Hello again family and friends! A lot has happened over the last two months – summer has nearly come and gone, and I’m very pleased to say that on July 4, I received my cultural studies visa and officially became a resident of Japan. It was a long and complicated process for a couple of different reasons. First off, there is no guarantee that customs will even grant you a visa. If the visa is granted, they will occasionally request that you leave the country temporarily while they screen you, or return to your home country before re-entering Japan. It seemed like an endless period of “hurry up and wait,” and all I could do was try my best not to go crazy from anxiety!
Once we had everything in order, The immigration office stalled us yet again, as this time they requested a different hanko than the one we had originally provided on my documents. A hanko is a personal, official seal (a high quality stamp) used instead of a signature. Individuals must possess many different hankos for a variety of uses – banking, buying a car, government documents, etc. Typically they are made of stone, but if you’re willing to shell out the big bucks, elephant tusk is available as well. Luckily, as a gaijin (outside person, non-Japanese) the whole hanko process does not really apply.
It was a great relief when we finally solved the immigration rubix cube. I will remember the day for a long time to come – my Oyakata (teacher), his eldest son, and I went to the immigration office during a typhoon! Shogonai (literal translation: “It cannot be helped.” I’ve heard this phrase more than a few times, and after a bit of research it seems to be slightly emblematic of the Japanese mindset. If something bad or out of your control happens it is best to move on rather than dwell on it. Complaining will not improve the situation and frankly, whining is a big no-no).
My official resident status doesn’t change my situation all that much, it simply means I am allowed to stay for one year and must renew after that. Well, I suppose there is one other difference, as my sempai playfully informed me – “If you do something bad now, they won’t deport you, they’ll just throw you in jail!”
As seems to happen every year, spring has passed before we could even enjoy it, and the summer heat (index of 120F) has set in. My colleagues and I did our best to keep our noses to the grindstone and were able to finish the marathon of maintenance that spring and early summer creates each year at Aichi-en. Our first task was to thin, defoliate, and cutback the trident and Japanese maples. We had 4-5 people working all day, every day for roughly two weeks in order to complete the first round of work.
This two-week session was the first time I really felt like I was experiencing an apprenticeship, and caught a glimpse of why doing one can be so productive for some people. The first three or four days I was working slowly, doing my best to make zero mistakes and trying to ensure perfect cuts every time. Then, after a few more days, I started to pick up more and more confidence and began working faster. I started to notice more clearly where buds were emerging on branches and which trees were denser, more vigorous, and which trees should perhaps be treated more gently. After a week or so, I noticed that I didn’t really have to think about which leaves to cut or where to prune back, my hands knew what to do on their own. It was super exciting because it was an actual moment in time where I realized that I am learning.
It is not always the easiest task to stay focused when the work is extremely repetitive or…not so glamorous (weeding, cleaning, spraying for pests etc..). Some days the weather is terrible, or you might be feeling poorly, but the trees do not care at all – they need to be worked. It is challenging at times, but pushing past that little sweet spot of difficulty is proving to be extremely beneficial.
After the maple work came the tosho work (Juniperus rigada). I know they are around in the States, but I personally had not seen many in the Washington, D.C. area. From what I understand, they were once very popular in Japan, with many tosho bonsai professionals in the Nagoya area. In the last couple decades they have fallen out of favor, but as you can imagine there are still a great many lurking around, and Aichi-en is no exception. This type of maintenance took a bit of practice to get used to, because with this type of tree one of the faster ways to prune is to use two hands – scissors in one, and tweezers in the other. The foliage is extremely sharp and stiff, so to use one’s hands is quite slow and painful. The process is made even slower by the fact that when healthy, these trees get extremely extremely dense, and it’s important to ensure that every bud gets addressed. Some of the larger trees took a couple of days to complete, but with a team of 4-5 people working every day, we were able to finish up the first round of maintenance in just a few weeks.
We then moved on to decandling the Japanese black pine trees (kuromatsu) and after that came shimpaku work (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii), cutting back of long shoots and thinning out old foliage for better airflow and so that sun can reach those inner branches. Everyone knows shimpaku – be it the East or West, it’s in all the books and magazines – but I am learning that it’s one thing to read it in a book, and it’s another thing to physically do it and watch what happens. It’s been super productive to be able to watch everyday closely to what is happening. How are certain trees responding differently? Which are growing faster? Which are not? It’s pretty amazing, and I’m still getting used to the fact that all I have to do is walk a few steps and I can check out any of the trees I’ve worked on in the past few weeks.
