Hello again, friends and family! I am pleased to be writing to you today from my home town of Arlington, Virginia, where I spent the winter holidays. An hour-long train ride, a connecting flight in Tokyo, and 12 hours in the sky brought me safely to the Washington, D.C. area. Yes, even the apprentices are granted a vacation about once a year. Traditionally, one day off is granted for every month worked, so at this stage I would have accrued 8 days vacation time. My Oyakata was very kind and understanding about the fact that Aichi-en is a long way from home, so I was given a few more days to spend with my family and friends.
To quickly recap the last couple of months: work at Aichi-en has really started to pick up, and there is almost never enough time in the day to get all the work done. We are still going strong on customer Niwaki work, (Japanese Black Pine garden trees), pulling old needles, and thinning crowded areas. When we are not at customer houses we are tending to the pine bonsai at Aichi-en. We have also recently had the Taikan-Ten Bonsai Exhibit in Kyoto and the Gomangoku Exhibit hosted by Daiju-en Bonsai Nursery in Okazaki.
It has also finally started to get cold here, with occasional freezing temperatures at night. There is also far less sunlight during the day, and most deciduous trees have totally dropped their leaves. Because of this, we have made a temporary switch to deciduous bonsai work. All deciduous trees get brought into the workshop, where we fully remove any old leaves that are still clinging on and cut back to shape. Additionally, we will prune back to improve branch taper or cut any areas that are growing too strong. After the deciduous work, it’s back to finishing pine work followed by a few more exhibitions, and then hopefully we can cruise into repotting season in the early spring.
Reverse Culture Shock
As I sit here writing today I must say, what a strange feeling it is to be back in my home country with so many choices as to how I will spend my time. I am also finding myself feeling guilty for not working, and have a constant nervous feeling that I may be doing something wrong (I slept in, I wore my shoes in the house, I forgot to feed the dogs, I didn’t check for water after lunch, etc). I have not been away from the US for very long, but I was really starting to settle in to the way my life is in Japan. I’m sure I will normalize after a couple days, but currently everything is pretty intense, and American social interactions are very nerve-wracking for me.
I have only been away from Aichi-en for a few days, but it’s amazing what a shift in perspective I am having. There is not a lot of time alone at the nursery. If you are in the workshop there are sure to be multiple people with you unless it’s early morning or late at night. The only time we are in the house is at meal time or after the work day is over, so there really isn’t time to step back and reflect on your experience. It’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just the reality and it’s what I’m used to.
I have never found myself disliking living at Aichi-en– some days are harder, some easier, but now I simply can’t believe how amazing this experience really is. It’s really awesome how much and how fast you learn when you work everyday, all day. I really didn’t realize at the time but the last few months have been jam-packed with great experiences like exhibition setup, helping out at different bonsai nurseries around town, and finally getting a chance to spend some serious time styling established trees.
One specific experience that I learned a lot from happened about a month ago, when I started working on a very large Goyomatsu (Pinus parviflora) at the nursery. Removing dead branches, and pulling yellow and old needles that would otherwise fall off in the months to come. Last year this tree took 3 people 3 full days to complete, but for whatever reason the other apprentices were busy with their own work so I handled this one on my own this year. Usually we bring trees into the workshop to have them on a turntable and so we can work at night time, but this tree was pretty big so I left it outside. Once darkness fell, I would usually bring a smaller tree into the workshop to keep me busy until dinner time.
After about 2 weeks, I was roughly 80% done with the tree. Early one morning I was trying to quickly finish the small tree I had started the night before so I didn’t have multiple projects going at the same time. My Oyakata saw me working the smaller tree in the workshop and he casually turned to me and said “Oh, is the big White Pine finished?” It was a nice sting to my ego, and I was embarrassed that the tree was taking me so long. It was a good lesson that I need to either try harder and put in more hours, or learn to work faster because I was taking too long.
Eventually I finished pulling needles and cleaning up the tree, and I was eager to finish strong and get the tree really looking nice. As I was working I noticed there were many old stubs and dead branches that had not been jinned yet. I’ve done jin work several times before at the behest of my teacher, so I figured he was comfortable with me doing that type of work on this specific tree. Therefore, I took the liberty of spending many hours jinning every branch that was appropriate.
