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

Tuesday 21 June 2011

The People of the World Will Surely be Victorious

Yesterday the Chief went off to China and I got sunburned cutting candles outside before going to a home depot style shop called Joyful Honda to buy some miniature screws. I mean tiny screws.

I am supposed to be back in the UK by now, sat watching rain affected sports events and thinking about which flavour crisps to eat next but due to a fantastically interesting project under the guidance of Bill Valavanis, I have extended my stay for another week. Bill arrives tomorrow with a famous cameraman to take pictures of Bonsai to create a very artistic picture book. All profits are going to charity to help the Tsunami relief so it is all for a good cause. I am very much looking forward to it, even if it means my reunion with Cheese and Onion Walkers is put back a couple of weeks. The sacrifice will be worth it.

Candle cutting continues apace, I have had to keep reminding the youths to cut cleanly and true, no strange angles or the new buds will form in strange positions. Another important thing that they fail to do is to clean and disinfect their scissors after each and every tree. This prevents the transmission of fungal infections from tree to tree, all the more important of late as there is a new type of Pine fungal infection raging in Japan at the moment. Dont know what is called in English but it is pretty bad on the trees.

Lots to do today before they come so I will leave you with this, from which the title of the post was taken... a wonderful song from the Cultural Revolution....

(For any Americans that may take offence, there is a more than a slight hint of irony in the use of communist propaganda in relation to a country of which the elite wealthy are buying more luxury goods than they can stuff in their suitcases while the peasants which make them stupid amounts of money starve in the countryside. Please do not take it seriously ;-)

Sunday 19 June 2011

Here on my own...

All on my own...How good it feels to be alone...Tonight. I haven't felt so alive in years. Only click the link if you love the 80's...which quite frankly, everyone does.

The reason for such indulgent reminiscing in the past is that I have just spent a very enjoyable night working alone, listening to Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Smiths whilst Candle Cutting the Chiefs most famous Black Pine, the infamous Seiryu, and then working on fixing a customers azalea which was in need of being sorted.

It was a very refreshing experience to actually sit and enjoy doing Bonsai again, something which has been missing from this and the last trip to the Chief's...and I realise why. I was sat alone without having to worry about what the other apprentices were doing or not doing. The Chief popped out around 9 and poked his head through the door, smiled sheepishly and said "I'm off to bed...I'm knackered". I smiled back and said "G'night". Those are the times where nothing is said, but everything is understood. It is hard to explain the relaitionship between a master and apprentice, but I have spent more time with him than I have anyone else except my own parents.

That is pretty crazy when you actually sit down and consider it. It's like being married...except you can't get divorced.

Anyway, I had decided to push on with getting some important work done because frankly, nobody else is capable or willing to do it. The Chief leaves for four days in China tomorrow, then from the 22nd I am busy with another project, so all the important stuff needs to get down before then. Things have been stressed of late, mainly due to the entire lack of application, effort and common sense of the younger apprentices. I don't want to sound like an old man but if the idiots that I am surrounded by are representative of the youth of today then I despair for the future of the human race. It's not that they are bad people but they just have a complete lack of desire and difficulty following the simplest of instructions. I always check with them to see if they have understood what I said...making a point of getting them to repeat my request, but stlll it all goes wrong somewhere. The next day, the pont I tried to teach them the day before is forgotten and the same mistake is repeated.

It drives me to despair which is then made even worse when the Chief rips into all of us, especially me recently for some stupid mistake which could have been so easily avoided by either asking me, or thinking before acting. There is only so much you can do and I seem to spend all my time looking after three children aged 40, 29 and 22....none of whom seem to listen to a word I say. I ask myself if I am at fault.

One thing is for certain, it is putting me off ever having an apprentice of my own...if that ever arose.

Anyways...enough whinging, back to the Bonsai. At the moment we are finishing off the Satsuki pruning, working on the late flowering varieties and customers trees that are brought in. The general rule of thumb is to get it done by the end of June, then you will depinitely have a good set of flowers next year, leave the pruning into July and the if the weather turns bad, there is a chance not as many flowers will be set. We are also working on Candle cutting Pines.

