When I revitalized my bonsai hobby, the first place I went was to my books. I had 3 or 4 assorted bonsai books that I had purchased or been given as a kid and I figured that would be the best place to start. It wasn’t. The writing was dry, the pictures were dated, and the books explained bonsai like math.
“There are several styles of bonsai. The informal upright, cascade, semi-cascade…”
I didn’t care. It taught me little. The books were factual but not instructive. I liken the difference to reading a cook book and trial by fire in the kitchen of a fine dining restaurant. When I was training to be a chef my mentor would always push me to fix what was wrong. The recipe for pasta dough is simple. Eggs, flour, salt, olive oil and water. While the recipe calls for exact measurement, you will never perfect pasta if you cannot immediately recognize (without quantifying) what is wrong. In the summer, for example, it tends to be humid. If you cannot look at and feel the dough, and subsequently realize that you need to add more flour, your pasta will always suck.
I believe the same to be true with bonsai. Many books and sources teach you the “what” but not the “how.” Your book may say something like “Summer pruning of the branches can be used to direct a trees growth and produce finer branching.” does that help you to know which branch to cut, where, when and what exactly the result will be? Here’s a hint: you have to understand the balance of strength in your tree and how a cut will effect the next session of the tree’s growth. I will certainly elaborate on this in a future post. For now I just want to tell you that I learned this online (and then later in person from the man in my avatar), and it should be much more well known than it is.
This post will serve as a permanent library of all the knowledge you can gain from the internet about bonsai. The people and links discussed below are from my personal experience with bonsai so far. I will certainly miss many that deserve their names and websites here. The inclusion of the people you will read about below are indicative of their proliferation on the internet. I’m sure there are many other deserving artists I have not come across, because their information is not readily available on the internet. As I come across more, or as they come across me, I will put them here for all to learn from.
Below I have categorized the entries with a bonsai theme so as to better explain their role in the internet bonsai world.
The Nebari, or bonsai’s root spread, extends from the tree in every direction and brings water to the tree from every conceivable place. The Nebari are the bonsai meta blogs.
Bonsai Eejit is the blog of Ian in Ireland. I visit his blog every day for a very important reason. He posts basically every day. Which is rare in really any type of blog. His blog is wonderful because he combines stories of his own work with beautiful photos. Ian also points you towards the best the internet has to offer of bonsai related blogs, websites and videos. If you really want to immerse yourself in bonsai, you need to subscribe to his blog.
Bonsai Bark is a blog written by the people who run Stone Lantern Bonsai. Stone Lantern is a distributor of tons of great bonsai supplies, and the only place to find a few varieties of tools. It always makes me feel confident buying bonsai merchandise from Stone Lantern, knowing that the people behind it are as passionate about bonsai as I am. You will be hard pressed to find a blog that has as many varied and thorough sources as Bonsai Bark. If you spend even a small amount of time on their blog, you’ll be exposed to photos of some of the greatest bonsai by masters all over the world. I’m constantly coming across referenced material that I likely wouldn’t find else where.
The trunk is the base of the tree, start of its taper, and quite often the most important point of interest. From the trunk sprouts the branches and leaves. The trunk is the oldest section of the tree and is essential in determining the overall design.
Fujikawa-san is the Master and Owner of Fujikawa Kouka-en nursery and Bonsai School in Osaka, Japan. He completed his apprenticeship under bonsai legend Saburo Kato. Fujikawa-san is an important person to begin our discussion on bonsai masters with because he is master to apprentices Bjorn Bjorholm and Owen Reich, both of whom were pivotal in my bonsai education. The Fujikawa Kouka-en nursery is unique amongst bonsai nurseries in that it has an incredible variety of tree species. Many nurseries in Japan are specialized. Some grow seedlings or field grown starters, others specialize in initial styling or grafting, and still others fine tune “finished” trees for show. Kouka-en is in that final category, but does not specialize in a specific species of tree like many. If I had to put a claim of fame to Fujikawa-san it would be his skilled craftsmanship of deciduous trees. If you hadn’t figured it out yet Fujikawa-san is the person on the left in my avatar.
