Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tokonoma trials

Kuchinashi  - Gardenia
A great aspect of apprenticing at Shunkaen is that we get to study not only the creation of bonsai but also how to display them properly in a tokonoma. 
The tokonoma is a recessed alcove found in traditional Japanese rooms such as guest rooms, tea rooms and meeting halls. It's been an essential part of Japanese architecture for hundreds of years, being a principal place for the display of art and pretty things. These days few Japanese homes have them, tatami rooms are unpopular and where the space is available, it's sometimes covered with doors and used for storage.

Most of our tables. Is there ever such a thing as enough
storage space?
It's usually the apprentices that put together the displays, changing them about every one or two weeks. They say we have 15 tokonomas all in all, so far I've only been able to count to twelve, of which we routinely use about 8 or 9. 
Putting together a display is a fun challenge of one's aesthetic senses. We mostly go by gut feeling in judging whether the display is harmonious or not, though Mr Kobayashi is sure to "tune" that feeling when we get it wrong. 
First we choose a healthy tree suitable for the size of the tokonoma we are filling. Then we choose a table for the tree, this is often where we struggle the most to find a good fit, even though we are fortunate to have quite a collection to choose from. Finding the right width is easy, and we look for a table with power and strength to match the tree, with slender light tables for maples and thick heavy powerful tables for big rough pines. 
The tricky part is finding a good height, especially since we don't want to match any of the platforms in the left and right of the tokonoma while also considering the width and height of the pot, trunk and foliage. We often try out a few tables with the tree in the tokonoma before deciding on the best match. 
The tree and table is put in the left or right side of the tokonoma depending on the direction of the tree. 
Finally we pick a suitable scroll and accent. I'm still pretty lost in this department, but I'm starting to appreciate the use of accent plants, "kusamono", to express a season or environment together with the other pieces in the display.
The table we originally decided to use.
The only table we could find that fit the description of
Fukita-san, but it's too big, overpowering the tree.
Here's a particularly hairy case, where we eventually got some help from one of the earliest apprentices, Fukita-san, who happened to be visiting from Sendai. 
We had earlier found this table, but upon seeing a picture of the tree, he immediately thought of a table he knew that we had that would be the perfect fit. All if the tables matching his description were way too big, so we tried with a few other ones, but he was hard to please. Eventually we found his table in one of our pot-rooms, and I have to agree it was a good fit. He mentioned the fact that the foliage curls inward at the bottom, this is picked up much better with the final table compared with one with straight legs. He got all excited talking about the table, saying that this particular one could match almost any tree of the right size, and bring out its best features. 
My suggestion, in place of the one we we couldn't find

We also discussed the direction of the tree. We had earlier incorrectly placed it to the right in the tokonoma, seeing it as a left-facing tree. He said that many of its features are indeed going towards the left, but we missed the obvious fact that it's planted slightly offset to left, indicating that the maker's intention is to have it going to the right. Looking closer, we can also see that the foliage is much more sparse and held back on the left side while it is let to grow out on the right side. In fact, it is Mr Kobayashi who has his mind set on making it right-facing, and it was Fukita-san and Peter Warren who last repotted it. 
Found it! I have to admit it's a pretty good fit. 

Fukita-san also turned our attention to the beauty of a tree that has not been touched for some time, giving it a natural roundness and irregularity that simply cannot be emulated. 
Splendour in a pot.

Another long post. And guess what? I'm at the immigration office, probably for the last time, about to pick up my Culture studies visa. 
Here's for short, concise and frequent blog posts in the future :)
"...Now how about if you did this? Make any sense?"

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bonsai eyes

I got to spend a day at Meiji-jingu watering the trees that were on display, cleaning up the pots and tables and talking to the visitors. I got into quite a lengthy conversation (monologue) with an older gentleman who had some interesting observations on the way people tend to look at bonsai, and other things, in exhibitions and in general. 
Most foreigners (and I would add most younger Japanese people) tend to start comparing age and price, they might go so far as to select their favourite (usually the oldest or most expensive), snap a few pictures and move on. According to the gentleman I mentioned, it is part of the Japanese tradition to view an object of art or beauty not only on its surface but also to consider its inner qualities. For example, does it express age, hardship, loneliness, tranquillity etc? Imagine the number of people to whom this object has belonged, and other such "beyond what meets the eyes" type of values. In his view, the Japanese people have a habit of making such considerations, while others seem not to. He thought I ought to spread a little sense of deeper appreciation to the people of Sweden, and a few of the neighbours too while I was at it.

Earlier I was talking to some interested tourists and started explaining some of the aspects that go into a display. Well actually I only got as far as mentioning the match between a particular tree and table, but this small thing alone opened up their eyes and, i think, allowed them to enjoy the other trees that little bit more. 
Perhaps it's knowledge and practice, rather than inherent habit, that we need to start appreciating the inner beauty of things.

