Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Maple air-layer update

I should have written this post long ago, when I actually took the picture. As it got colder, it hasn't grown much since the picture was taken on October 15, so it's still fairly representative. Soon after the original post, with lots of sun and water, the growth just exploded. Several more buds developed seemingly from nothing and sent out long shoots with healthy foliage, all in two weeks. Expecting no more than a couple of meager leaf-stalks from the one or two green twigs still remaining, I was pleasantly. Especially since there was hardly any root-system at all just a few weeks earlier. I'm not counting on the tender new twigs to survive the winter, we will certainly have a few degrees below freezing for a few days or weeks, but in any case, I'm pretty confident it will come right back and spray foliage in all directions come spring, as long as I keep the pot protected from the cold. Then I have to figure out what to do with it =)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Buying tools in Kyoto

I love tools. I consider a trip to the local home center or hardware store a bit of good weekend fun. And of course, in bonsai there's plenty of room for satisfaction in that department. It is perhaps considered 'shallow' to be more concerned with the tools than the craft, art or creativity of bonsai, like how some golfers tend to spend a fortune on clubs rather than actually go out and do some serious practice, and I wouldn't want to go that far. I just think it's yet another aspect to enjoy.
Anyway, it wasn't long after I joined the local bonsai club at Koju-en that I started looking out for tool-shops. Here's what I've found:

Kikuichi monji (菊一文字)
Kikuichi monji
Of the shops I've been to, this has the largest collection of bonsai tools. Originally a sword smith for the emperor, now their main focus is knives. From what I have been reading on knife forums, they no longer actually make knives themselves, but the stuff they sell is apparently high quality stuff. Nice staff who knew enough bonsai to give a newbie like me some advice and typical use cases for different tools. They even had a info-leaflet on some typical types of tools, their japanese name and use. Lots of choices on scissors and secateurs in different price ranges, a few branch/trunk splitters, not so many options when it came to angled/concave cutters, knob-cutters etc. I got my first (well, so far my only) pair of scissors there for 2600 yen, a good deal as far as I'm concerned. 
See the map and picture for details on the location. It's on the south side of the short bit of covered arcade on Sanjo street, just a few shops west of the big Sanjo-Kawaramachi intersection. If this doesn't tell you anything, on a map try looking 3/4 of the way from Kyoto station to the huge green rectangle that is the imperial palace park and you should find Sanjo street. Kawaramachi is just west of the north-south flowing river Kamogawa. 

"The little corner-shop" 
Excuse my poor research here, unfortunately I don't know the name of this shop, though I have it scribbled on a piece of paper somewhere. I found this one by coincidence even before I really knew I was going into bonsai. It's about the size of a telephone booth when you get inside, so you'll have a hard time trying to do much window-shopping without eventually communicating a bit with the cute old couple running the shop. It's been a while since I last went there, as far as I remember they had a bit of everything, from knives to "ninja" throwing stars. I got a pair of branch cutters, and since I bought it as a present for my dad, the price must have been quite reasonable. They also had a few full tool-kits with cases. I just have a feeling that if you say "bonsai" and stick around for a bit, you might just find a great deal on a very decent Japanese tool. 
"The little corner shop"
It's hidden away in a small dark alley off of Shijo west of the river, the busiest big-brand shopping street in Kyoto. I think the map/picture below should get you there, the mouse cursor is pointed at the store on the map. You might walk by the alley without even noticing though, it's a sneaker store, only there is no back wall - you just walk through the store and then you are in the alley. Actually, you should go there just for the experience of this secret back alley. I just love these places. 

Previously another supplier of imperial swords, this is where Kyoto chefs get their blades, and it's all the rage among knife-junkies on English-speaking forums. Sometimes also known as "The place where you can get your name stamped into the blade when you buy it". Probably a bit pricier, though someone said that for blades of this superb quality, you often pay more. I don't know much about their bonsai tools, I just felt that they didn't have much, and that it was a bit on the expensive side. You'll find it on Nishiki-koji food market street, parallel with Shijo, starting at covered arcade Teramachi. 