I had to properly shout at the two youngest apprentices a couple of days ago for not coming to me before starting Candle cutting. Not only had one of the cut them candles of a tree I am in the process of styling and wanted to do myself, but they also started from the strongest trees. Both of which are signs of a lack of brain function. After shouting at them for a couple of minutes, during which they actually got a bit scared as it doesn't happen that often, I sat them down and we had a twenty minute discussion on how to make Bonsai, particularly with regards to the seemingly dull aspects such as candle cutting, which they approach as some kind of horticultural necessity rather than an essential technique in the styling of a tree.

I asked the youngest lad to tell me how to make a Bonsai...he couldn't come up with a decent answer. The other lad made an attempt to explain but was off the mark a little. It is a difficult to answer question because there is no one technique, no one area that is any more important than the other. As I tried to explain to them, it begins with something as seemingly unimportant as the little metal staples we make to keep the fertiliser cakes in place and ends with displaying the tree at the highest level possible.

If effort is found lacking at any of the steps along the way then the tree wil not improve. If the legs of the metal staples are too short and the wire is too thin, then the sparrows will flick the fertiliser cakes off the pot in search of insects, then the tree doesn't get any food, doesn't set strong buds, branches die and it needs to be restyled from scratch again.

Wiring, carving and bending big branches are not the be all and end all of making a tree, they are simply the starting point. The real creation of a tree comes through carefully applying the correct techniques, both horticultural and technical and paying attention to details. Everyday details make the difference between success and faliure, not wiring and finishing a tree in day.

Anyways, back on track...After finishing of the Blue Dragon, I began work on this Azalea. It is a Matsunami, an old variety which doesn't thicken very much and has the tendency to grow thin, long branches. It has multi coloured flowers and is one I like. I bought one a couple of weeks that will feature soon. The problem with multicoloured varieties is the dominance of one parent or one colour. If the tree is allowed to grow au naturel, then within a few years it will all coe one colour...red. Red is the dominant colour and once it starts to grow, it spreads. Withina couple of years a white flower can become red, slowly working it's way through speckled, striped and then full colour. It is a one way transition, once it has becom red it can't go back.

Apologies for the poor pictures and makeshift back ground but I was trying to get finished. As you can see the main branch on the right has a lot of red, an awful lot of very strong red. A mistake was made when the tree was early in development and that branch was made from a red flowering branch...a school boy error. As the tree has developed. the red flowers have gotten redder and spread to other branches. there are entire branches on the tree which are red. If possible, the best ting to do is to prune out the red branches entirely as you find them.

Sometimes, the entire branches needs to be replaced, but that takes time if there is thickness to it. In the case of this tree, the character branch is entirely red, but in order to correct it, two branches of "normal" non read Matsunami have been grafted in. The grafts are of the normal multi coloured variety and so there will be variation in the flowers. Sadly it means removing large sections of the tree.

Once the red branches have been removes, the branch appears very bare and slightly lacking in volume and ramification. This will take three years to fill back in, unless the grated branches go gangbusters on us and grow like crazy. After a rough prune, then more detailed pruning, cutting out the hard, thick areas and unnecessary branches, The main branch was very carefully wired and set roughly in position. As it is a grafted branch, extra care needs to be taken so as not to tear it off at the base. Grafts are generally only attached by the cambum layers and there is a lack of structural integrity to the join, so they can often pull apart easily, even after several years of healthy growth.

The finished tree looks like this. A few years of development on the character branch and it will be quite a nice tree. As it stands, anybody who looks at it simply says, "too much red". This is a particular characteristic to Satsuki enthusiasts and half the fun of growing them.There is an obssessive nature to getting the perfect mix of flowers, a perfect example of that variety. We are not to this level of concern at all in the west, which may be a good thing!

Anyway, it is past 1 am and I need to be up in the morning to drive the Chief to the airport. I have a week left in Japan and to be honest, I can't wait to get back and away from the stress of looking after younger apprentices. That said, I will definitely miss working on trees, going through the different stages of creating a Bonsai. Especially enjoyable when done alone...

Saturday 18 June 2011

Do you like my pebble

This last week has seen pretty terrible weather, we are still firmly in the rainy season, however we have pretty much finished the azaleas on time and are moving on to the candle cutting on Black and Red Pines. It is also a time for Suiseki...traditionally a summer pursuit for those in the Bonsai world.

Life is still not getting any easier, I had to shout at the youths yesterday for being pillocks. They started working on trees without letting me know and one of those I had been working on for the last three years. It is most annoying to have someone else work on it and ut two years of work to waste. Still...what can you do?

