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.