Friday, September 28, 2012

Bonsai-A and Bonsai-B by Takanori Aiba

A colleague of mine who is studying graphic design drew my attention to the work of Takanori Aiba. He is a 59-year-old Japanese concept maker and art director for architectural spaces. Since 2003, Aiba used his skills as an illustrator and an architect to create miniature three dimensional fantasy city-scapes. His work is fascinating (see it for yourself at:, but what impressed me the most is his Bonsai Series. Apparently, Aiba used to play with bonsai as a child and he created the Bonsai Series to reconnect with one of his original inspirations to create miniature worlds. To me, Takanori Aiba’s Bonsai Series is the most innovative approach to bonsai. However, I will let you be the judge. The images below are reproduced with the permission of Tokyo Good Idea Development Institute.

Images above: Bonsai-B (42 × 37 × 48 cm) and the concept drawing.

Images above: Bonsai-A (40 × 30 × 40 cm) and the concept drawing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

7th International Symposium of Japanese Gardens: The garden tour

At the beginning of this month, Sydney hosted 7th International Symposium of Japanese Gardens organised by the International Association of Japanese Gardens. I could not attend the Symposium, but managed to go on a private garden tour, which was a part of the symposium. I hoped to see some interesting gardens, but meeting Japanese landscapers and garden designers who were on the tour turned out to be much more interesting. The most senior gardener in the Japanese group was Mr Iwatani. I was told that he is 75 and everyone treated him like a sensei. The talk he presented at the symposium was titled “Tea Ceremony in 21st Century”. It would have been the talk I wouldn’t miss. He also conducted a practical workshop on pruning trees and inaugurated the future tea garden (roja) within Gosford Japanese Garden (for a blog post about this garden see: Our tour guide was Ken Lamb, a local landscaper who specialises in oriental gardens. On the bus, I was lucky to sit next to Mr Takuhiro Yamada. He is the director of a 150-year-old landscaping business in Kyoto. He manages the company with his father and their clients include some of the major temples as well as the Imperial Household Agency. His talk at the symposium was titled “Japanese Gardens in the 21st Century”. As we talked, Mr Yamada used his symposium presentation to illustrate his points and I got a fairly good idea about its content. 

Soon our bus pulled over to the Auburn Japanese Gardens car park. This garden is relatively old (opened in 1977) and large (9.2 ha). It offers panoramic views around its big lake (see images above), at the same time it is tacky and unrefined. To fix that it needs two things: expertise (perhaps a reputable Japanese garden consultancy) and substantial funding. This garden could become the jewel in Sydney’s crown. It could outshine the Chinese Gardens in Darling Harbour, but as they say ‘it ain’t gonna happen’. It seems that the local government doesn’t share this vision, doesn’t have the skills in obtaining funding and engaging the right expertise. We should remember that Chinese Garden in Darling Harbour had become what it is only after Chinese experts got involved and now it is one of Sydney’s major landmarks.

Our next destination was a private residence garden in Bondi (images above). It was a small garden designed by Ken Lamb. The garden had more of a South-east Asian feel to it. In my opinion, its designer used too many oriental elements to impress the client and forgot about the ‘less is more’ principal. Grater amount of negative space would have made this small garden look bigger too.

After that, we were taken to another garden designed by Ken Lamb for an apartment complex in Double Bay (images above). This garden featured lots of beautiful serpentine rock from Tamworth. Such rock combined with plants will make anything look good. Yet, the garden felt like it has been put together in a rush and then neglected. It featured two identical stone lanterns. Pre-existing structures such as the pergola were difficult to incorporate into the overall design. Apparently, there were time and money constrains at the time of construction. As a result, the mood of a communal barbeque area hasn’t been completely erased from the garden. I would have compartmentalised the garden with visual barriers into several sub-gardens (perhaps three). Each sub-garden would have to have a separate theme and covey a different mood. You could have several apartment dwellers in the garden, but each of them would feel that they are having the garden for themselves.

