The Popular Practice of Making Bonsai in Japan is Simple, Even for Beginners

Bonsai is a famous and traditional form of horticulture in Japan. You can truly experience the world of wabi-sabi (a worldview centered on accepting beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete) through viewing the unique scenery created by small plants in a pot. This article introduces a bonsai workshop that foreign visitors can participate in. Get a taste of this worldview by giving it a try!

1,000-Year-Old Form of Traditional Japanese Gardening

Bonsai is a traditional form of gardening in Japan where plants are cultivated in dedicated pots. It has been practiced by Japanese people for approximately 1,000 years. Some outstanding examples of bonsai that were created by skilled craftsmen and handed down over the generations are over 100 years old! Even bonsai cultivated by hobbyists can be decades old.

In the north ward of Saitama City in Saitama Prefecture, which is about 40 minutes by train from Tokyo Station, you’ll find an area called “Omiya Bonsai Village” that has long been the home to several bonsai nurseries. Seikou-en is one particularly famous one that has been teaching the art of bonsai for over 150 years. It offers bonsai-making workshops for foreign visitors. The information in this article comes from the real-life experiences of people who took this workshop.

Make Your One-of-a-Kind Bonsai!

1. Learn About Bonsai

The workshop starts with a short lecture on bonsai by Takahiro Ishihara, the instructor. He gives a clear and concise overview of bonsai and how the workshop will proceed in English.

One important thing to note here is that it is difficult to bring bonsai outside of Japan! Though the laws do differ by country, it is generally extremely complicated and time-consuming for travelers to bring any sort of plant, including bonsai, back home. For this reason, the facility bans foreign tourists from taking their bonsai back to their own countries.

Instead, foreign participants get to take home 5,000 JPY worth of tools, such as scissors and pots.

2. Choosing the Plant and Pot

Time to begin! First, participants choose the plants they want to cultivate. They can be divided into two types: evergreens (trees that stay green throughout the year), such as cedar, and deciduous trees (ones that change color from fall to winter before losing their leaves) like Japanese maple. For this workshop, the writer chose black pine, which is an evergreen that’s often used in bonsai. The selection of plants changes with each season.

The picture below is of black pine and dwarf meadow rue.

In traditional bonsai, nature is expressed through just one tree in a pot. However, in Saika bonsai - a new style of bonsai advocated by Seikou-en - a scene that reflects nature more accurately is created by putting the tree with other plants. The dwarf meadow rue, which has pink blooms in the early summer, was chosen as the flower to go with the black pine. Once the plants are selected, a pot that is the right size for the tree is picked. The writer chose a somewhat unusual blue container that was shaped like a katakuchi (traditional Japanese sake bowl).

3. Preparing the Pot

A net is placed at the bottom of the pot and secured with wire. A long wire is also inserted through the bottom to secure the plant's roots.

4. Taking Out the Seedling & Putting Soil in the Pot

The seedling is taken out of its container and any excess soil is removed, taking care not to damage the plant's roots. Next, just enough soil is put down to cover the net at the bottom of the pot.

5. Determining the Positioning of the Plants

Next up is determining where the black pine and dwarf meadow rue should be positioned in the pot. To do so, it is important to keep in mind that the tree has a “front”, which is its most attractive angle. While figuring out where the “front” is, you must decide where to place the dwarf meadow rue. This is an important step that expresses one’s sense of art.

6. Adding the Soil

Once the positions of the plants are determined, the soil is added. The key is to push the soil between the roots using a chopstick.

7. Securing the Roots

After adding the soil, you need to use the wire that was inserted from the bottom of the pot to secure the plants to the pot. This process requires a delicate hand to make sure that the plants take root in the pot, so the instructor takes care of it.

8. Watering the Bonsai

At this point, the bonsai is given some water. The soil will break up if water is directly applied using something like a hose, so a watering can is used to saturate the soil until the liquid that seeps out of the bottom of the pot is clear.

9. Laying Down Moss and Decorative Sand

Next, lay down moss on top of the soil in the pot. The goal is to depict the seas and mountains of an imagined scene by adjusting the thickness of the moss and how the sand will be spread out. Based on Ishihara’s explanation of how “black pine is often seen on cliffs by the seaside”, the writer used moss to express the greenery on the cliff and white Kansui-suna (a type of decorative sand) to represent the ocean.

10. You're Done!

With that, you’re done! Put your one-of-a-kind bonsai in front of a folding screen and take a commemorative photo. It looks even better with a tenpai (a type of miniature ornament) placed beside it!

From the lecture to the completion of the bonsai, the workshop takes about 1.5 hours. It is a great opportunity to experience wabi-sabi, which is one small part of Japanese aesthetics.

Remember to bring an apron to prevent your clothes from getting dirty, as well as something to take notes with so that you can make bonsai on your own when you return to your country!

Workshop Information

Saika Bonsai Workshop at Bonsai Seikou-en
Address: 268 Bonsai-cho, Kita-ku, Saitama-shi, Saitama
Phone: 0120-464-870
Hours: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm (workshop runs until 3:30 pm, reservations required)
Holidays: Thursdays
Fees: 15,000 JPY (class fee) + cost of sapling and pot (excl. tax, taught in English)
*The fee for receiving instruction in Japanese is 10,000 JPY + cost of the sapling and pot

How did you find this article on the bonsai-making experience? The instructor’s words aptly concludes this report: "We hope that students who experience the Japanese art of bonsai here will be inspired to make their own bonsai back home using plants from their own country.”

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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