre of attention but then...it is finished. I enjoy the pile of used flowers that builds up after a day of pruning.

Satsuki shows are a big reason behind their popularity. There are a number of awards and categories based on trunk thickness and height. The awards are as much for good cultivation as they are design and artistic ability. There is a great freedom with Azaleas and they are made into some interesting shapes, but the standard triangle of foliage on a thick trunk is hard to escape from.

This week there are many shows on and this morning the Chief suddenly decided that because of the rain we would all go up to see the shows and learn something. What I learnt is that in typhoon conditons, driving on the expressway when there is a torrential downpour and standing water on the road is not a good idea and should be avoided at all costs. Some idiot cause a pile up which delayed us for an hour. It was worth it though to see The Chief walking around in this slightly un-Chiefly pink cardigan. People change when there are flowers around I guess.

Morimae is doing an exhibition at the moment at the same place and we popped in today. It is superb, the man has incredible taste and the ability to put things together. Sadly my battery died as soon as I took one picture when we got there so you will have to wait until I can go another time. The Chief is off to Germany in a few days so I will pop up then.

Some of my favourite trees from the Satsuki show....The Prime Minister award winning Osaka-zuki which belongs to one of our customers, a shohin sized and an absolutely perfectly made Akemi no Tsuki (named after the daughter of the guy who cross bred it). I wish I could show you the branching structure on this tree. The amount of work that has gone into it is outstanding.

Except for the rain we had fun and saw some pretty trees, picked up a few things and got home in time for tea.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Omachi Update and a bit of Bruce Lee

Another varied day of Bonsai related fun, including a suprise visit from Isao Omachi who had his entire life washed away in the Tsunami in March. There was a blog entry about him and the donation fund for him. It was good to see him back doing business and making attempts to get back to normal. We didnt discuss much about the devastation in his life...we talked more about Chinese pots and what was happening in the Bonsai world at the moment. He came with Sakurai Senior and Junior. Sakurai Junior is an apprentice of Shinji Suzuki and good friends with Omachi, working regularly together. Sakurai senior is a pot broker more than a bonsai professional; he is a good friend of the garden and has a fantastic poker face. When discussing pots and business in general, he plays dumb even when he has heard everything before. One of the aspects of the Bonsai business in Japan I enjoy is the relationships between professionals and the poker playing attitude to business. Give a little here, bluff and play dumb, occasionally you can hit the jackpot. Auctions are hilarious at times watching people play off against each other. Recently things have been made more interesting by the inclusion of a few Chinese buyers. Anyway, I digress..

I did ask Omachi about the situation with the donation fund that Marco has set up and he is fully aware of it and the value of it. He expressed his deep grattude for the generosity of everybody and hope to repay everyone in kind in the future. I wish him the best of luck.

After a trip to the green club to drop off some trees for a show, I continued to work on the pine here. As mentioned yesterday this is a triple trunked white pine picked up at an auction. As this is the worst time of year to be wiring white pines I had to take my time and ensure that no damage was caused to the delicate buds.

Sleep takes over again...and I'm back. A couple of days later but still here. As I mentioned previously, the tree was purchased at an auction at Seiko-en. I have begun to admire the styling of Yamada much more recently, finding his classic styling deeply beautiful. It is not pretty in the modern style of Bonsai but it has a depth and meaning much more appealing to the intellect rather than simply eye candy. In order to create this style it requires patience and the unlearning of many of the things I have spent years working on. Unlearning is perhaps the wrong word, being able to put them to one side is a better way of looking at it. It is important as a professional Bonsai artist to create trees which will appeal to the popular taste which is undoubtedly for pretty trees...however there are times when making a tree to please oneself is important.

With this tree, I attempted to use as little wire as possible and try to achieve the art of wiring without wiring. (for more on this watch this video) Sadly I failed miserably and I kept putting more and more wire on. In order to try to achieve the "artless art" (copyright Bruce Lee), it is very difficult to arrange the branches to look as though they have not been arranged. Five Needle pines are quite feminine, especially slender ones and they should look a little on the disheveled side. They are at their best when the wire is taken off and the tree begins to grow out of the rigid pads a little. The definition is still there but the lines are blurred. It is the same feminine beauty that you see when your woman is lounging around the house in sweat pants, wearing one of your shirts, without make up on and her hair in a bit of a mess. There is no pretence to prettiness but there is a sublime intrinsic beauty which makes you feel warm inside.

Recreating that in Bonsai is something I aim for but have yet to master, the reason being that you cannot do it in a few hours of wiring and styling. It comes from years of slow growth and mochikomi...the character that comes from years of restricted cultivation in a pot . The closest you can come in one session is to not wire the branches to the tips and to not create unnatural foliage pads. Movement should be gentle and not forced to align all the buds into a neat and compact shape. Styling of this variety is done much more with scissors than by wire. Branch removal is the key aspect. I think there are a few branches which need to be removed but they are kept for the time being. At least until I get over the shock at how difficult it was for me to try to make it look natural.