During lunch, I really enjoyed a conversation with an elderly Japanese lady, who proved to be quite knowledgeable about traditional Japanese culture. Mr Yamada told me that her husband holds a high position in the Kikkoman Corporation (soy sauce brewers). The lady told me that her family owns a traditional Japanese house, which has been made into a museum. She also told me that her husband is a keen bonsai enthusiast. He likes to saw lots of seeds to find seedlings with mutations suitable for bonsai.

After that we headed to the Darling Harbour Chinese Garden. I love this garden. The Japanese responded to it quite well too. They said that Sydney CBD provides an interesting backdrop for it (images above). They were impressed with the garden buildings. They said that the garden displays a few Japanese influences. At least two of the Japanese landscapers commented that having a stairway right next to a waterfall is very unusual and they’ve never seen it before.

Next was another private garden done by Ken Lamb (images above). This time it was in Newport. Once again it had seriously good serpentine rock. As for the design, it somehow lacked the natural flow. The paths and bridges led me somewhere, but my eyes drifted somewhere else. For example, I didn’t feel like crossing the bridge because there was a dead-end on the other side. Actually, we visited another garden in the same area. It was charming, but there was hardly anything oriental about it (image below).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pest of the month: Aphids

With the coming of spring pests are becoming more apparent on bonsai plants. Last week, I saw a couple of winged aphids on a Japanese Box and on closer examination of its young shoots found wingless individuals as well. I was sure wingless aphids were just immature stages of the winged adults. In the lab, I was surprised to find that the aphids were three different species: the Potato Aphid (Macrosiphum euphorbiae, left image), the Rose-grain Aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) and the Black Citrus Aphid (Toxoptera aurantii, right image). As their names suggest all three species are common pests of roses, grasses, potato and many other plants. I have roses and lime in my garden, but the aphids were feeding on a Japanese Box, probably because it had lots of new shoots. All three species give birth to live young and they don’t even need to mate to reproduce. The Black Citrus Aphid adults can be with and without wings. One of my colleagues told me that adults of this species can make an audible noise by rubbing their hind legs against their body, but I have difficulty believing that. Jokes aside, aphids multiply very quickly and it is good to nip them in the bud by spraying plants with a pesticide. They feed on plant sap, transmit plant viruses and their excreta on leaves encourages the growth of sooty mould fungi. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Demonstration by Marc Nöelanders

Two years ago at Kokufu-ten in Tokyo, I met Vaclav Novák who gave me a collection of Czech bonsai magazines. One article really impressed me. It was about a large yew styled by Marc Nöelanders. I didn’t know anything about him, but his face and the tree he styled stuck in my head. A couple of months ago, I saw the same face in 'The Tops' Weekend brochure and booked myself in. At the workshop, I learned that Marc is a bonsai artist from Belgium, who practiced bonsai for 30 years. He had many prominent mentors who include John Naka, Saburo Kato and Masahiko Kimura among others. Marc said that he learned from many, but developed his own way of doing bonsai. He is one of the founders of Bonsai Association Belgium and the initiator of Noelanders Trophy, which is an important annual event in Europe.

On the day I attended 'The Tops' Weekend, Marc Nöelanders conducted two workshops and one demonstration. To me, he came across as professional, honest and talented. He explained his design for each tree and the reasons for choosing a particular design. He gave clear instructions to the workshop participants on what to do during the workshop time. He spent adequate time with each workshop participant. Most image panels in this post show the trees from the workshops. Left image in each panel shows the tree at the beginning of the workshop, centre image shows the tree design suggested by Marc and the right image of the panel shows the tree at the end of the workshop.
While talking about the trees, Marc emphasized the importance of sketching the final design of a bonsai tree. He said that determining the front of the tree and the angle of trunk inclination is 60% of bonsai design. Identifying the main branch and determining appropriate position of the apex in relation to it, is quite important too (apex should incline towards the main branch). He drew designs for each tree in the workshop. His drawings are good considering how little time he takes to do them (see images in this post). He mentioned that he runs bonsai drawing workshops where the speed of drawing is given importance. He even gave useful tips about conducting workshops and demonstrations. One of them was: work fast and talk less at the beginning of the demonstration, once the scope of work is gauged, demonstrator can talk more. 

