Handling the Hierarchy

Hello all, greetings once again from Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya, Japan! Like many of you are as well, we are currently in full swing of repotting season, going on nearly two months now of what seems likes constant soil making, pot scrubbing, and root combing. It’s impossible to keep anything clean. There is akadama soil in all of my shoes, most of my pockets, I even found a few pebbles in my futon sheets the other day.

1. Sempai home

Handling the Hierarchy
As the busyness of springtime is upon us, I am starting to get a fuller and more vibrant taste of the hierarchy of Japanese Society. I have just hit my one-year mark here at Aichi-en, but I am still the most junior apprentice by a significant amount. In addition to my teacher, there are many sempai above me, who essentially function as my boss as well. If I don’t do what they say in regards to work, then I am failing to do my job successfully. Although, it starts to get tricky when you’re working with 5-6 other people who are all above you telling you to do different things at the same time. From my perspective, the elephant in the room is that this really isn’t possible sometimes, but no one really seems to acknowledges this point. If there’s more work to get done, then you should go faster!

A specific time that comes to mind is going to help at a Daiju-en customer’s place (a beautiful temple in the mountains). There were around 10 of us working for a two-day stretch to get a gigantic number of trees repotted for a temple that routinely displays bonsai at their locale. The team included my Oyakata, my Oyakata’s Oyakata (Mr. Suzuki of Daiju-en), and the rest were a mix of Daiju-en and Aichi-en Sempai. There were about 5 or so repotting stations set up for those more experienced. Myself and the lower apprentices were primarily there to wash pots, prepare new wire and mesh screens, and make soil, etc. It was a tumultuous time to say the least. One minute there would be nothing to do, and the next I would have 6 pots to scrub clean and prepare all at at the same time, and there is always a rank and an order of operation. I would start cleaning one pot, and then somebody would come over and say, “This one is for a higher sempai, do it first.” Needless to say, the sudden spikes in the workload caused me to get backed up at different times throughout the day. I knew I had to go faster when somebody shouted one of three things over at me: 1. “Mada awotte inai?” (You’re not finished yet?) 2. “Aaron, Hayaku!” (faster), or the most painful was probably when somebody would walk over and take the pot from me and say “Eee- oh” (thats ok), meaning, “I’ll do it myself, because you’re going too slow.”

2.Sempai home

Another tricky scenario that often arises when working with many different sempai is that often two or three people will tell you to do the same thing, but they’ll instruct you differently and expect different results. For example, whenever the  team finished repotting a deciduous tree, we would apply a layer of sphagnum moss to help maintain a consistent moisture level as well as keep the soil intact and tidy until new roots have had a chance to grow. At many different points a sempai would tell me to finish a tree and apply moss and water. Midway through another person would walk past and say, “No no no, not that tree, take off the moss” or, “You’re doing it wrong, do it this way.” From the amount of moss, to how I prepared the actual pots, to where I placed the finished trees on the benchers, etc.. Maybe back in the States I would talk back a little in this type of situation. Not necessarily respond with a bad attitude, but I would probably stand my ground as to how I was previously instructed to do something. That type of behavior completely doesn’t work as an apprentice. The appropriate response is “hai, or wakarimashita.. yes, I have understood.”  It was a pretty stressful two days, and it made me realize, I can do hard manual labor all day long and be completely fine at the end of the day. On the other hand, doing easy work in a high stress environment will have me falling asleep within five minutes on the car ride home.

3. Sempai nursery

Shikoku Adventures
Recently my Oyakata, sempai, and I took a day trip down to the island of Shikoku, about 4 1/2 hours south of Nagoya, to pick up a Japanese Black Pine tree from an exceptional grower in Takamatsu City. In classic apprentice style, we were told the night before at 11:00pm to be ready to go the next morning at 4:00am. This meant that I got up at 3:20am to make coffee, feed the dogs etc. But once 4:00 am hit, sure enough we were off! Long distance drives have become something I really look forward to. As a tall pale foreigner with a pointy nose and no hair, I often feel Japanese eyes watching me. I look quite different. I cannot blame people for being curious, but sometimes the feeling of being looked at like a 3-legged dog is very draining and distracting.  But on long car rides I can just sit and think as I normally would.

