Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bonsai talk in Tokyo

During my trip to Japan I met an Italian bonsai enthusiast who was also interested in Japanese garden design. This time he visited some Japanese gardens off the beaten track, went to Nagoya to see Tokonoma bonsai pots and then visited Kokufu-ten. He said that Tokyo region is definitely the leading center of bonsai art in Japan. Masahiko Kimura is considered as No. 1 bonsai master, with Kunio Kobayashi close behind. However, he pointed out that a shohin master Tomohiro Masumi of Koju-en nursery, Kyoto stands out as one of the leaders in the area of small bonsai. He shared his experience of visiting the studio of one of the most revered Tokonoma bonsai pot makers. His name is Gyozan Nakano. The Italian gentleman actually witnessed the master potter working on one of the larger pots. He said that he makes them by coil building and than burnishes them with a wet brush. I am sure there is a lot more to it, but he was certain that he doesn’t use any press molds. He told me that Gyozan Nakano makes pots only to order. If someone orders a bonsai pot he makes three pots and sells the customer the best one among them. I also asked him about Salvatore Liporace who is coming to Sydney to demonstrate at the National Bonsai Convention this year. In his opinion Liporace is one of the best in Italy, however he also mentioned Othmar Auer a German speaking bonsai artist from Northern Italy. He also introduced me to the Secretary of the Unione Bonsaisti Italiani and some guy form the San Marino Bonsai Club (all three were staying in the same hotel as me). Below is the picture of shohin displays at Kokufu-ten.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tokyo National Museum

Yesterday I visited Tokyo National Museum, which was a strong finish for my trip to Japan. Once again I marvelled at the beauty and diversity of the collection. Below are some of the highlights in pictures.






Samurai armour and metal work

There were also wood-block prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro; exquisite old kimono, bunraku masks and lots more.

Bonsai on a dish

On the last day of my stay in Sawanoya Ryokan I noticed that the tokonoma in the dining area was displaying an Imari wear dish with a bonsai motif on it!

P. S. Later I learned that it is more likely to be a flower arrangement and quite a typical one.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Bunraku theater performance, Tokyo

Today I went to Kokufitsu Gekijo (National Theater of Japan, image above) to see a Bunraku performance. The name of the play was Daikyoji Mukashi Goyomi by Chikamatsu Mozaemon. I think, it is the bunraku play which features in Takeshi Kitano's film 'Dolls'. It is a very sad love story and some of people in the audience had tears in their eyes. The skill of the puppeteers was amazing, but the narrators were absolutely outstanding. Below are photographs of two scenes from the performance.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi, Shunka-en, Tokyo

Today I visited Shunka-en Bonsai Museum run by bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi. It was probably the most overwhelming and rewarding bonsai experience I had in Japan. I was met at the entrance by Valentin Brose, one of Mr. Kobayashi’s apprentices who gave me a very detailed tour of the entire museum in English. Valentin told me that Kunio Kobayashi and Masahiko Kimura are considered by many the top bonsai masters in Japan. The museum is absolutely superb. Elegant soan style building, magnificent bonsai, awe inspiring bonsai pots and very hospitable people. Valentin introduced me to Mr. Kobayashi and Peter Warren who studied under Mr. Kobayashi for 7 years. Mr. Kobayashi was positive about my idea of a pictorial English-Japanese Bonsai Dictionary and said that Peter would be the best person to partner up for this project. Valentin served me some tea while Mr. Kobayashi signed his book for me. Then Mr. Kobayashi played a DVD of a TV program featuring him, which was aired last week. After that, he invited me to join him, his other guests and apprentices for lunch. Among them was Masahiko Kimura’s apprentice Ryan Neil and an American yamadori collector whose name escapes me now. The conversation over lunch started with explaining the tokonoma display in the room and ended with discussing bonsai politics in Japan. Mr. Kobayashi told that bonsai art in Japan reached its peak 30 years ago when Saburo Kato was the Director of Nippon Bonsai Association. He maintained such high standard for Kokufu-ten exhibits, that in some years the winning prices were not awarded. At present, the prices for top of the range bonsai trees and antique bonsai pots are almost half of what it was 25 years ago. This caused considerable losses to the high end bonsai sellers. The standard of the bonsai exhibits at Kokufu Bonsai-ten has gone down noticeably over these years as well. In Mr. Kobayashi’s opinion, the forefront of bonsai art has shifted from Japan to Europe, particularly Italy.

The museum building includes a tea house with two tea rooms

Some of the magnificent trees in the front garden

The Museum features seven exquisite tokonoma displays

A dazzling variety of glazed bonsai pots

Some of the pots with impressive patina were imported from China in 16th century and are over 400 years old

Some of the bonsai stands made by famous craftsmen

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ginza Morimae, Tokyo

Ginza Morimae is a phenomena yet to happen in Australia. It is a slick and stylish bonsai shop located in upmarket shopping district of Ginza, Tokyo. Some of its nearby neighbors are Prada, Swatch, Ferragamo and Abercrombie & Fitch. The shop features a stylish display of mostly smaller bonsai, however it also had a couple of impressive larger bonsai. No bonsai enthusiast goes shopping there. It targets people not privy to bonsai art who are in a spending mode and up to an impulse buy.