As the workshops went on, Marc talked about his time as a journeyman in Omiya. At the beginning he was asked to do only weeding and watering. After that he was allowed to remove wire. Then he graduated to wiring inexpensive trees. Only later, he was trusted with wiring and styling more important trees. Marc said that wiring occupies 60-70% of the time spent on bonsai. It is not unusual to spend one or two days wiring one tree. He also mentioned that, apprentices in Japan get little feedback from the master and learn a lot from more experienced apprentices. 

Marc also talked at length about bonsai in Europe. He told that at first, when bonsai gained popularity, England was ahead of other countries. Then the focus shifted to Germany. After that, there was a prolonged period when Italy was the place of bonsai excellence. Though overtime, bonsai in Italy had become too competitive, political and commercial, with some Italian bonsai artists acting like celebrities. At present however, Spain holds the top spot in European bonsai. Apparently, Spanish conifers collected from the mountains feature old bark, beautiful dead wood and short needles. 

Right now, the standard of bonsai in Europe is quite high and in another ten years Europe might supersede Japan. However, one must also consider China, where bonsai is driven rapidly by the new wealth. At present, there are estimated 30,000 to 40,000 bonsai enthusiasts in Europe. This makes Europe a good market for bonsai and some entrepreneurs seize the opportunity. One such business is the trade in yamadori. In most cases, the trees are collected illegally and a significant proportion of them die. In Italy, people put name tags on trees still growing in the mountains to claim them. The trees are sold from photographs before they are dug out. In Switzerland, larger trees are lifted from remote areas by helicopter. A yamadori can cost €2,000-3,000, however it can go up to €15,000.
Yamadori trade also allows a bonsai artist to ‘cheat’ by swapping multiple freshly dug up yamadori for a bonsai that’s been worked on for many years. Minor changes can make such tree a prize winning bonsai. Thus, fame and prestige are achieved without the long years of work. On the other hand, some wealthy novices buy expensive yamadori just to kill them due to incompetence in bonsai basics. Marc pointed out that beginners should practice on nursery trees, which are more challenging and less likely to die. Once you have good basic skills, styling a good quality yamadori is relatively easy. 

Marc talked about Bonsai prices in Europe and North America as well. For a modest bonsai you are expected to pay €2,000-3,000, but really good trees start from € 5,000 and go all the way to €75,000. Prices between €15,000 and €35,000 are not unusual. 

The day ended with a demonstration by Marc Nöelanders. To me, it was the most impressive part of the day. The tree was a Juniperus procumbens grown in the ground and in the pot for less than 10 years. The duration of the demonstration was a little over 3 hours. In this time, Marc removed 60% of the branches, created jins and shari, wired the whole tree and styled it. He worked very fast. Below are the images showing the progress of the demonstration. 

1 – The tree in its initial state;
2 – Some of the longest branches removed;
3 – The front of the tree and the angle of trunk inclination are identified;
4 – A rough sketch of possible design options;
5 – More unnecessary branches removed;
6 – Jins and dead wood created;
7 – Lower branches are wired and positioned;
8 – The tree is wired and styled at the end of demonstration.
Marc said that this tree should undergo further refinement in a training pot for another 2-3 years before it is ready for an exhibition. After the demonstration, the tree was put up for an auction. In its initial state it was valued at AU$600, however after it has been styled by Marc it was sold at the auction for AU$3500. Marc Nöelanders added three-thousand-dollar-value to this tree in about three hours – pretty impressive!