My latest voyage of discovery with Odigo led me into the fascinating and complex Japanese art of creating ancient forests less than a metre high, known to the world as "bonsai." Before setting out on this journey, all I knew about bonsai was that they were trees grown in pots, beautiful but slightly surreal. After visiting several bonsai nurseries, an exhibition, and a couple of museums, it was clear that bonsai have about as much in common with everyday potted plants as an antique kimono does with the polyester items on sale in souvenir emporia. Even so, I have only just begun to scratch the surface of bonsai culture...
If you want to grasp the basics in just one day, as well as seeing many beautiful trees, having a go at tending to them, and possibly even buying one, then the Saitama bonsai village is definitely the place to go.
Set up by a group of Tokyo bonsai growers in what was then the countryside after the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake nearly a century ago, there are six bonsai nurseries and a museum within easy walking distance of each other. Although the area is now considerably more built-up than at the time the bonsai village was established, it remains a pleasant, leafy suburb of Omiya. Moreover, it makes for a very reasonable day out, since all of the nurseries are free to enter.
Your first stop should definitely be the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, which has a great overview of the different techniques, styles, and history of this Japanese horticultural art form. Labels are in English, even the temporary or seasonal exhibitions. I found the three different styles of tea-room, with their different levels of formality and each with their appropriate tree on display, particularly interesting: this is a concept which runs throughout Japanese aesthetics, including the Japanese calligraphy that I had studied, and so it is helpful for appreciating what you see while in the country.
As for the trees, there are, of course, plenty on display. Inside the building is a rotating exhibition of trees from a local bonsai nursery. One of the interesting things to note here is how bonsai are displayed indoors: usually a larger tree accompanied by a smaller, complementary object such as a rock or a small pot of grasses and moss. In formal settings, these would be accompanied by a hanging scroll. The permanent collection of trees is outside in the courtyard. Many of these are very old, and several even have their own names, as befitting for works of art. Photographs are permitted only in the area surrounded by a brushwood fence but, since most of the nurseries do not allow photos at all, this is the place to take pictures if you want to do so!
This museum is a real bargain at 300 yen. It sells some good, and reasonably-priced, booklets about bonsai, as well as some original souvenirs. It is popular with visitors, so the best time to come is first thing in the morning. The staff are very friendly, and can speak some English.
The most important piece of bonsai-viewing advice they gave me was to crouch down and look at each tree from below, as though you were looking up at a fully-grown tree. It genuinely does give a different sense of perspective.
At the museum, pick up a copy of the “Bonsai village map”, and then wander through the tree-lined streets and explore the bonsai nurseries in the area. All six of them are open to visitors, and sell bonsai, as well as related equipment. However, they each have quite distinctive characteristics. Seiko-en and Fuyo-en have the most beautiful, tranquil settings, with rows of trees displayed in shady gardens. Fuyo-en specialises in deciduous trees, and if you are lucky, you may come across the staff pruning the leaves by hand, or plucking weeds out of the moss with tweezers. Bonsai is certainly not an art for those who want speedy results.
Seiko-en offers regular bonsai classes, though staff recommend that you come with a Japanese-speaking friend or interpreter. If you want to try your hand at bonsai in English, the most approachable place is Toju-en, where one of the long-time students, who lived and worked overseas for years, will be glad to teach you. Mansei-en also has English-speaking staff, a pretty little shrine in a corner, and a proudly-displayed newspaper clipping showing the owner together with the Clintons during their official visit to Japan. Shoto-en is by far the smallest nursery, really just a house with a tiny garden, but sells very reasonably-priced trees, as well as small pots made by the owner, and intriguing metal ornaments for decorating small bonsai.