Kabuki-za, Tokyo

Today I went to see a hitomakumi (single show) at Kabuki-za, the largest Kabuki theater in Japan (image above). The hitomakumi consisted of two short plays. The first one is a dance drama called Tsumeo (top image below) and the second is a drama called Shunkan (bottom image below). Splendid costumes, outstanding performances by actors, narrators, musicians and singers. You don’t have to know Kabuki well to enjoy it. It reminded me of classical Indian dance, ballet, theatric drama and opera at the same time.

Asakusa Kannon Temple, Tokyo

Yesterday, I spent the morning in Happo-en which is a beautiful Japanese garden (picture 1) with two fine tea houses and all other stuff you expect from a Japanese garden. Straw huts, stone lanterns, rock garden, wooden bridges, pond with koi-carp, bonsai, etc. In the afternoon I went to Sensoji (aka Asakusa Kannon Temple) the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo (built in 645 AD). The place is very crowded, but you can always find a quite spot (picture 2).

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bonsai old timers

The Ezo Spruce shown on picture1 was originally lifted as yamadori in the Kuril Islands, Russia, brought to Honshu, and trained as bonsai. This specimen is over 500 years old! The same goes for the Sargent’s Juniper (picture 2). It is over 500 years too! It was collected in Hokaido when this species still could be found in the wild. Wild Sargent’s Junipers are almost extinct in Japan. I saw these bonsai in a public garden.

My first Japanese Tea Ceremony

Yesterday. I saw a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It took place in a historic teahouse called Muan (picture 2). It was built in Edo period (about 130 years ago) by a wealthy silk merchant, and later moved to its present location in Happo-en garden. Muan is fashioned in a soan style (grass hut) with ceilings made of Japanese Cedar. I was the only guest and it was an informal Urasenke school tea ceremony. The tea master was skilful and her movements were more complex than what I’ve seen on videos (picture 1). The tea was usu-cha (thin tea) and it was good. They also gave me some sweets made of compressed icing sugar. The first cup was served in a Kiyomizu-yaki bowl (picture 3) and then it was followed by the second cup served in a Karatsu-yaki bowl (picture 4). When the tea master saw that I am interested in ceramics, she brought an Akaraku-yaki bowl to show me (picture 5).

Bonsai in everyday life

In Australia, bonsai is just one of those rare hobbies and people live their lives without ever seeing one. In Japan, bonsai is a part of the cultural heritage and you see it in everyday life. Here are some examples.

1. Bonsai in a temple.
2. Bonsai in a window of a noodle shop.
3. Bonsai in a public garden.
4. Bonsai in front of a house.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A trip to Kamakura

Yesterday I went to Kamakura and visited a some temples and a couple of museums. It was a very cold and windy day, but here are some of the highlights.

1. Engaku-ji – a Zen temple built during Mongolian invasions about 700 years ago.
2. Kencho-ji – the oldest Zen monastery in Japan, founded in 1253 by a Chinese Zen monk. It is ranked as number one Zen temple in Japan.
3. Tsurugaoka Hachimanu – the main Shinto shrine if Kamakura originally built in 1063. The shrine has a small museum with some historical treasures.
4. Kotoku-in – the Great Buddha statue (Daibutsu) built in 1252. Originally housed in a building which was blown away by wind twice.

My whole Kamakura program was delayed because I was asked by some elderly Japanese to have lunch with them in the temple. The rooms inside the traditional wooden building were absolutely gorgeous with exquisite paintings and calligraphy on sliding wall panels. In front of the building was a tea garden and lunch was served in a room used for tea ceremonies. The priest showed me a Hagi-yaki chawan they use for the ceremony and gave me a cha-bana book (flower arrangement for tea ceremony). The food was delicious made by the best bento maker in Yokohama. I was really humbled the kindness of these people. Here is the picture of a flower arrangement in one of the rooms.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bonsai Village, Omiya

Today I visited Bonsai-cho in Omiya-koen. It is a small town near Tokyo famous for its bonsai nurseries. I visited only five of them. Fuyo-en is an old school nursery with a lot of well-tended larger size trees. Kyuka-en is a bit ran down, but still has some nice trees. Seiko-en is very slick and stylish. They have some really impressive trees and they actually charge an entrance fee. Mansei-en has more space and specializes on larger trees or groups of trees. Some of them are very good. Bonsai master Saburo Kato was the 3rd generation owner of this nursery. Toju-en has some nice trees mostly largish pines. Bonsai master Masahiko Kimura studied at this nursery under Motosuke Hamano from 1955 to 1966. None of the nurseries allow taking photos, so my photo album from Omiya is very slim and unfortunately it’s all in the head.

P. S. For a more comprehensive coverage of bonsai nurseries in Omiya see the following posts:
Shoto-en -