Monday, June 29, 2015

A Pilgrimage to the Bonsai Village of Omiya, Japan

by Michael Rusnak

When a friend booked a trip to Japan for his cultural studies class at Seminole State College in Florida, he thought of me and my love for bonsai right away, and invited me to tag along. Of course, any college study abroad class has a full schedule of culturally important places on its itinerary, but he assured me that I could strike out on my own on any day during the trip. Despite my aversion to flying—and lengthy 12 hour flight—it was definitely worth it to have a chance to go to the Bonsai Capital of the World and see some of the great trees of Japan.

Since we would spend most of the days in the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, I researched where I might find bonsai in those two areas. Internet sites such as Bonsai Empire noted the “Bonsai Village” in the city of Omiya, a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo, was an important destination for bonsai enthusiasts. In addition to eight bonsai nurseries, it now also has a museum dedicated to the art of bonsai.

The Bonsai Village has an interesting history. After an earth quake in 1923 damaged many parts of Tokyo, including the nurseries, a group of growers relocated to Omiya, where they could find favorable growing conditions, good resources and convenient transportation. According to the museum notes, 20 members formed the Bonsai Village in 1928 with four residency requirements:

1. Possession of at least 10 bonsai
2. Agreeing to open their gardens to the public
3. No two story houses
4. The use of hedge as live fencing

In 1936, the Village had 36 bonsai nurseries. 

More remarkable is the role the Village played in the preservation of the art. During World War II, bonsai were considered a luxury item. But the Village preserved their trees, and starting in 1946 offered exhibitions ad other events over the next decades, including one at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to reintroduce and promote the art to the world. 

So this place, the Bonsai Village Of Omiya, was the destination of my bonsai pilgrimage.

Our Japanese guide helped me plan my rout, which included a subway ride to one of the main hubs where I would find a train from Tokyo to Omyia. She also wrote out a neat little plan for me including writing the names and numbers of the trains as well as the address of the bonsai museum in Japanese, so that I could ask anybody for help

The address she wrote out in to the museum turned out to be very helpful, as one person after another pointed the way for this lost foreigner. One woman walked with me for several blocks before she stopped and pointed to a place where I needed to turn, and it lead me right to the museum doors.

 At the Museum, I presented one of our Akron Canton Bonsai Society cards, and incredibly, it wasn't long afterward that one of the curators who spoke English caught up to me, introduced herself, and gave me a personal tour of some of the important areas and trees in their collection.

She made sure that picked up a handy English version narration of the history of each tree. She also pointed out some of the trees they were most proud of in their collection, including a well-known quince that was once belonged to a Prime Minister of Japan. She was very interested in our club and enjoyed this connection. And I think she showed more interest than the customary politeness. I believe she was genuinely pleased to have one of our club logo pins.

The museum had a terrific exhibit on the 1300 year history of bonsai, the origin of the word itself, as well as the first appearances of potted trees in artwork, and texts documenting bonsai's 700 years in Japan, including the establishment of the Bonsai Village. 

It was easy to get lost in their collection of great bonsai, some belonging to the museum as well as those of guest artists. The museum has a large courtyard—like garden where many of its great specimens are displayed. Many are so large in scale that it takes two guys to move them.  Some are more than four feet tall.  You can tell right away by from a distance that here is longevity, here is something so old.
People were welcoming and wanted to be sure I enjoyed my visit. Photos are only permitted in specified areas, and while I was taking pictures of some of those trees there, even the security guard there came over to point out his favorite angle of a century old maple-- the underside, looking up into the foliage where it absolutely recalled being under a forest canopy. It also highlighted the massive fused roots of this tree.
In this place, aesthetic qualities of bonsai easily observed. The tree's over all shape—foliage masses large and distinct over a heavy trunk— catch your eye from a distance, leading you closer. It has an allure all of its own. It is at this point that more details become apparent. You notice the overall movement of the trunk. Its curves and unexpected twists, as well as the heavy girth and deep cracks and fissures in the trunk. You also see the multiple layers of bark, like some fine pastry, layer on top of layer along deep colors—and surprisingly gray to silver colors in the trunk. Such things that mark their great age, make up their aesthetic qualities.
In contrast, the healthy and vibrant greens, a lot different greens overlay such trunks. In addition to color, a contrast of textures too is revealed. The foliage has a lightness of small ovals or needles over the visual weight of the trunk. There is also a sense of living and dead and a sense of its antiquity as bright foliage and it shade rests over the parallel growth lines of bleached jin andshari. This progression of the distant view of each tree's overall triangular shape with an allure that brings you closer and closer was repeated over and over again. It made you linger. I was truly moved.
I couldn't help but to feel emotion at the sight of these old, ethereal specimens.  One striking species is the shimpaku junipers.  This tough species can survive on rugged mountain sides, and the harsh environments create multiple twisted and undulating trunks and limbs. Perhaps a harsh wind kills a piece of the tree. In its struggle to survive, the plant pushes out buds in other or opposite directions to seek the light and try to survive to the left or at another angle.  And so begins another turn in its movement.  Over the centuries some entire sections might die in the conditions, and many of the shimpakus feature large, almost cork screw like dead wood sections. These white trunk sections contrast in color with both the dark living areas of the trunk and the species forest green foliage. They are something to behold.  Some of the trees that the curator pointed out to me were ones that had been owned by famous people in Japan.  One was a tree from the personal collection of a former prime minister, for example.

Another unexpected surprise about the collection is that some of the trees have been in training for so long that they have acquired names, names that add a genuine sense of poetry about certain specimens with a bit of magic or folk-lore of their own.  Such names suggest stories of struggles written in physical shapes, others celebrate longevity, success and desire to live and survive in harsh conditions--"Tree of a thousand ages" and "Tree of Infinite Lengths."  Another takes a named from its shape. A large semi cascade pine called the “Blue Dragon.” In addition to its resemblance to the creature, its colors are said to shift in different light or if covered in rain or snow.  This tree with its strong horizontal trunk is depicted on one of the Museum's banners.  
One shimpaku with a fantastically contorted, windswept mix of live and dead veins under colorful foliage carries the name a “Celebration of Clouds.”

While nature formed many of these spectacular trunks, much of keeping the foliage shaped--those umbrella-like or offset triangle-like canopies and the plant health comes from the skill and vision of their bonsai artists who work with them.  It is a partnership between the tree and the people who care for it.

Coming back home, I have to admit many of my trees look sparse and almost like a bad imitation by comparison. At the same time, I could see in a few that they have more potential than I had previously imagined. I've been rethinking the development of many of several of my own trees, visualizing how they could also appear in a few seasons, and asking myself what I could do differently.  

This is good for the trees as well. Our trees can outlive us. If they become fine bonsai, the chances increase that they will be in the possession of other bonsai people, passionate enough to learn to care for them.  After all, bonsai can be thought of as a partnership between the tree and the people who care for it. 

Asia's bonsai tradition is old and ours is really just developing. Here in this small city in Japan where bonsai was a part of daily life, they have such a great collection. Seeing these world class trees made me realize what we are working toward and the kind of quality that all of us in our Akron Canton club are striving to perhaps eventually achieve. Bonsai is one of Asia's gifts to the world. They inspire. They show us what we might create here. In that sense they also invite us to reach further into this great art form. 

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