In 2007 John Armitage travelled to Japan for the first time to study under Nobuichi Urushibata in Japan for almost 3 months – this is the story of his first trip to Japan – here is his story…
It is worth saying from the outset that my trips to learn bonsai cannot be in anyway termed as an apprentiship. An apprentice is very different and the life is very, very hard. I have a great deal of respect for people such as Ryan Neal, Peter Warren, Mario Komsta and of course Marco who have completed apprenticeships. These people are very special!
I think everyone who is involved in bonsai at a reasonably serious level, dreams of travelling to Japan. I know I had since I started bonsai age twelve but life and commitments had gotten in the way. This was until July 2006 at the Association of British Bonsai Artists event in Bolton. I had grown weary of all the bonsai dealers and professionals jostling for the limelight and for customers. This to me was not what bonsai was about. Bonsai in the UK is something that is pretty much self-taught, we did not have the Japanese immigrants that provided much of the bonsai knowledge in the US. This, I think, gave UK bonsai a certain freedom but also a lack of good basic techniques.
Something struck me and there and then I realised that few British had ventured to Japan to study, in fact I could only think of two others that had gone to study as opposed to dealers on buying trips. I made my mind up that I had to go. I had a job that I could take a break from. I was in the enviable position of having many friends in the bonsai community and a number of bonsai groups that I had taught at who would help me in realising my dream.
I arrived in Japan on the 16th of January 2007 and after being met by Nakamizu san and an impromptu ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) I was met by Urushibata san at Shizuoka station and was hurriedly taken to the nursery, Taisho en that would be my home for the next few months.Taisho en is a haven for bonsai enthusiasts. The Japan bonsai community hugely respect Urushibata and he also speaks a little English, thank goodness! I had tried to learn the language before departing but had managed little more than a few pleasantries. The facts that I was a student of Urushibata would also open doors and also get me the occasional discount!
The nursery is medium sized by Japanese standards, in a fairly urbanised area 6km from the city of Shizuoka, nestling under the spectacular vision of Fuji yama, which is visible from many places in the city.
His apprentice, Mario Komsta is already well known and is a huge talent. Urushibata sans son, Taiga, had spent two years under Masahiko Kimura, he too was a humble but unbelievably talented individual. Suzuki san completed the team at Taisho en. He was an enthusiast that lived locally and spent most mornings working at the nursery. What was to hit me most was the knowledge and ability of these individuals and others I would meet. These were very talented, enthusiastic and able people more than willing to pass this love of bonsai on. But there was no posturing or egos involved. Just good bonsai.
Many western students and enthusiasts had come to the nursery over the past few years. From the USA, Holland, Spain and now Chile and the UK. I was student number nine and the first from the UK.
I was lucky to have company at the nursery. Rudolfo (Tato) was from Chile and had arrived ten days earlier. Despite having only been involved in bonsai for a few years, he already had talent and a great deal of knowledge and understanding. I wish that, like Tato, I had taken this path earlier in my studies had the opportunity had been available.
I had half expected to spend my days doing menial tasks around the nursery and had almost accepted it. Any opportunity to learn would be embraced. However, Urushibata san was obsessed with bonsai. More so than anyone I have previously met. Instead of using us as slaves, Urushibata san spent a great deal of time, effort and some personal expense to help us understand, experience and digest as much as he could about bonsai. Not only was he a walking encyclopaedia on bonsai but also a very kind, caring person. And although we did a good deal of mundane tasks on the nursery such as watering, feeding and sifting soils, we also worked on trees and material that would ordinarily be out of our reach either in the UK or Chile.
Unlike many Japanese nurseries, Taisho en did not specialise in a particular species or size of bonsai. It is very well known for its top quality shohin sized trees, but also had many outstanding larger trees. It is a true nursery in the sense that it grows bonsai, not merely dealing in them. So my education there would be broad and full. Urushibata san also encouraged imagination and creativity, something that is rumoured to be lacking in Japanese bonsai. This certainly wasn’t the case.
We would study each tree that we worked and would often discover several trees within, sketching as we went and Urushibata san would discuss the options with us. Sometimes happy with our work, sometimes not so, but that was good too, I was here to learn.
Language was always going to be the biggest drawback. Despite trying to study before I left, I would occasionally misunderstand and this would lead to frustration. But when I felt down I had encouragement from Debbie, my fiancée and friends back in the UK.
From 8am on day one I started working on trees. The first tree I was given to style was a collected Japanese Red pine. This level of material is uncommon in the UK. I was fairly pleased with the results and my teacher only had to give a little correction. This is better than I can say for my second tree. I thought that wiring was one of my strengths, I regular taught wiring as part of my lectures in the UK. In Japan I found I had still much to learn. I was brought to earth with a bump!
The trees I styled began to mount up. As soon as I had completed one, it was assessed and corrected and another one was started. Some were “so so”, some were good and a smaller number still were perfect and did not need modifying. Some even sold to customers shortly after I had finished them.
This tree was a joy to create. I so wanted to take it home with me.
As well as the day-to-day work on the nursery, the constant wiring, shaping, pruning and endless repotting, there were also extra curricular activities.
Urushibata san was keen that my stay involved experiencing bonsai at as many levels as possible. In my first weekend I assisted with the setting up of the Tokai exhibition, this is held in the Granship exhibition centre in central Shizuoka. This was a regional exhibition and I could not help thinking that it was superior to anything that I had witnessed in the UK.
However like shows in the UK, the attendance could have been better. The traders too were an opportunity to learn. I learnt many things from those who spoke some English but what was apparent was the absence of the mass produced bonsai seen in the west. These trees are only for the export market. I could have very easily spent all my allowance here.