One of the big differences between a bonsai museum or display garden and a bonsai nursery like Aichi-en is the business side of things. While the goal at both places is to produce and maintain top quality trees, the reality is that at Aichi-en it must be done in a financially productive way. For example, If I buy a bargain tree because it’s in poor health, and then a spend a year bringing it back to good health and then another year to style it the way I want to, have I improved the trees financial value enough to make it worth my two years of effort? This type of thinking is still a little bit foreign to me, because back home I didn’t really care if a tree took five or even 10 years to develop properly, it was fun and I enjoyed the process. But the reality is that a bonsai nursery can’t really waste time on stuff like that if it’s not going to be financially worth the time, money and effort put into it. Perhaps it is similar to being a farmer, in that you have to be careful not to become too land rich and cash poor, otherwise you might go belly up!
One very serious way that any nursery is likely to sell a great deal of trees is attending auctions. There are approximately five auctions a month within roughly four hours of Aichi-en. They range in size and duration but usually it’s an eight hour ordeal, with anywhere from 30-75 people present. Sometimes it’s only bonsai professionals who can buy and sell, other times anyone is welcome, other times it’s an association ordeal and you must be a member to partake. We, the deshi (follower, apprentice), will usually go along to work the auction, load and unload trees and clean up afterwards. These are actual auctions as well, there is somebody upfront at all times shouting out numbers, and people shouting out bids and calling out their numbers. There is even a conveyor belt of sorts at each auction that the trees are loaded onto.
The deshi slowly push each tree up to the chopping block where the highest bidder wins, and then we quickly pick them up at the other side and drop them off to the corresponding bidders location. Sometimes only one apprentice will go, or if it’s raining and we don’t need to water that day, maybe everyone will go and work. Some of the more casual auctions will allow the apprentices to bid on trees, but you can guarantee that any time an apprentice does bid, it’s a bit like a movie scene where the record scratches and stops at a party. Everyone literally turns around and says “ehhh?” Usually a comment is made, there is light to heavy chuckling, and business resumes as normal. It’s super interesting to get to see and be a part of it, as it’s a bit like this constant swirling bonsai whirlpool. Trees go in, swirl around, they get sold to a different nursery for a few months and then turn up at a different auction with a slightly different pot and a branch or two removed.
Deep, wide & tall
One thing I am learning through visiting other nurseries and talking with other apprentices is that Aichi-en is a very large nursery, and quite diverse as to the stage of development that each tree is in. There are many “finished trees” that really only require light maintenance work most years, and there is completely rough stock that is waiting to be transformed. I thought I was familiar with most of the bonsai by this point, but I am routinely pleasantly surprised to learn of more and more trees! There is the main yard, the front yard of the house where we stay, around the block there is the the second field which Aichi-en Okaasan (my teacher’s mother) maintains, and then there are three additional fields a bit further away with trees growing completely freely to thicken up. In a nutshell, we learn how to break branches properly and do heavy bends as well as fine tweezer and scissor work on the more refined trees.
Another advantage to having so many different trees is that there are undoubtedly a number of bonsai that are safe to work even for new apprentices, like myself. Okaasan’s unofficial rule for the field she maintains is that as long as you improve the tree, you can do whatever you want. Naturally, we ask permission beforehand but literally there are hundreds of trees to choose from, and it’s a bit overwhelming!
If Oyakata is the boss here at Aichi-en, then Okaasan is the supreme boss. Several times I’ve been right in the middle of some bonsai work, and she will come out to the workshop and ask for a little help, and there is no arguing whatsoever with the supreme boss. The bonsai work can wait, the chandeliers in the kitchen need to be cleaned, now!
Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with a recap of my recent free time adventures. It was just Obon Festival here in Nagoya which is a time to celebrate the spirits of one’s ancestors. Many shops close up for a few days and things go a bit quiet. It is an acceptable time to relax and chill out for few days. Even the apprentices were given a couple days off this year too! I took the opportunity on one of the days off to ride my bike to the Ibi river about an hour and half away, and collect some suiseki, “landscape scene stones,” which you might know as “viewing stones.”
It rained and rained the entire bike ride there, and I couldn’t find an appropriate spot in the water to hunt for stones. I was soaking wet and pretty depressed that I had squandered a entire precious day off on a failed rock hunt. The day began to grow late, and I finally decided to head home, empty handed. As I rode, I got a bit lost and ended up under a bridge instead of over it like I was supposed to go. It just so happened that under the bridge was right next to the water, a perfect spot for collecting stones! As I plopped into the water and began kicking over rocks, almost at once the sun came out and birds began to chirp. I then spent about two hours tromping around the creek looking for interesting stones. It was an amazing day!