Tomorrow we have a group coming over and so the Chief asked me to put on a few displays...the first time in a while he has done it. It was as much fun as alwaysmatching up scrolls and tables etc. They will undoubtedly change tomorrow morning when the Chief takes a look but here they are...

The first display is a Kurama stone, displayed on a half bamboo table. The scroll, written by the wife of a good customer reads "Kan UN" which translates as Floating clouds, rolling by slowly in the sky.

The second display is a tree of unknown origin, but it has fruits on which are yet to ripen. It is displayed on a very rough looking irregular Ji-ita . The scroll shows a willow branch hanging down wth a cicada clinging on. It is a little too early for their godawful constant crying but I love the scroll and it fits in the tea room perfectly.

Apologies but I am falling asleep...I have a few more pics but they will have to wait...along with more text on them. For now, it's bed time

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Me and the moon...

It's a lovely night with the moon in the sky...

After another overtime session in the work room where I was the last man standing after the young lads left to go to bed...go figure, I went to buy an ice cream and on my way home I was struck by the beauty of the moon tonight.

There is something extraordinarily special about a partially obscured moon, drifting in and out of view, occassionaly illuminating the world below. I stood and watched the clouds drift slowly by, and forgot that I was in one of the worlds most populated cities. In the distance I could hear the lonely cry of a lost and solitary frog who has found his way by mistake into the garden. and was crying out desperate for a mate I felt there was at least one kindred spirit in the world and it was perfect.

The subtle nature of Japanese aesthetics appeal to me, always have I guess, hence my path in life. Sometimes it is better to not show everything off and keep a little hidden. We all know it is there, but sometimes imagination is much better than the real thing. Anyway, I'm knackered. Here is the best picture I could take before my battery died.

Summer's just begining baby...

Tuesday 14 June 2011

I thought my life would get easier..

Instead it's getting harder...

So I haven't updated the blog in a while, I did write an entry last night but my computer died before I posted it. I then gave up and went to bed...it was after midnight after all.

So the Chief has come back from Germany where he had a great time by all accounts. Since he has been back he has been about as much fun to be around as...something not fun at all. It started off alright but then he has descended into his normal rollercoaster of emotional turmoil which is accentuated by jet lag and internal and external politics, a lack of motivation from the apprentices and the fact that he isn't as young as he once was.

Getting back to the previous thread, I went to the auction and it was pretty much a disaster. Despite doing a thorough recce of the stuff up for sale, nothing seemed worth dropping large amounts of money on, all the Chinese pots were damaged in some way or they were being sold by persona non grata. There were a few nice trees but our respective valuations didnt match up. I discussed potential purchases with a trusted friend of the garden who has his finger on the pulse so much he wears a nurses uniform in his spare time. My valuations were not too far away from his, and after setting some prices, I took pictures of the most likely items and emailed them to the Chief on his mobile phone which he looked at half a world away. How 21st century Bonsai has changed.

Everything that was worth a look at came and went for more than I was wlling to pay, including a lovely but unusual bamboo stand. It allegedly came out from some famous collection but netiher I nor my advisor had ever seen it before, it had not been in any books that we had seen and it was a little on the "I'm not prepared to drop $20,000 of someone elses money on a whim" side of things. It came up and went for almost three times more than I wanted it for...but thankfully, the Chief saw it when he got back and said I had made the right decision.

Times like this it pays to have spent the evenings of an apprenticeship looking through the hundreds of books, exhibition catalogues and collections that are available. If the object is in a book somewhere then it lends a slight air of authenticity to it and it can be traced back to somewhere rather than just listening to some sales spiel. Knowledge is power...as is the ability to pretend you are stupid, which is just as important. The whole poker playing atmosphere is fraught with subtle implcations and the unsaid but understood.

When it came round to me selling the stuff for the Chief, you could have heard a pin drop. Not a single bid from anyone except Morimae who bought a stand for much more than it should have been just to save face for me. It didn't help much but the Chef was happy that nothing sold...proves to him that his presence is essential at events like this.

We are allegedly really behind on the work (despite being ahead of the schedule from last year and every year previous to that) and as such I have been burning the midnight oil a little Working on into the night to get stuff done...iIt is a pleasant reminder of the joys of apprenticeship and how slack I become when I am by myself...but then we have a different work ethic in the West, based on efficiency and planning rather than just running around in circles until you get exhausted.