Here's for taking a good look before whipping out the camera in the future.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Satsuki season

As I'm writing this, the flowering season for Japanese azaleas, known as satsuki is nearing it's end.
We're currently busy removing all flowers and doing a rough pruning to stimulate the production of flower buds for next season. For the next few posts, I want to share a few of my impressions, starting with the preparations for exhibiting the trees.

There are several exhibitions for azalea bonsai around the Tokyo area in the end of May, I heard the words Kanuma, Tochigi, Ueno park and Meiji Jingu tossed around a lot. In addition, we arrange an exhibition ourselves, showing off our own and our customers' trees. For all of the exhibitions, we gather all of the trees at Shunkaen, make sure they are in top condition, make sure they are well watered through and transport them to and from the venues. Around mid May there was an impressive collection of trees, kept under roof to protect the flowers from rain, giving lots of sun to bring out the flowers on slow specimens while keeping the ones in full flower in the shade. I got to help with putting moss on the trees and cleaning the trunk and visible branches from green algae, mostly using a toothbrush. Some of the customers had done the moss-job themselves, it was fun comparing the different styles. One principle is to keep brighter shades of moss between and around the surface roots to bring them out a much as possible. Another style is to create the image of sunlight coming in from above by arranging lighter patches of moss in front center of the pot, perhaps going off slightly to one side, taking the outline of branches on the front of the tree into consideration.

My first moss job. 
Before scrubbing the trunk and putting moss
I had a hard enough time puzzling patches together, trying to fit them tight enough that no edges or gaps would be visible. In the larger exhibitions, prices are awarded to the best trees. As some of the customers were keen to compete, it was important to do a good job. I enjoyed this task and I was pretty happy with the outcome, being a first-timer. I was told that the owner of the second tree I did was at the hospital battling cancer, and he wanted to have his favorite tree displayed for perhaps the last time. Hearing this made the task a lot more personal and really encouraged me to focus and do my best. Being about to finish, one the older apprentices asked me to hurry up a bit, as we had a big batch of trees to finish before supper. This is oft repeated here; what separates the pro from the amateur is the ability to not only do things well, but also to do it fast. Recently, I've been thinking, at least hoping, that if you have a little practice using your aesthetic sense, you'll reach the same result whether you force yourself to finish in an hour, or spend a whole day pondering.
At this stage, I think I know what I like when I see it, getting there is the challenge, getting there fast is just plain difficult.
After. My second one.
One of the customers did this one by himself.

Done by Yoda-san who started one month before me. I was impressed.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Day 17 - Mealtime manners

It's been a bit more than two weeks and I'm starting to have faith that I can adapt to the customs and expectations by the people at Shunkaen. It's an unbelievable experience just to stay in this house, to wake up in the morning and walk barefoot in hallways of tatami mats, to look out over rows of excellent bonsai while brushing your teeth, and that's before any of the work and learning has even begun. But it's also probably the most difficult and challenging situation I've every been put in. Doing bonsai is the "easy" and relaxing time, most of my energy is spent trying to satisfy all of the more or less mysterious expectations. If it was only about hard work then it wouldn't have been so difficult. The challenge is that you are not told what to do, you have to be constantly on your toes ready to help out faster than any of the higher apprentices, who are equally eager to win the race. This is especially evident at meal times, you need to be the first one to finish eating in order to make and serve tea before anyone else. Before and after meals there's a flurry of activity with all the lower apprentices stumbling over each other to help set the table, carry things dish up rice etc. If you're slow to act, you'll be scorned for not helping out. Even when it's apparent someone else will beat you to the kitchen for fetching the soup, it's good form to get up and make an honest attempt. As I'm used to calm and relaxing meals, either taking care of everything or nothing, this was a difficult change. At first I kept wanting to suggest that if they left it all to me (I'm the most recent arrival) we could all have a more relaxing time, but that's not how it works. A week ago I thought this was one custom I could never get used to, but these days my speed-eating abilities have improved, and I'm starting to understand the order of things.
Another peculiarity that was easier to master is the concept of higher and lower positions at the table, where the middle is usually the higher, except for at home where the chief has his high seat in front of the tokonoma, the lower seats being at the far end (well, not that far actually). This is easy enough even for a novice to grasp (I knew of it but have rarely seen it practised) but to spice things up, the higher apprentices are ever ready to invite you to the high seats, especially if you don't appear busy arranging things. The unsuspecting novice who does as he is told is soon to get some funny looks and has to endure the agony of watching his superiors fetch soup, tea and clean up the table at the end of the meal as most of us are seated on benches. Once when we went to a restaurant, the two seats closest to the chief were empty, as the higher apprentices took lower seats and me and a Japanese guy, coming last, outsmarted the game by sitting down at a nearby table. When in Rome...