Bonsai is a constant struggle, mainly against impatience and adherence to patterns. One day however I will make a tree like this...named "Mikka tsuki" (3 day moon). It belonged to a customer of the garden who has been doing bonsai for longer than I have been alive. I repot his trees every spring and he tells me stories about the pre-chief bonsai world. It was a superb tree which held so much power, grace and elegance whilst appearing to have been growing like that for ever, never having seen a human hand. Anyway, my bed is calling me. I woke up at 3.30 am this morning to watch Man U get schooled in the art of Football. It was worth it.

Thursday 26 May 2011

A long long day

Today has been one of those days that felt like a week...just seemed like it would never end. It started slightly hungover at 5 am, rolling out of bed and into the shower. The old saying is true...wine then beer does makes you feel queer. Need less to say a shower and then the prospect of driving an hour to a customer's place soon made me feel better and off I set to drop some trees off, ask him to display at an exhibition and also get him to buy a new pot for one his trees. He had asked for a pot but the one I had was double the price he wanted to spend. It was a nice pot and fitted perfectly the tree so it was not a hard sale. I had to play the hard done by apprentice card a little..."If I go home with this pot I will be in trouble!". I have know the customer for seven years and he likes me and asks for me to come and tend to his trees three or four times a year. I will be going later in the month so I will take pics then.

Back to the garden and had to start work on this Juniper. Belonging to a famous friend of the garden, it has suffered from many years of inattention and the branch structure has become difficult to use. It is a grafted Itoigawa tree and it is the a leaf type which doesn't grow much and turns into dense pom pom's unless regualrly worked on. It hasn't been so there are lots of woody branches with tiny tufts of foliage on them..still I had to get it done today so it was a stupidly rushed job and I'm almost embarrassed to post the pictures. It was alright given the start point but nothing too good. Just by cranking the apex back improved the tree incredibly. I should have stopped there...wiring is a difficult job at Shunkaen especially during the day when so much is going on...keeping an eye on the young lads prepping for the satsuki show...talking to the old men and sorting out my owm work.

I am falling asleep as I write so I am off to bed. Another 5 am start tomorrow....After a few hours sleep I am going to finish off this entry.

So the Juniper was finished in a hurry, a terrible wiring job but to be honest, my heart wasn't in it...why? The tree will go back to the owner who simply doesn't care any more. He will ignore the tree until the wire digs in and branches start to die off. It is hard to motivate yourself when the audience is not appreciative. I know this is the wrong attitude, it should be done properly for the sake of doing it properly, but when there are a hundred and one other things to do at the same time, values like that go out of the window.

The preparation work for the satsuki show involves collecting all the club memebers trees together, tarting them up with a bit of moss, cleaning the pots, old leaves, withered flowers and then finsing the cheapest table we can to put it on. Why cheap? They almost always get broken or water stained at the show. There is a group loosley associated with the garden and we act as a focal point and free labour. The first load of trees went out this morning to Kanuma, the satsuki centre. Tomorrow I will be taking the second load up to Tochigi to another show. This is slightly more popular as it is sponsored by an electrical store and the prizes include plasma televisions and kettles. The other show you get a bag of rice and some miso. Go figure.

We have one tree which will be in the running for best in show. It is a big Osakazuki...pics tomorrow when it is in place.

I finished the day off by starting work on a tree which I wanted to buy...but had to let the Chief take precedence over..one does not out bid the Chief when sharing the ride home! We went to a small auction last week at Seiko-en, the garden of Yamada Tomio, or rather his daughter Kaori who is very popular doing Saika Bonsai...a hybrid of kusamono and pop bonsai. We had a meeting of the Nippon Bonsai Sakka Kyoukai, of which I am a member (ridiculous considering I cannot qualify to be part of the European Branch ;-). I have always been attracted to the hands off style of Seiko-en which has been handed down from old school times. Yamada-san has a very sharp eye in respect to classic bonsai and also tree/pot combinations. I was amazaed to see just how little his trees had been worked and also how dry he kept them. Thats why his five needle pines look so good....anyway, during the auction he made a disparaging comment about a literati pine which had been fully wired out and styled to make it look perfect..." If you hadn't wired it then I would buy it. Now all it's good for is scrap value". Harsh but a very fair comment. With that in mind I am attempting to make this triple trunked five needle pine in the classic style that will appeal to such a discerning eye. More on this later.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Tool of Champions

The satsuki exhibition at Shunkaen is in full swing, albeit a very small swing. Hopefully tomorrow I will get the chance to take a few pictures. We have had a lot more visitors this year than before and even a bloke from Leeds turned up out of the blue. Being a fellow Yorkshireman I found it very easy to grumble and complain about things.

One of the visitors today was the master tool maker Kawasumi Etsuro,(left) a master craftsman of the highest order. He is part of the family who make Masakuni tools, but had a falling out with his brother who in turn took on the family business. There were at least three sons who apprenticed under their father, Kawasumi Masakuni. Etsuro is a funny old character who likes to partake of a drop or two and that has hampered his commercial success, well that and his stubborn, perfectionist attitude to his work.

