Hello my tomodachi (friends), it has been some time! As you may remember, my name is Aaron Hughes and this past year I had the very special privilege of being a part of the team that cares for the collections at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum (that’s me to the left, in case you forgot). It was an awesome experience that I will never forget, but the time came for me to move on to other things. Today, I am writing to you from Nagoya, Japan, where I am very excited to say that I have been accepted as an apprentice at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery under the care and guidance of 4th generation Bonsai Professional, Mr. Junichiro Tanaka! I will be writing about my experiences as a deshi (pupil, apprentice, follower) on a bi-monthly basis in an attempt to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and share my experiences living in Japan, working as a Bonsai Apprentice.
Before I jump into things, I would like to briefly talk about my intentions in these writings: There are great bonsai all around the world, but since my start in this art form, I thought studying in Japan would be a very fruitful life and work experience. I remember scouring the internet looking for nursery webpages, programs, or schools if they even existed. Eventually I came across many great resources that cover the “how-to” side of things. When and how to decandle a Kuromatsu (pinus thunbergii), or the best way to prune a Momiji (acer palmatum) etc. But I found it pretty difficult to find any reliable information on what life was really like. What about the other stuff? The day-to-day grind? Obligations around the house? Where and how does the apprentice fall in line with regards to the family structure? Is it at all similar to the American Bonsai experience? What SPECIFICALLY is a bonsai apprentice doing from day to day? These are some of things that I was, and still am, very curious about in addition to the “how to” side of things.
At this moment in time, I am currently waiting for my Japanese Cultural Studies Visa to arrive, and then I will be 100% legit! In other words, I have passed the “initiation” process and I have literally just started my apprenticeship. I hope to chronicle my entire experience in written and visual form, so please follow along with me as I begin my adventures in Japan.
I’ve heard it said that, second to divorce, moving is one of the most stressful things one can do in life. Looking back on it, I suppose it’s not so bad, but for whatever reason I had a miscommunication with my dentist, and I scheduled a complete wisdom teeth removal a few days before my flight. I was extremely nervous post-surgery, but luckily there weren’t any major problems–except that we don’t eat a lot of room temperature food here. In Japan, it’s either HOT or COLD, we eat EVERYTHING, and we eat it FAST (never have I ever seen people eat faster than here in Japan). When you’re recently short four teeth, you really start to wish you had planned better when apprentice meal time rolls around.
Teeth shenanigans aside, I made it to Japan safe and sound to a full and robust nursery of trees and people. Altogether there were nine of us under one roof for roughly a month. Present were Oyakata (mentor, teacher, master– Oya=parent kata=denotes someone in charge) and his family who live upstairs, former apprentices Danny Coffey and Juan Andrade, current apprentice Martin Diaz, and myself, who all stay downstairs while at Aichi-en. There are also two other people that work at the nursery, but they both live with their respective families here in Nagoya.
Each nursery does things a little bit differently– some rent apartments off-site for apprentices, some might have a special room in the workshop as living quarters, but at Aichi-en we live with our Oyakata. We eat at his kitchen table, we use his shower, we sleep in his house. It’s a pretty unique scenario and hard to imagine doing in the U.S., but it’s a tried and true method here, and so far so good.
As far as the trees are concerned, the quality and quantity here are still completely overwhelming. The front yard of the house is the main portion of the nursery where over 1000 trees sit quietly waiting to be worked on. There is also a second yard around the block with another 1000 trees, and a third field I haven’t seen yet. All we have to do each morning is walk out the front door, and work begins! About 70 percent of the trees are closer to the “finished” or the refinement stage of their growth, while the rest are still in the rough stages, waiting to be seriously worked. There are trees so small, they can be held with two fingers, and trees so big that they take eight people to move. If you were to throw a stone at Aichi-en, you’d definitely hit a Kuromatsu (Pinus thunbergii) followed by a Kaede (Acer buergeranium), but I’ve come across everything from a Bugenbiria (Bouganvillea) to a Juniperus californica grafted with Shimpaku (Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii) foliage.
When I bought a plane ticket for late April I thought I knew exactly what to expect given that Nagoya and Washington, D.C. have almost the exact same climate, but it actually turned out to be a very interesting time to arrive. Repotting work had been completed for the most part, and we were told to give the deciduous trees more time before we started pruning them. There was also the World Bonsai Convention in the very near future, so we were waiting for a little more time to pass before we began any consistent work.
To put it simply, for the first three weeks or so I had no idea what I was suppose to be doing and no one would really tell me. To quote one of my sempai (senior apprentice), “It’s not really Japanese style to tell you how or what to do. Observe, and learn.” At this point my sempais had personal trees to work on or were entrusted to complete very specific tasks by our Oyakata, but I was brand new. No one trusted me yet, or really knew who or what I was. When work time rolled around for the first few weeks I was often times told to do “something,” and that was the extent of my instruction. I quit my life in the U.S. and moved to Japan to study bonsai, and I have absolutely no clue what I am supposed to be doing, but my future depends on it. This strange feeling paired with not yet being able to understand Japanese, honestly made me wonder if I had died on the plane ride and was now in purgatory awaiting judgement.
Lo and behold, this is when my training at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum kicked in. When there’s nothing to do, there’s always weeding, and that’s precisely what I did. The first month of my time was primarily spent weeding, cleaning, and my personal favorite, stacking pots. There are pots under trees, on top of trees, in the closets, in the kitchen, in my room, however many trees there are at Aichi-en, there are 10 times more pots, and to quote my sempai, “If you drop that one, you’re going home, today.”
Much like my time at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, each day here starts and ends with a pretty consistent routine – get up around 5:45am, sweep the nursery path, make the coffee, and tend to the dogs. Breakfast is at 6:30am, and after that the day begins. Generally we are told the big picture plan for what the workload is, but the specifics are a bit of a mystery. In other words, we never really know what’s in store for the majority of the day until we are in the moment. Sometimes the whole crew will go off to a client’s house to weed for the day. Maybe we will all be staying at the nursery but only half of us will be doing bonsai work, the other half will be scrubbing floors and washing windows. Maybe it’s a day off, or maybe we’re going to an auction to work all day. We usually find out the morning of. If we are working at the nursery that day, all of the wakaishu (shop boy, servant, lad) take lunch at around noon, and a little tea break at around 3:00pm, sponsored by Grandma. Depending on the weather, we usually close out the day with a check for water, and then cruise into dinner around 7:00pm. After that we have a chance to work on our own personal project trees or finish up something from earlier in the day. We also have a chance to take care of any personal business before sleep (errands, phone calls, etc).
Speaking more holistically about my time in Japan, the first major thing I’ve noticed is that time moves differently here. Perhaps it is partly due to the fact that everything is pre-decided for the apprentices. When and what we eat, where we sleep, when we get up in the morning, what we’re going to do that day. It doesn’t really matter that it happens to be Friday night because we work everyday, nor does it matter that the clock says lunch time, because we eat when we’re told that lunch is ready. As pleasurable as it is, bonsai work is often times very repetitive, and you can really get lost when you take away any and all distractions. It’s a very surreal feeling, like living a week everyday, but after a month, only a moment has passed! That’s it for now, more next time …