I thought I was pretty well versed in Japanese traditions, but this place is probably more traditional than most. Now that I'm starting to feel more comfortable in this little world, I think the traditional ways are are a unique experience in itself, as the bonsai world is probably one of the few areas where old traditions and values are still alive, Sumo being another such sphere.
Whatever I did know has certainly been of great help, my new friend and the next most recent apprentice, Marcelo from Bolivia has had a hard time learning the ways and fitting in, and probably won't be staying for as long as he had hoped.

If you made it all the way down here, you're probably wondering how I found time to write such a momentous piece of a blog post. The answer is that I've spent the last four hours waiting for my turn to hand in my visa application at the immigration office. Only three numbers left...

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Apprenticing at Shunkaen - Day 1

I was expected, so they walked me with my luggage straight to my room, the old kitchen that they no longer use. Then the crew from a local paper seized the opportunity to interview me shortly, and then it was time to get to work. I de-leaved a plum, de-flowered an azalea, and then I got to thin and trim a japanese black pine, which took me most of the day and all evening.

It all felt surprisingly unceremonious. You walk through the door and pof! - you're part of the team. We have still to discuss the practical issues, especially of the monetary kind. I'm also not yet sure if I'll be able to get a visa for the period I'm hoping for, until October. I'd like to stay until next spring, especially with all the exhibitions during the winter, but my plants at home would face fairly certain death if I don't return.

Apparently, 10 pm is when all the magic happens. I felt pretty much finished with my work on the black pine when 'Oyakata', our master Mr. Kunio Kobayashi came into the studio to inspect. "hm, yeah looks good enough" he said, turned the tree almost 90 degrees to it's side, pulled out the BIG branch-cutter and tore away, cutting off perhaps two thirds of the foliage in big chunks. It's safe to say I was a bit surprised. Or to put it this way, I had been working on a millimeter scale for hours, pondering which bud to cut, while he chopped away at a decimeter scale, transforming the tree in about 15 minutes. He said he also changed the tree from a common and unsurprising piece to something much more interesting, expecting a four-fold increase in it's value. He never said so, but it was fairly clear that instead of chopping it down right away, I was given the chance to practice some thinning first. Pretty cool for a first day.

And now that I have found a spot with some wi-fi, I feel pretty well settled in.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter - exhibition season

Some time after my previous post I was tempted to think "Hey, stuff is going dormant, not much to write about" but I couldn't be farther from the truth - now is when it all happens! It's time for bonsai exhibitions. Why now? Well mostly because deciduous trees have shed their leaves so that it's possible to see the structure of branches, a way of assessing quality. I have to think that another reason is the lack of other pressing bonsai chores during autumn and winter, an exhibition in late spring or summer would probably be a lot more disruptive, especially for the professionals.

First out was Koju-ten on October 19th-21st. I've been pondering a blog-post about this local club-exhibition for four months! The Bonsai nursery just south of Kyoto station, Koju-en, organizes a shohin-bonsai exhibition every year. Instead of hosting it in some anonymous convention-centre, they cooperate with a temple, Zuishin-in in south-eastern Kyoto. It's a great environment, very relaxing and good for photos, if a bit dark at times. With many of the sliding doors removed, you are ever on the border between the garden outside, and bonsai inside. Gone are the crowds pushing you on from behind or brushing past you when you take a minute to observe. Here you get to kneel on a tatami mat before a tree on a low table, daylight reflected from behind and observe all you want. You won't find an exhibition with quite the feeling of authenticity as this. The summer heat has passed, but the winter chills have yet to come.
Fond memories indeed, especially as my room has kept a constant 13 degrees C (55 F) for the past three days, Indoors!
 Pictures (of the exhibition) are up at Flickr.

Next was the 32nd Taikan-ten, on the 23rd to 26th of November in Kyoto. This is the second largest exhibition in Japan, next after Kokufu-ten. For Kokufu-ten there is a jury which decides on the trees that are exhibited; from what I understand, there is no such jury for Taikan-ten. You pay - You get. I don't know how they manage to keep the number of trees approximately equal from year to year but the systems appear to be different between the shows. Taikan-ten is considered more eclectic, both in terms of quality but also in the variety of species. Of the four exhibitions I've been to, this is my favorite.
In Kyoto the weather is still pretty mild around this time in November, the autumn colour of maples were mostly at their peak except at higher altitudes. This means that there's a good chance of seeing a few trees in leaf, and lots of fruit such as Japanese persimmon and Chinese quince. I did spot a few fruits at Gafu-ten in January but at that point, the time for picking had both come and gone.
Another thing I like about this show is the good atmosphere around the sales area which is pretty much a continuation of the exhibition-space. There's food and tea available, and some open tables for just hanging out and waiting for your friends. Pictures available here.

I got both pictures and a video from Gafu-ten - Kyoto's big shohin-exhibition.
From Kokufu-ten, some pictures and video as well. More on those two, and perhaps on the upcoming Shunga-ten in Osaka, in another post.