Etsuro is famour for his Ikebana scissors much more than Bonsai tools which are incredibly sharp. Many years ago, when I was getting ready to purchase a pair of his thin bladed scissors he told me a little about the process he goes through in order to make them. Everything is hand processed from start to finish and the iron he uses to make the scissors comes from an old ships anchor.

Japanese tools, particularly chisels are made from relatively soft steel which makes them very easy to damage and the blunt quickly but they sharpen very easily and if done properly the blade can split the finest of wood. Etsuro's scissors are the same in that once they have been sharpened they cut so beautifully and true it is incredible. Not only are they scarily sharp but they are weighted perfectly so that the fit in the hand and do not tire you out. They are without doubt the Rolls Royce of Bonsai scissors....not that I am not a brand obsessed tool manaic, quite the opposite I use cheap and cheerful wherever possible...however there are some jobs in Bonsai which require a delicate and true cut and only something of this quality will do.

The reason he came today was to deliver a pair of scissors he had made for Kuma-san, our saturday apprentice. Kuma-sam has been coming almost every weekend for over six year and just works on whatever needs doing. He is by no means a skilled Bonsai artist but he just likes to get out of the house and away from his wife and mother in law. He rides a 1300cc motorbike which roars like a lion and is an all round great chap. Get a few glasses of sake in him and he turns into a one man comedy show. I will never forget the time he got drunk and shouted at the Chief who had chastised him earlier in the day. "How am I supposed to know not to step in the soil! I work for Canon! I fix photocopiers ever day!"

Tomorrow sees the last day of the show and hopefully we will get a chance to take a breath on monday before prepping for the shows next weekend. Morimae is putting on a show at the same time as the Kanuma and Tochigi shows so hopefully I will be able to get to see that. He always makes something worth taking the time to go and see.

In other news, I have been asked to write a book on Bonsai from a Japanese Cultural perspective but from western eyes. I think it will be digital only at first but I am pushing for a paper version. If anyone has any suggestions for things they would like to see in such a book then let me know. Until next time...

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Back in Japan...

Once again much time has passed since the last blog entry. I seem to only manage it once a month. Still, not much has changed...except that I managed to take a little time off and spent most of it drunk, eating or watching football. It turns out that after all these years of doing Bonsai 24/7 that I don't actually have a hobby to speak of. I did spend some time thinking about future plans and what direction I need to head in. This resulted in me buying a diary and attempting to become more organised.

I am now back at the Chief's and working and living as if I were still an apprentice, which of course I am until one of dies...and then even after that. After the earthquake and subsequent devastation, the Bonsai community has continued even more quickly on it's downward path, however there are some bright spots. Various different media appearances including both the Chief and myself have stimulated a lot of interest and we have had a number or younger visitors to the garden, including some lovely ladies...which is always nice. The power of television is incredible...I need to find a way to get on to the BBC.

Without wishing to sound boastful my face has been cropping up all over the place recently. I was featured in the May edition of Kinbon, the June edition of Satsuki Kenkyu and the most recent edition of Bonsai Focus. A copy of BF arrived at the garden the day before I did and the Chief was not impressed to see my work when compared to the tree which Ryan worked on. With the apprentice of his rival on the cover and working a great piece of material to a superb completion, it was a blow to his pride to see me working on a lesser piece of material tucked away at the back of the magazine. If he could read the text then he would understand the point I was trying to make, however a picture speaks a thousand words. He asked me next time to do something more impressive.

Rivalry in Bonsai is like a cancer that eats away at the enjoyment of playing around with little trees. Trying to create it or measuring one person against the other on the basis of one tree seems counter productive and pointless. I am the first to admit that there are much more skilled people in Bonsai than myself...but anyway, lets get back to me showing off..

When I was here at the start of the year I was asked to do a photoshoot for Gekkan Satsuki. I have done a few for them before and they have been terrible. The Chief has always picked the worst piece of material for me and it has been all but impossible to create anything. This time I was in charge of the material and I went out and bought a lovely tree which would quite easily be transformed. The tree is an Osakazuki, a tough variety which will withstand dead wood and not die back. I was particularly taken with the 90 degree bend in the trunk and the funky movement in the branches. It was also a tree which could have been made easily from either side.

The work took a day and was not particularly taxing. Once the branches had been removed, it was a case of a little carving, wiring and then planting it on a Kurama stone. I have never liked the approach to demonstrations or photoshoots which ends up with dead trees, doing something extreme for the sake of it and ending up with a tree which slowly dies and you have nothing to show for it. Thankfully, as you can see, the tree is in bloom now and has put on some great new growth.

Design wise there are a few things which may change in the future, the branch on the right may be slowly removed, it is a little risky to do it due to the flow of the live vein around the back. Otherwise I am happy it is flourishing and I didnt kill it. Maybe next year it can go to one of the upcoming shows.

The reason I am back in Japan is to help out at a busy time. We have many Satsuki shows to prepare for, a suiseki exhibition and then post flowering pruning and Pine candle cutting to get done by the end of June. The Chief will be away for two weeks in China and Germany in the middle of it all. Updates on work will follow so stay tuned.