Once I had finally finished that stage of work, Oyakata looked at the tree very calmly and quietly for a couple minutes and then told me to cut off every jin and dead branch, he said I didn’t need them. He explained to me that the tree, while very old, was too perfect to have any jinned branches-A beautiful rounded crown, textbook branch structure, full lush dense foliage. This was not a beaten and battered tree that was struggling to survive nature, it was a regal and stunning Japanese White Pine tree that looked flawless. Jinned branches all over the place didn’t feel right, and they ended up detracting from the tree’s beauty. I understood after he explained this to me, but what I don’t get is that he saw me making these jinned branches from the start. He knew I was spending all these hours, when really he just wanted those branches removed clean off. Maybe he let me continue working so I could get the practice? Or was it simply because I didn’t ask in the first place? I’m not exactly sure, but I took a lot away from that experience and how he responded to my actions.
Another experience came when my sempai and I went to go help Daiju-en Bonsai Nursery for the day. We were to help secure bonsai to their benches and remove trees from high pedestals in preparation for a typhoon that was set to come the next day. Ordinarily, this type of work is no problem. Some heavy lifting, tying down trees to benches, and that’s it. But the typhoon came a day early, so we were out there in heavy rains and strong winds trying to carry trees around the garden and safely put them under benches or on the ground away from dangerous winds.
Space is a little tight at many bonsai gardens in Japan, and some people opt to build very tall display benches as a way to maximize space. Some of the trees were so high up at one of the customers houses, that I was the only one who could reach to get them down. It was by far the most intense day of my apprenticeship, reaching over my head as high as I could to try and lift trees down off benches during a typhoon. These were not tiny trees either. Any heavier and I seriously doubt if I could have safely lifted them on my own. In addition, this customer lived in the mountains, so the garden was on the edge of a huge hill. If you slipped and fell down the steep hill you wouldnt die, but you would get seriously banged up. I definitely learned a lot about follow-through and the importance of doing things right the first time, even in unpleasant circumstances.
The last example I’ll give comes from the first “real” tree that Oyakata assigned to me. He gave me an amazing Japanese Black Pine tree that I was suppose to wire and style, but I was only allowed to work on it after dinner. During the day we do nursery work. Most likely it is maintenance that simply has to get done to all the trees. After dinner we have more freedom to choose what we want to work on. At this point of my apprenticeship, my skill is not good enough that I can spend the official work day wiring and styling trees, so Oyakata said I can practice at night, and if I improve, I can style trees during the day as well.
I still don’t really know why he gave me this particular tree to style, because it was above my skill level and he knew that (my sempai later told me it was a test). It was an extremely stressful process. It felt like I was back in school trying to write an essay on a book that I hadn’t read. I wanted to do the tree justice, but more than that I wanted to honor my teacher’s trust in me to handle the job, but my skill and experiences level just weren’t at a place where I could quickly and beautifully style this high-quality tree.
I had a lot of mental dialogue with myself during this few-week process. Somehow, little by little, night by night, I was able to finish the tree, but it was very psychologically painful for me. After some time has passed, I’ve realized that through this difficult experience I learned an incredible amount. What is the angle at which each branch emerges from the trunk? What needs to be lowered, what does not? What is the branch structure like? Is it chaotic and twisted into a mess, or is there a clean uniformity where each needle is getting sunlight? How is the wire applied? How far apart is it twisted? How is it finished? These are just a few examples of the types of questions that are becoming instinctive, and it’s really exciting to sense improvement.
After I finished the tree, the next step was to have my two sempai review and critique my work, which was super helpful and really hammered into my brain the importance of wiring simply and beautifully. After my sempai made their adjustments, I showed the tree to Oyakata to receive my final critique. It was little bit nerve-wracking, but it turned out to be quite painless. He sat directly in front of the tree for a few minutes, rotated it, and then took about 20 minutes to make adjustments. Cut a few branches, removed some guy wire, rearranged the apex a bit, and then turned to me and said, “okay.” At the fear of receiving a poor grade, I was too shy to ask him how I did on the tree, so instead I asked if I was still allowed to return to Aichi-en after my vacation. I was absolutely thrilled and wave of relief came over me when he smiled and said, “yes, you may.”
Thanks for reading! Until next time . . .