Monday, December 15, 2014


Bonsai is one of those cultural exports from Japan that everyone is familiar with, like kimonos and chopsticks.  But recognizing or being aware of something is very different from understanding it, as I came to discover at the 34th annual Taiken-Ten Bonsai exhibition.

Bonsai inhabits a strange place somewhere between gardening and sculpture.  Growing miniature trees in containers has existed in Japan for more than a thousand years.  As with many cultural things in Japan, Zen Buddhism has played a role in defining the aesthetics of bonsai.  There are long established and rather strict   guidelines and techniques for cultivating little trees that have the appearance of big trees.  This is both beautiful and bizarre.  Even as I admired the many artistic interpretations of bonsai - the sensuous flowing lines, the often gravity defying balance, the congruity of living and dead elements - I couldn't help but think this is really a perverse manipulation of nature, the same way chihuahuas, toy poodles and other small dogs are.  It is worth noting that bonsai trees are not genetically modified plants.  The tiny size is achieved through meticulous trimming, pruning, wiring and even grafting.

The question running through my head the whole time was, "How?"  How are these insanely twisted, completely unnatural forms achieved?  How are these trees kept alive?  How long does it take to grow them into these shapes?  There was a vendor section to the exhibition that for me, an outsider, could only hint at answers.  There was the vendor that had a wide array of bonsai tools for sale spread out like surgical instruments used by a doctor in an operating room.  There were vendors selling bonsai containers of varying shapes, sizes and finishes, vendors that specialized in soil and fertilizers, elegant rocks and books about bonsai.  And of course there were trees, very expensive trees.  They ranged in price from ¥2,000 (about $20) for a starter specimen no larger than your pinky finger to fully mature, show-quality trees upwards of ¥1,000,000 (about $10,000).

Adding to the somewhat surreal atmosphere was a musical soundtrack that swung from a Muzak version of traditional Japanese melodies to a Lord of the Rings fantasy score.

I got the impression that bonsai has a sort of cult following, that the people in attendance were part of a small clique, like Trekkies at a Star Trek convention.  But like so many of the people that support traditional Japanese culture it would seem, this clique was mostly 60+.  As the Japanese population continues to gray, one wonders if these ancient art forms will survive.

1 comment:

  1. WOW!! when i was younger, I really didn't care about Bonsai. I thought it's so boring… Now I'm getting older I see it. I can appreciate the beauty and depth of the history. Bonsai is cool! Thank you Robert! Now I know….