Kimura-san is referred to by some as “The Magician”, though he has said he does not care for the name. In the early days of his work with bonsai, after apprenticing under Motosuke Hamano, he was seen as a rebel. While his drastic carving of bonsai dead wood made his contemporaries scoff, it is also what has made him famous today. While this facet of his work is not his only commendable ability, it is certainly what has distinguished him internationally from other artists. When you see a Kimura tree, you know its a Kimura tree. The trunks and often branches are stark white dead wood with dense puffs of foliage. The trees almost look liquid, like blown glass. His treatment of deadwood is sculpture in its truest sense. Kimura-san is master to apprentice Ryan Neil, a critical player in American bonsai.
If you live any where in Europe and are even slightly interested in Bonsai, you won’t take too many steps without hearing Marc Noelanders’ name. Marc is the founder of Noelanders Trophy, an annual bonsai exhibit held in Belgium. While there may be many bonsai shows and exhibitions in Europe, Noelanders trophy is without a doubt the one with the most international presence. Marc also does a great deal of touring workshops in both Europe and the U.S. I’ve had the privilege of attending a couple of his workshops and the information he has to give is invaluable.
Walter is another figure you are likely to come across in the European realm of bonsai. Walter’s blog Walter Pall Bonsai Adventures is updated sometimes multiple times daily and includes tons of pictures of his trees from every angle, and through many stages of development. You will get a good look at the evolution of yamadori, or trees that have grown in the wild and are collected and styled as bonsai. The shear number of yamadori collected by Walter and shown on his blog is astounding. At times I’ve flipped through 20 pages of his blog without seeing the same tree twice.
The branches of the bonsai are much younger than the trunk. The shape of each has been meticulously trained over many years. They all extend from the trunk and eventually leaves will extend from them in turn.
Bjorn Bjorholm is responsible for re-introducing me to Bonsai. His extremely popular Youtube video series “The Bonsai Art of Japan” is in my opinion the number one source for any beginner. The video follows Bjorn in his post-apprentice work at Fujikawa Kouka-en. The videos feature amazing instruction by Bonsai master Keiichi Fujikawa, Bjorn, and the new (at the time of the first video) apprentice Owen Reich. There is no other place online where you can find this quality of professional advice straight from the source. The videos cover an incredible number of tree species, styles and accompanying techniques. My recommendation is to watch the entire series when you’ve first started to learn bonsai. Once you have been reading and working on trees for 6 months or so, watch them all again. You will be astonished at the amount of information you were unable to digest the first time around because of your competence level.
Owen, as mentioned above, is currently finishing up his apprenticeship at Fujikawa Kouka-en. In recent months I have really enjoyed reading his new blog “Bonsai Unearthed“. Owen loves alternating blog posts between descriptions of various tree species, culture-centric Japanese tourist destinations, and of course bonsai techniques and tree evaluations. I really enjoy reading Owen’s posts on tree evaluations. He takes you step by step through his thoughts on styling, potential problem areas and their fixes, and of course how the final product turns out. Once Owen returns to the states, following his apprenticeship, I’m certain he will be in high demand for workshops.
I love Peter’s style. His blog posts are long and descriptive with lots of pictures. His writing is driven by his experiences and the idea is that hopefully we learn a little something along the way. Peter takes the time to make important points in a personal manner. His posts are full of things that puzzled him, things that interested him, and all of the realizations and important points he learns along the way. Peter is apprentice to Junichiro Tanaka, owner and master of Aichi-en. Peter is currently in the second year of his apprenticeship. If the first year of Peter’s posting is any indication of what’s to come, this blog is a must follow!
Ryan, as mentioned before was apprentice to Masahiko Kimura. After finishing his apprenticeship Ryan returned to Oregon to form his own studio, Bonsai Mirai, and co-found the Portland Bonsai Village. Ryan’s knowledge of Bonsai is in no way limited, but if you want to study with Ryan you want to focus on pines and junipers. Like his master, Ryan’s specialty lies in training evergreens and photos from his garden are great evidence of this. Ryan has also had a plethora of his demos and lectures taped by “Of Bonsai Magazine” and are available here. Of Bonsai Magazine also has a great deal of other videos featuring bonsai experts including Marc Noelanders and Peter Warren.