4. Sempai nursery

Before picking up our tree, we stopped off at my teachers sempai’s house and nursery to say hello and browse his recent bonsai projects. We looked around for about 45 minutes and then all sat down for some tea. Whether you feel like it or not, tea and snacks are always prepared for you, and whenever somebody arranges to visit Aichi-en we provide tea and snacks. The funny thing is no one (aside from apprentices) really seems like they want to consume this food. Rarely do people drink the tea, or eat the snacks offered, but everyone seems to feel a sense of compulsion to offer it.

Four cups of tea, two packs of chocolate and a bundt cake later, we went back outside to view some more bonsai. While working with many sempai may be a tad stressful at times, when the heat is off, they always take care of you. The moment we stood up and said our departing remarks, my teacher’s sempai gave me and my Aichi-en sempai a brand new pair of beautiful stainless steel scissors. (My first 14-piece tool set was less than 1/2 the price of this one pair of scissors!) After that, my teacher ended up buying a small little Japanese White pine tree from him. It did not really seem like my teachers style, and the timing was a little strange to buy such a tree. Was he repaying the favor for the gifted scissors? Or do I just not know my teacher preference? I’ve seen other bonsai professionals do this at times as well. Almost like a compulsory polite purchase. It’s always right around the few hundred dollar mark, nothing too expensive but enough to hand over a few bills. Upon further discussion, it seems there’s sort of an unofficial collective mentality among many professionals to “keep the money flowing,”– a “what goes around comes around” type of thinking.

5. Sempai nursery

After we loaded up my teacher’s new white pine, we went to our host’s second bonsai nursery a little ways into the mountains. The Shikoku area is prime pine territory, as it sits right on the coast, but the mountains are not far at all. For this reason it was mostly a white and black pine nursery, although there was the odd deciduous and coniferous tree as well. After we had a good look around, we all went out for udon and sushi (the highest sempai always pays) and then resumed on our journey to the Takamatsu area.

The Takamatsu region of Japan is very famous for bonsai. There are about 50 different bonsai nurseries all across the street from one another. Although in recent years some of these nurseries have begun to focus on cultivating and selling garden trees, because the market is a bit wider and capable of yielding a larger profit, faster. Yet there remain a vast  number of garden nurseries devoted to trees in pots.

6. Bonsai field

My teacher had previously arranged to purchase the tree that we had come for, so the nursery owner conveniently had it balled and burlapped waiting in the parking lot for us. It was so large he had to use excavating equipment to dig it up from the ground and load onto a hydraulic cart. Four of us working together could barely push it from the cart to the bed of the pickup truck.

7. Retreiving Black Pine

Once we had everything loaded up we sat down for a tea break with the nursery owner, and then made our return back to Nagoya. The next day we got to work preparing the tree for its first pot. We did our best to remove as much heavy field soil as we safely could, but we did not cut any roots. Enough had already been removed from the process of being dug up from the ground. The soil mix we use for pines in this type of situation is 100% river sand, as sand will not break down so easily, drains wonderfully, and allows for good aeration. The downsides are that it’s not cheap, it’s extremely heavy, and because it drains so well, it dries faster than a soil with organic components. For this reason, more frequent watering is required.

8. Repotting Black Pine

We finished it off with a layer of sphagnum moss and then gave the tree a big drink of water. My teacher then immediately proceeded to remove old needles and cut any superfluous buds and branches. For one thing the tree needed to be cut back, but more importantly, “many needles require many roots,” and this tree lost a lot of roots being dug out of the ground, yet the entire tree was still so densely packed with foliage. To aid this imbalance, he chose to cut the tree as soon as possible in an effort to minimize the amount of stress on the tree.

9. Finished Black Pine

That’s all for now, back to more repotting. Thanks for reading, Happy Spring!


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  1. John Tilley /

    What a lovely and well written article. it really made me feel as though i was there, digging my fingers into the dirt. thank you.

  2. Mrockwell /

    Very interesting post! We stateside bonsai enthusiasts always wonder how it “really works” in Japan…Pictures are spectacular too.

  3. Marsha /

    Thank you for taking time to write your article. I am a beginner bonsai enthusiast and am in a geographically similar area (near mtns on lower eleveations, high humidity-no ocean breezes, alas) and am most interested right now in tackling the conifers so this article was very useful to me.

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