The time I spent working on the nursery was broken up by these exhibitions, auctions, club visits and trips to other nurseries. The most important one being the famous Kokufu Ten held in Tokyo during the second week of February.
Over quite a mind-blowing weekend, I set off on the bus to Tokyo, the first stop was the green club. This is the market area for the bonsai traders at the Kokufu Ten. There are only high quality trees and material for sale here. Some of the trees for sale could have easily been on show in the main exhibition. The quality was evident again. No trees with bad nebari or wiring marks or chops. Not like a lot of the trees we get in the west.
The exhibition itself was for me a numbing experience. All the trees were superb. My favourite was a medium sized Colylopsis Spicata in full flower. The only shame was that you are “herded” around the exhibits in a one-way system and one does not have the time to absorb each tree.
The day following my visit to the Kokufu Ten, after a very late night, I had the opportunity to visit Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunka En nursery. Shunka En is not only a high-class nursery, it is also a place where a great number of Japans premier bonsai are cared for in exceptionally beautiful surroundings. Kunio Kobayashi himself has received many awards for his trees at the Sakufu Ten exhibition. This exhibition is for professional growers and is fiercely contested. The museum building in the nursery is a beautiful structure which houses antique pots, suiseki and stands. A network of small rooms enables the superb bonsai to be appreciated in a traditional manner. These rooms are available to rent for the tea ceremony. At the time I visited, Peter Warren who like me is from England was available to explain the nuances of each display. Peter has been Kobayashi sans apprentice for four years and was responsible for the day to day care of the nurseries and customers trees.
A phone call, a few trains and a taxi is all it took and we turned up on Kimura’s doorstep. I found him to be a very humble and kind man, giving us tea and fresh fruit (the first I had eaten since arriving) and answering all of out many questions.
Whilst we were busy photographing his creations, his assistants were still busy in the workroom despite it being quite late in the evening. Ryan has been with Kimura san for a couple of years now and intends to stay for 7 years. This made my short stay fade into insignificancy.
I was surprised however with the amount of respect that I was treated with as I had taken the trouble and made sacrifices to come to Japan to improve my bonsai, this was enhanced with the fact that I had Urushibata san as my teacher.
I had to travel back to Taisho en that evening so my time spent in Kimura sans garden was not as long as I would have liked.
After my weekend away, my strength and enthusiasm was renewed and I undertook all my tasks on the nursery with greater fervour. Part of me was grateful that I was not spending the time that Ryan was and I was determined to work hard and make the most of the time that remained.
The final trip away was to the Shunga Ten exhibition held annually in Osaka. This exhibition spread over a weekend was only for shohin sized trees and is one of the highlights of the shohin calender. A 2am start and by 9am we were ready to set up our two displays. I was very grateful that these were shohin and not lager trees. The event was so well organised and the setting of this event was superb and an education in its self. Mind you they have had more practise at it than the West.
Amateurs rubbed shoulders with seasoned professional each doing their very best. Unusually, compared to the UK, the exhibitors have to pay an entrance fee for their displays. This I think ensures that the maximum effort and care goes into it. Shohin is one of the few growth areas in Japanese bonsai and is an area where women play an active roll. There are even quite a few women professionals in the shohin circuit.
Again, time was against me and business took priority. So after setting up, lunch and a quick look around we were off to visit nurseries in the area.
Over my time in Japan I visited countless nurseries. Some sold stock recognisable from the UK sales benches, however the prices were quite different. Not all bonsai in Japan is rosy. Because of the demand for building land, more money can be made from selling a nursery to a building contractor than ever could be made as bonsai nurseries. In addition it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract younger people in to the bonsai business and because of this, trees and nurseries are falling into disrepair. Japanese bonsai nurseries vary enormously.
There are those which only grow one specie or only trees up to a certain age, those that grow cheap commercial trees for export and those that buy and refine the highest level of bonsai for very discerning collectors. On the whole, I found prices to be a fraction of the UK’s prices. Also much of the material sold as bonsai here are only intended as plants for the garden or balcony.
Good bonsai are still dear, especially good shohin. Poor trees are very cheap. Those with defects can be picked up for very little and if you have the time and skills to improve the defect then you have a little bargain on your hands.
I managed to visit a Bonsai auction whilst I was there. This was most interesting. Many dealers from the local area attend to exchange and buy stock and help to keep bonsai moving with fresh stock. They actually help each other. Something seldom seen in the west.
One area that I found identical to the west was a Bonsai club. Fuji Eda bonsai group is a group of about 15 – 20 members, mostly older and retired people and all men. A community hall was the venue and they would bring trees to work on. My teacher, Urushibata san would teach them how to improve their trees. Abilities varied as did the wiring! I was fortunate to be welcomed to this group, they showed me great kindness for which I am grateful
My stay flashed by and before I knew it I was home feeling somewhat deflated. All in all it was a surreal and mind-blowing experience and one I would like to repeat. Did I learn a lot? The answer is definitely. It was a one of those bonsai and life-changing experiences and I am will be digesting information and techniques for much time to come and will it probably cause many “eureka” moments in the future.
What now for me?
I did return to the UK with mixed feelings. Part of me enthusiastic about passing on techniques and information and I have started my own group and school with the spirit I found in Japan. I still miss Japan, not just the quality of material that I saw and worked upon, I could not afford it here. But I missed the people and people’s attitudes to bonsai. The way people shared knowledge and the joy they got from bonsai. From a complete beginner to famous masters like Kimura san.
I thought that this trip that lasted nearly three months would ” get it out of my system” so to speak. How wrong could I be. Since then I have made another trip back lasting one month and will return again for further study - I hope to continue to spend one month per year there if possible.