I’ve only recently come across Michael’s work. He is another co-founder of the Portland Bonsai village and has a wonderful bonsai blog, Crataegus Bonsai, which I linked to in his name. His posts are informative and have increased in frequency within the past couple of months. A defining characteristic of Michael is his unique use of a nylon board raised above the table surface with screws from the bottom. This Technique creates a bonsai planting similar to a slab planting, only there is no slab and the bonsai appears as if it is on a floating island.
I’m a leaf. You’re a leaf. The leaves are the very farthest extension of the tree. Their position is ultimately dictated by the roots, trunk and branches. The leaves are all the amateurs, hobbyists, and assorted non-professionals. I will keep this section reserved however for the stars of this category.
When I try to think of the stunning example, the all star, or the amateur who’s walking right along side the masters, it’s really hard to find someone better than Jonas. His blog Bonsai Tonight (a clever play on the title of popular bonsai magazine “Bonsai Today”) is without a doubt the shining star of amateur bonsai. Jonas has it all, complete galleries of pro and amateur shows and his own step by step stylings and stories of his travels all over the bonsai world. To be fair, Jonas has had training in Japan, I believe a visit to Aichi-en with Peter Tea and Mr. Tanaka. And he has, from my understanding, been immersed with informal training by Boon Manakitivipart. So although he may not be a total amateur, he is certainly one you have to follow.
Capital bonsai is the blog of Aarin Packard the assistant curator of the National Bonsai and Penjing museum in Washington D.C. The museum is part of the National Arboretum and today holds over 150 trees that highlight the styles or Japan, China, and North America. In the beginning, the museum was built to house 53 trees donated to the U.S. by the Nippon Bonsai Association in honor of the 1976 Bicentennial. Today it has grown to include other various trees donated by foreign dignitaries like the Ezo Spruce, as well as trees from professionals in the U.S. like John Naka. The Museum also holds a collection of suiseki and other rotating exhibits of similar genera.
I have definitely not covered every important source here, but I think the idea is to create a base on which we can all learn and grow in our bonsai studies. As I come across great experiences both online and on location I will make additional blog posts and add permanent links to this post.
Nice post. The American instruction books are indeed dry and, in almost every case, full of outdated information and techniques that are no longer used. All the guys you’ve posted are indeed great sources of information, hopefully we’ll see a new crop of bonsai books from these guys in the future.
I’d also recomend picking up as many Japanese exhibition albums one can when starting out, Gafu Ten if you’re into Shohin Bonsai, and Kokufu Ten if you’re into Chuhin and big trees. You can spend hours upon hours if you have the inclination in studying what makes the trees exhibition quality. This is the easiest way to study things like branch placement and pot choice, as well as proportion and good display tactics.
So….when you find yourself in the workshop or in the yard with your trees, do you lose time in the same way as working the line on a busy Friday night? I know I do(I’m also a fine dining Chef).
Cool! Yea I absolutely loose time, although at least I don’t have to think “oh shit am I gonna run out of salmon?” I left the industry about a year ago. It’s unfortunate because it was an amazing experience for me, which I loved doing. But, as I’m sure you can relate to, the hours really started to get to me. I think that working as a chef really prepares you to be good at bonsai though. It’s something to do with the constant evaluation, like tasting your food before you send it out, that allows you to see what’s working or not working with your trees early. That and perhaps the methodical and exacting procedures like chopping all the brunoise exactly the same size that helps ease the difficulty of wiring. I suppose that any craft where you work with your hands would translate well to another. Thanks for reading and your comments! They are always appreciated!
Yeah, the hours can suck. It gets better when you become an exec Chef or Exec CdC. 50/60 hrs instead of 80/100! Can’t imagine ever being out of the kitchen, until I go to Japan 😉
If you haven’t yet, check out my blog on Japanese containers, youll find some good info up there.
Yea, I’ve been following ever since I saw your “Bonsai Gardens of the Northeast” on bonsai bark. That is seriously one of the coolest posts ever. The pictures are great and I had no idea there were so many nice gardens around!