Speaking of exhausted, we went to the house of a customer today who has been coming to the garden for the last 7 or 8 years. A purely satsuki man who is a great laugh and has a big heart. We have always got on well and have a good understanding of each other. A couple of years ago he developed throat cancer after a lifetime of heavy smoking and is no unable to speak because he has a hole where his voice box once was. For two years he didn't come to the garden and nobody saw him, but everytime I was back in Japan I would make the effort to go around and see if he needed any work doing, which he always did. Cancer tends to take priority over Bonsai no matter how much of an enthusiast you are. It caused a few problems with the Chief because he was annoyed that I was being asked to go instead of him but it wasn't like that in a bad way. The customer was embarrassed to be seen in such a state, especially as it is very difficult to understand what he is trying to say at times. I guess he found it easier to ask me as we had history and I am also a foreigner, so our communication had always been bordering on the non verbal anyway. Thankfully he is pretty much back to his normal jovial self and The Chief, myself and Naganuma went around today to do all his post flowering pruning. He was happy to have us around and spent the whole day making rude gestures and playing around with an air hose, but he did it with a smile on his face.

One of the most important part of a Bonsai professionals life is the relationships you build up with customers, through good times and bad, when they are buying trees and not. Obviously there is a financial reward for the work done, but there is almost always a much more valuable reward for getting out of bed at 5.30 and working like a slave for 9 hours solid. Bonsai is more than just pretty little trees in pots...it is a chance to make people happy. As pretentious as that may sound...it is true.

Tomorrow I will start on with Candle Cutting on the pines in the garden. We have about 75 to do in a week or so. Thankfully the Chief is away for most of the week...and I still have to get some images together for my book! Oh well...to bed now.

Friday 10 June 2011

Forgot to post this here..

This was originally posted on my website on Wednesday 8 Jun 2011

Day tripper

Long days and busy nights have meant I haven't posted anything recently. Been busy while the Chief is in Germany. Lots of work been done, satsuki shows are finished, plowing through the deflowering and also wired a couple more trees. In a throwback to my apprentice days I worked until midnight tonight, but unlike those days, I actually got loads of work done. It isn't until you actually graduate and your income depends on working quickly and efficiently that you learn how to not waste time. What would have taken me two days to do when I was apprenticing will now take me 3 or 4 hours and the quality is better.

Anyways, tomorrow is the big auction. The stuff I have to sell is in the van and I will be off at 5.30 tomorrow morning to have a good shufti around and see what is going on. The pressure to not waste money or the opportunity for getting something saleable is fairly high. Still, it's nice that I have been entrusted with it.

I guess.

I was looking around at photos for the e-book thing and I came across this lovely snap. Taken by the Chief's wife when we were at Niagara Falls last year. The Chief was demonstrating at the 2nd National Bonsai show in Rochester and Bill took us up to Niagara Falls. When the Chief was peering over the edge, I couldn't resist trying to push him over. Well, pretending to anyway. Don't think he has ever seen the picture...

Today has been a long day, a 2 hour drive from 5 am to see Akiyama, mt senpai who has married the Chiefs middle daughter and has given us two lovely baby girls. It was nice to just sit and chat with someone intelligent about the Bonsai world and trees, tools and fishing.

Sleep....until tomorrow

Saturday 4 June 2011

Summer is the time

"Summer is the time when one sheds one's tensions with one's clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all's right with the world."

After the right kind of day yesterday, last night we just got drunk. Still, I woke up this morning and taking a walk around the garden I realised again why I love Bonsai. You just can't beat it for seasonal beauty. It makes me drunk with the belief that all is right with the world.

The beauty of Bonsai is not found within the showing off of one's skills or the receiving of awards, it is found in the appreciation of nature, watching the seasons change around you and finding a way of expressing it. What we do with trees is nothing compared to what they should to us.

I am at my most thoughtful (or is it pretentious?) when hungover.

Thursday 2 June 2011

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose

After all the satsuki shows have been set up, a little calm has descended upon the garden. That is mainly due to the fact that the Chief has left for a week for a Satsuki show in Germany. He will be working with Valentin Brose, a German apprentice who had to leave recently and is starting to work in Europe.