My personal favourite was Kyuka-en. The garden is not as beautifully kept as some of the others, but it contains some extremely venerable trees, including those belonging to the Prime Minister and to the Imperial Household (all the nurseries look after trees belonging to private owners, as well as growing their own). Moreover, the owner is extremely friendly and welcoming, treating visitors like friends. She showed me round the garden in person, offered me rice crackers, and asked me to sign her visitors’ book which, she said, was her “treasure”. Although Kyuka-en, like all the other nurseries, is officially closed on Thursdays, she even offered that anyone who turned up on that day could ring her bell and she would let them in…
The friendly owner of Kyuka-en -- Photo by Emma Parker
There are other things on offer in the area besides bonsai: if you are interested in manga, you should not miss the Cartoon Art Museum, where you can see the atelier of Japan’s first professional cartoonist, Rakuten Kitazawa, as well as a display of works by him and other artists. Keep an eye out for the black pony in the garden opposite… And if a morning’s wandering has given you an appetite, a great place for lunch is Cafe Fukumaru, popular with both locals and tourists. It has several lunch sets, including the healthy and delicious salad bowl with a bagel and a small cake, but can get quite crowded, so the best times to go are either before 12:00 or after 13:30.
If you want to take home a souvenir other than bonsai, there are a couple of interesting options nearby. Sarufu antiques shop has everything from bric-a-brac to works of art by Living National Treasures in its cavernous interior, with a range of prices to match, but all good value. I picked up some pretty Japanese dolls here. Tsukurie gift shop, on the other hand, specialises in personally-selected modern interpretations of Japanese craft, some by local artists.
Of course, Saitama is not the only place where you can find bonsai. Shunka-en, a bonsai nursery in eastern Tokyo, is another interesting destination to experience these miniature trees. The peaceful garden is filled with bonsai of all sizes and varieties, as well as a pond of lazily swimming carp, and a small lodge with a full-sized tree growing right through the interior. There are relatively few visitors to disturb the tranquility. Shunka-en is billed as a museum, but you will not find comprehensive explanations here to compare with those in the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum. Rather, the charm of this place is the seemingly never-ending succession of tatami-mat rooms along a winding corridor, each with a beautifully displayed bonsai. The tea room in one protruding corner, entered through a low doorway, was my favourite because of its atmosphere and the garden view from its latticed window. The majority of visitors to Shunka-en come from overseas, and there are opportunities to try your hand at bonsai with English instruction, as well as to sample tea ceremony in one of the tea rooms, with the option of wearing a kimono.
There are also several exhibitions and fairs in the Kanto area, bringing together trees from several different nurseries and individual enthusiasts. One of the largest is the annual bonsai festival and market held in the Saitama bonsai village during the latter half of Golden Week, at the beginning of May. The normally sleepy streets of this residential area are suddenly filled with thousands of visitors, in search of bonsai bargains and a glimpse of some famous trees. However, there are also several other events; the best places to find out about these are at the bonsai museums and nurseries.
Wisteria and hanging screen inside Shunka-en -- Photo by Emma Parker
I returned home from my explorations with a much greater appreciation of the wide variety of bonsai and their different techniques. However, my journey of discovery was not quite over. When I mentioned to one of the bonsai growers in Saitama that I lived in Itoigawa, he told me “That’s the home of shimpaku [Japanese juniper, one of the principal varieties of bonsai]!” Intrigued to find out more, I asked around and learned that one of my neighbours is a professional shimpaku grower. When I paid him a visit, he explained to me that Itoigawa shimpaku, from nearby Mount Myojo, are renowned among bonsai-lovers worldwide for the colour and fine texture of their needles. In his nursery is a tree that he told me was “about a thousand years old”... Surprised that the art of bonsai was practiced so long ago, I enquired further, and learned that these are not artificial bonsai, but rather trees which have grown in such harsh conditions on windy cliff faces that the twisting and stunting occur naturally. Harvesting these trees, however, is no mean feat, and many people are known to have died in the attempt. Now, of course, there are few such natural bonsai left; most shimpaku are grown by hand. Nevertheless, learning that the inspiration for bonsai came from the natural landscape surrounding my home made the trees seem more approachable, and bonsai culture even more complex and nuanced.
Whether you are a keen gardener, or simply interested in everything Japanese, including a bonsai experience during your visit to Japan is a great way to understand more about the country’s art and culture, as well as to discover tranquil spaces even in the busy city. As the friendly owner of Kyuka-en told me, seeing the great strength and vitality which these tiny trees possess is a source of energy. And one of the joys of these living works of art is that they change from day to day, so that your experience of them will necessarily be different from mine. It could even be the start of a new journey.
Did you enjoy reading about Emma's bonsai experience? Feel free to download her trip below!