Hello friends, after an amazing vacation with family back in Arlington, Virginia, I have returned to Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya, Japan. It was great to be back in my home country, but I am very happy to be sleeping on my futon and eating rice at every meal again. My cushy soft bed at home hurts my back now, and my body is not used to the American diet anymore. Although I love my apprenticeship, whatever line of work one may be doing, it’s always nice to take a little break and reset mentally. The busy and repetitive nature of my apprenticeship slightly caused me to forget that I have a few friends back home as well. Here at Aichi-en, I don’t really know what protocol is for apprentices – should we go out and try to make friends, or have people to call for dinner or to go see a movie? I haven’t bothered to ask my teacher about his thoughts on the matter, but all the apprentices here mostly stick to the nursery when we’re not working.
The “Secret Document”
It’s late winter here in Nagoya, and sometimes, when you feel that cold wind blowing day after day, you start to feel cold on the inside as well, and you wish you had people to be with to make the winter more enjoyable. But on the other hand, when you don’t have any friends, all you can do is work! So you learn faster, but what I have really started to notice is that experience is the name of the game when it comes to bonsai. We (the apprentices) often joke that each Bonsai Nursery has a secret document hidden away that details all their trade secrets and recipes for success. As more time passes, you are shown more and more of the secret document. This is only silliness of course, as it is my opinion that there is absolutely no “secret” to cultivating successful bonsai: It is all experience based. Sure, there are techniques and tricks that must be taught: Properly applying raffia or making heavy bends with levers and jacks are not usually things that one discovers on their own, they are usually shown how to do these things by another. That being said, stuff like proper amounts of fertilizer, when to re-pot, decandling black pines, defoliating deciduous trees – these are things that physical experience can best teach.
Currently, we are still working on pulling old needles on Black, Red, and White pine trees. For the last 3-4 months, every day for 12+ hours I have been pulling old needles on pine trees. A rough estimate would be 150 trees, give or take a few, ranging from tiny little shohin all the way up to huge garden trees. Weak trees drop their needles much easier than healthy trees. At a glance, flower buds look like really healthy fat new buds, but they can actually be a sign of weakness. Japanese Red Pines will produce new buds in a different fashion and quantity than Black pines. A healthy, strong pine tree will have a saturated rich, bright, yet soft, colored green needle, where as a tree that suffered multiple mite attacks last spring will be a completely different color. These are just a couple things that come to mind, and its only through seeing with my own eyes and touching with my own hands that I have come to these conclusions.
As of today I have been back in Nagoya for a little under two months, and it has been super busy since the day I got back. I had not taken the train home from the Nagoya Airport yet, and I misjudged how long it would take doing so late at night. I got to the Nursery around midnight, and then the following morning we had the Meifu-ten Bonsai exhibit in Nagoya! I was a little concerned about jet lag, but I think jumping straight into work was the best method of recovery. The first time I came to Japan it was a solid month that I felt foggy and hazy from the time difference. This time around, it took a day, maybe two, and it was like I never left. The work in the weeks prior to Meifu- ten consisted of prepping roughly 10 trees to be included in the exhibit, and then another 15 to set up at the sales area. This type of preparation meant removing any discolored or unpleasant leaves, pulling weeds, cutting any areas if they had grown out of shape, cleaning the pots, applying moss to the soil surface, and fixing up any bare patches if need be. Once at the exhibit, there was a mad dash to install and display everything in a timely and efficient manner. Everyone was running around, pushing a cart somewhere or lifting a tree onto something. It was pretty chaotic, but exciting as well. Installation took only a few hours, and then the following day the show was open to the public. During the duration of the exhibit, the apprentices went around twice a day, once at morning, once in late afternoon, to water trees and accent plants. Other than that, as long as someone was stationed at the vending booth, we were allowed to walk around and the enjoy the show. Although as an apprentice, you’re always “on call,” even during free-time.
To elaborate, about a month ago we took a few trees to Tokyo (about a four-hour drive from Aichi-en) to be judged for the recent Kokufu- ten Bonsai show that ended just a few days ago. Three apprentices went, including myself, and we stayed for a couple days as there was a lot of work to get done. On the last night, we were told that the following day was free time, and we could spend it it however we would like. Naturally, we all decided to sleep in a bit as this was a rare opportunity, but it’s never really a day off. Sure thing, my sempai got a phone call at around 8:30 am the next day from an even higher-up sempai who was angry because it turns out there was work to do after all, and we were late. There was no way we could have known this, but we were now in the red, and were told to run in the snow to get to work!
As I mentioned previously, we went to Tokyo with three van fulls of trees to be judged for acceptance into the Kokufu-ten show. Once the judging was complete, that’s when the actual work started. Each tree needed to be photographed for the exhibit book, so there was a team of roughly 10 different apprentices from different nurseries scurrying around loading trees onto carts and bringing them to the photography stand. Most of the bonsai professionals seemed pretty stressed out about which trees would make the show, and which would be awarded prizes. This tension and stress quickly passed on to the apprentices as well. It was a great experience and I’m happy I got to be apart of it, but it was very far from “fun.”
We then returned to Aichi-en for a few weeks of pine work before returning again to Tokyo, this time for the actual exhibition set-up. The show itself was held inside the Tokyo Museum of Art, which is conveniently situated in the famous Ueno Park. The gigantic sales area was held at a rental building a few minutes’ drive away. A crazy burst of 4-5 hours of work and the set-up is usually over for these types of shows, it seems. After sitting in the workshop everyday for months, it was really nice to be in the big city feeling stressed out and to have a little adrenaline going. In total I must have gone to Tokyo four or five times this past month. It was hard work, but really productive. Hopefully I’ll get to to go again next year.
There are two more bonsai exhibits in the near future that Aichi-en participates in. In between these two shows, we will be doing all we can to finish up pine work at the nursery before we have to start repotting. Evenings are certainly getting longer, and nights are not as cold. The trees are slowly starting to wake up. Last year, my Oyakata wanted to push everything one more year, so most things were not repotted. That means this year is going to be huge. We don’t really talk about it, but all of us at the nursery know that this is the quiet before the storm. In a few weeks time, we will have Aichi-en repotting, Daiju-en repotting, multiple customer repotting, and the remainder of customer niwaki work. There will not really be any slow time until late summer or fall, so I think none of us want to jinx it and talk about it. We’re just trying to enjoy the last few days of a quite cold winter.
Thanks for reading! More again next time.