When the Chief goes away, everyone breathes a sigh of relief but there is something unnaturally strange about the garden when he is away. It gives us a chance to actually do some work for once rather than running around doing whatever pops into his head at the time. We are going to be busy this coming week, with the end of the satsuki shows, lots of pruning to be done and also an auction where I am expected to act on behalf of the Chief. He picked out some stuff he wants to sell and told me the reserv e prices. Bonsai auctions are a lively affair and I am going to have to hold my own against a number of buyers and sellers. I also have carte blanche to buy whatever I think is good. The Chief loves to buy stuff and people love him for it, the Satsuki auctions wait until he arrives even if he is two hours late. I am going to be put under a lot of pressure from everyone there, then there is the pressure of buying something for too much or completely unsaleable...as was the case in January. Still, all good fun and will be a learning experience. I am mainly going to see the action and report back...who is buying what, what prices etc.

The title of the post refers to the trend I have been following recently of being asked to do things that are completely out of season. Yet another Five Needle pine was given to me to wire, despite my protestations that it was the worst time of year to do it..."Just be careful" was the reply. The tree belongs to the same person who owns the Juniper I did earlier...so it was a bit under the weather, a lot of dead or dying branches on the inside, unbalanced vigour , branches with no buds. Not the ideal candidate for a massive amount of detailed wiring so I tried to balance the desire to make it look nicer with the need for a rest and hand in the right direction to achieving balance and stop losing branches.

Five Needle pines tend to send out three buds, one strong central terminal bud and two weaker buds to the side. If the terminal bud is allowed to grow too strongly, it restricts the growth of the two weaker buds to the point they die. This causes branches to become leggy and lacking in ramification. The key to pines is to protect the weak and oppressed and to hold back the strong. Much like Socialism ;-) This was done all over the tree and a considerable amount of foliage and unnecessary branching was removed. Rather than wire everything out to the tips and knock of the soft developing buds, only main branches and essential branches were wired. Again, a very rough and ready look borne as much out of horticultural sensibility than aesthetics. Almost nothing was wired in the apex as I cut back as hard as possible to developing buds. To wire them now will be counterproductive and that is what I will tell the customer. I will also ask him if he is willing to change the front.

Looking at the tree, I couldn't believe how flat and dull it had been styled...not by us I might add. It just lacked any interesting character point, with a big head, boring branch structure and totally unrelated second trunk. I turned the tree around to look at the tree from an angle and found a much better front. It had depth, movement, a dead wood feature and a bit more elegance. It seemed so obviously the front I had to spin the tree around a few times to double check.

The unfortunate thing about being me (well one of the things) is that I can't just do what I want, when I want. This tree belongs to a good friend of the Chiefs and although he has lost interest in Bonsai, I am not sure how he would take to me completely redesigning his tree. When I first started as an apprentice he was a bit on the rude side towards me which I took to heart and I am not going to provoke things any more than is necessary. Although he seems to like me now...I am not convinced.

With the restraint of not being able to go crazy on the tree and do what in my mind was necessary, I set about making a two fronted tree. Shock horror. A tree with two fronts. Yes it is possible. Admittedly in this case the current front is styled to look a bit on the boring side whereas the side I want to make it from is much more interesting...however, there has been no irreversible branch removal, which I would need permission from an absent higher power for. I will take it over to the owners house sometime in the week and ask his opinion. More branches need removing and internal buds need to beef up before a more detailed and final wiring but given the time of year, the tree and personalities in question, I have done as best I can.

If I get the nod, the bottom branch is coming off and it will look like it this.

In other developments, I was allowed out of the garden yesterday and ventured into the real world. I had a meeting about the proposed e-book which I have been asked to write.

I had done very little preparation for it

so I scribbled some notes on the train but it was not necessary. I have a free hand with regards to content, it is left entirely to me. I will also be able to publish it as a proper book if so desired. After the discussion was over I realised that I actually have to sit down and write it, rather than writing about how I am going to write a book. Bit of a difference.

The good thing about the real world is getting out and seeing some pretty girls, of which there are a great number in Tokyo. Seeing the female form is always refreshing for young(ish) bonsai apprentices and somehow our conversations always revolve around to them. The other night we were sat around after work talking over a beer and I told them what I had written about here, what I was thinking with regards to styling and the approach of natural beauty rather than prettiness. Naganuma, who is a bit on the coarse side but quite insightful described it as "Ranchou no bi"....the beauty of disorder. He also made the point that the reason that women go to so much effort to make themselves pretty is so that after a suitable period of courtship, a dinner date for example, men can ruin it....thus making them suitably disordered and therefore beautiful. His language was a little more colourful...but his point true to an extent.

Anyway, I have to get some thoughts down on paper...