The scissor-maker
Again, I don't know the name of the shop. There's a sign on the picture, but I'm just as likely to read it all wrong if I tried. I walk by here every month on my way to and from the bonsai club, and it's usually opened even in the Sunday afternoons. So eventually I popped my head in and had a chat. Apparently, a lot of people headed for Koju-en end up at his place asking for directions. I was shopping around for a branch-cutter, and he explained that his trade was making garden scissors, loppers and shears. He did eventually find an old branch-cutter, and I asked if he knew whether the cutting edges should actually meet or if they should be slightly offset on purpose, as was the case on the tool at hand. He didn't really know (neither did the guy at Kikuichi) but I have later learned that if the edges met straight on, they would quickly go dull, therefore one edge is always set slightly above the other. He wasn't sure whether the price-tag read 800 or 8000 yen, but he couldn't believe that it was 8000 so he quoted the former price! I'm pretty sure that was an insane bargain smiling at me, but I didn't feel quite ready to settle for any tool before I knew more. 
The scissor maker south-west of Kyoto station. 
I asked if he knew any other tool-shops in Kyoto, and he wrote the names and addresses of three places. When I looked them up, it turned out to be the one's I have listed above, so it seems I have most of them covered :)   We talked a bit more and from what I understood, his customers were mostly the gardeners of Kyoto. When I asked about the difference between home-center cheap tools and hand-made more expensive stuff, he said that some gardeners bought the cheap Chinese stuff, used it a season and threw it away. They didn't really need to care if it started to rust or if the quality was a bit shoddy. Others bought quality stuff, cared for it well, kept it sharpened, and those tools would last them decades. It wasn't that one way was better than the other, it was more of a personal choice. He made tools to last. If you are looking for some of the stuff that he makes himself, and you feel confident that you can tell good from bad, then I think you could get some really good value for money, without any "brand-premium" added. 
Again, I hope the map will help. Pretty much all you need to do is keep walking west along Hachijo-street, which is just outside Kyoto station on the south side. The store is on a south-east corner just before the point where the road meets the railroad tracks and bends south slightly. The star you see in the low left-hand corner marks Koju-en by the way. 

Still wondering why I went off making fun of materialist golfers? I practically grew up in the wild overgrown parts of a golf course, helping dad clear out thorny bushes, prune trees and tidy up in the wooded hills between holes. That's how he liked to spend the weekends :)  Well there is where I got to know a lot of golfers anyway. I never got much skills on the fairway, there was lots more fun to be had in the woods. 

If you have any questions, or if you found this post helpful, don't hesitate to drop me a line!

I'll try to be back soon
Time for bed

PS. I saw the maps came out a bit tiny, here's bigger versions:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Maple air-layer

First tiny buds on my air-layered Japanese maple.
Having read up and watched some videos on doing air-layers, my fingers were itching to try it out. I first scouted a place in the far north east corner of Kyoto, following a stream about as far up as I could go. There were lots of maples growing wild along the steep sides of the valley, growing in all kinds of weird bends and shapes grasping for light. I spent hours looking at trunks and branches, following the lines, trying to measure up their potential for a small tree in a pot. As I don't really have the "eyes" for bonsai yet, I find this incredibly challenging, but it's fun and I'm sure practice make perfect. I was careful not to consider anything growing close to a path as I think it would be offensive to any passer by to find a cut stump in the middle of wilderness. I doubt the place gets much traffic though..

I came back the next weekend with all the stuff I needed. It was early June, a bit late perhaps, but I decided to give it a shot. Most instructions mention holes in the top and bottom for drainage and refill, but being as remote as it was, I would hardly be able to come back and water it often enough, so I went for a big bulge of sphagnum and then did my best to cover it as air-tight as possible.

I checked on it a few weeks later and it was still moist and good, the bark above the cut cracking up and showing white callous-like tissue so I wrapped it back up and decided to wait for a full three months. Early September, I was disappointed to find only a few short stubby roots, growing mostly just on the underside of the branch. Judging by the smell of things, some kind of rot was getting to the moss, it's possible some water had seeped in from above and saturated the whole package as it was pretty wet. I knew that the few roots would be far from enough to support much of anything, but if I left it for another few months or over the winter, it seemed likely that it would all just rot and die. The fact that my calendar said "Pick up air-layer" was probably a big factor too. With that mindset, it's hard to make an objective decision.

So I cut it off and brought it home. I had gotten a big pot, tray, a brick of palm fiber and some rice husk charcoal (don't ask me) at a 100yen shop, so I mixed up the fiber and charcoal in akadama and potted the stump, still covered with some bits of moss still clinging to it to protect the roots. Soon the leaves started wilting, drying crisp and green, so I got a 90L clear plastic bag and covered the whole thing to help it retain some moisture, and put it on the table in my tiny room. The leaves slowly shriveled up and turned brown, but now the tree appeared to have a chance to suck the juices back down before dropping the leaves. Along with the humidity came a lot of fungus, and I recently spent an evening scraping of the rotted bark. Pros and cons.

Now two weeks later, a few tiny buds are swelling and developing fast, a great joy to behold. It will be interesting to see if the tiny twig will have a chance to harden off before winter. It's late in the season of course, but on the other hand, the winters here are pretty late and mild.
I've done a lot of things wrong, but I'm learning a lot! I just can't decide whether the plastic bag was a good thing or not. I'm leaning towards the former as I think a lot of "juice" would have been trapped in the foliage and leaf-stalks if they dried out quicker. The fungus did quite a lot of damage too, but it's possible those areas of bark would have died off anyway.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, hit me in the comments. Even if it's a year from now, I'd love to hear it!
Full view of my experiment. Wires have since been applied to keep it steady.
These were right next to the place I was working. Amazing how they survived as seedlings.
Keep trying buddy, you'll get there.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The slippery slope

I've always liked being in nature, especially hiking, but I had no thoughts of bonsai as I came to Kyoto in March last year. Yet when I found a discounted book on the subject for sale at a café, I immediately snapped it up. It all happened pretty fast after that. The single item on my Christmas wishlist was more bonsai books and the following spring some switch was flipped and I got completely absorbed with trees, watching all the pines and cherries and oaks and zelkovas and...
I also joined a monthly study group hosted by the only bonsai nursery I know of in Kyoto, Koju-en. I just wish we would meet more often. I have gotten in touch with a well-known master in Tokyo, and he seems open to the idea of accepting an apprentice. I'm super excited about that, there is nothing I want more than to start training over there.

More recently, I learned that well known bonsai professional Peter Warren from the UK also started as a freshly graduated student who went to Japan for a short trip without a thought of bonsai, discovered bonsai, and went on to study as an apprentice for seven years. I am not the first to walk this path, and I'm sure I'm not the last.

I don't own any mature or styled trees at the moment, as the regulations on importing plants to Sweden are strict so I'm not sure I would be able to bring anything back. Outside the monthly meetings I've mostly been "getting a feel for it" by digging up small seedlings and nursing them to bigger plants, rooting cuttings and collecting and sowing seeds. I even tried a few air-layers in the forest. More on that soon.
If I could go back in time, I would have gotten a few trees from the start to play with, and then perhaps sold them at one of the auctions organized by the nursery if I decided it was impossible to bring them home.

What is your story? I would love to hear if anyone else had a similar start in their life as bonsaiists, or what it was that got You started.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

First post!

Let me start off with a bit of background about myself and what I have in mind for this blog.
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. I moved to Uppsala to earn a degree in chemistry. During that time, I studied as an exchange student in Sendai, Japan for one year. I had a fantastic time and as soon as I came home to Sweden, I started longing to go back to Japan. I eventually found a scholarship for two years of graduate level studies in Japan and now here I am, working on my Masters thesis in Kyoto with high hopes of graduating by the end of March next year.
I came down with the bonsai-fever sometime at the end of 2011, but more on that in another post.

My imagined reader is the next lucky fellow who happens to be in the Kyoto or Kansai area, gets mad about bonsai and wants to get at it sooner than quick. Or any happy traveller. Well anyone who takes an interest really :)

Oh, and about the name of the blog? I just had the most incredible experience once, when I brought home a small seedling plant of Katsura - Cercidiphyllum japonica. The leaves got a bit ruffled in my bag on the way home so when I opened the bag and brought it out, the leaves gave off this extraordinary fantastic sweet fragrance. I was stunned, baffled, just couldn't bring myself to stop smelling it, at the same time giggling at my own reaction. The sweetness of the scent was somehow light, balanced, just perfect and utterly addictive. It's a good thing the foliage gives off this scent naturally in the autumn as they are about to fall, otherwise I would probably be left with a brown barren stick by now.
Trees can be like that - no matter how much you take in, you keep wanting more.  :)