Festivals, tea ceremony, hanami: any research you do on cultural goings-on in Japan will turn up a load of options and activities, but one that most Westerners know about yet few have really experienced is the art of bonsai. While researching this article, I told a few friends living here what I was up to, and their responses were something like “Oh YEAH…bonsai. Tiny trees. Cool.”
Cool indeed. The legacy of bonsai has real historical underpinnings to Japanese culture, and the once flourishing practice of bonsai making has dwindled down to a very small, but incredibly impressive collection of artisians, many of whom live and work near Omiya-Koen in Saitama.
About a thirty-minute train ride north of Shinjuku you’ll find Omiya Station, a major hub in Saitama. Take the Tobu Noda line to the hamlet of Omiya-Koen. Just follow the signs at the station to the Bonsai Art Museum and the Omiya Bonsai Village—they’re both very well marked for visitors.
A Ridiculously Brief History of Bonsai
Bonsai can be traced back to 8th century China, to a mural of prince Li Xian holding what appears to be a tiny tree in a pot. It came to Japan about 700 years later, during the Kamakura period as souvenirs from China. Jump to the early Edo period (late 17th, early 18th centuries) when bonsai was a meditative hobby reserved for the upper classes. It wasn’t until about 200 years ago that bonsai came to the masses as a mainstream art form and hobby. During the Meji period (19th century) bonsai was an integral part of “feminine etiquette training” and sencha tea ceremony, and soon after (during the Taishu period), became a status symbol among politicians, businesspeople, and dignitaries.
The Birth of the Omiya Bonsai Village
In 1925, a group of bonsai artists relocated to Omiya from Tokyo, a move prompted by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. They chose Omiya because of the weather and soil conditions. In 1936 there were thirty-six privately owned nurseries, but as of September 2013, there are just six. There are four requirements for being village member:
1) Resident must own ten or more bonsai.
2) The resident’s garden must be open to the public.
3) The residence must be a two-story building.
4) The resident must use hedges as live fencing.
Some considerations when visiting the village
These are private residences, not public tourist haunts. Be mindful that you’re basically wandering through people’s gardens at their homes.
Photography may or may not be allowed. When in doubt, ask.
The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum (さいたま市大宮盆栽美術館)
The Bonsai Art Museum was established in 2010 and hosts about 50,000 visitors annually. The outdoor exhibit rotates about sixty bonsai at a time, most of which are gifts from large companies. The museum features bonsai ceramics, examples of traditional bonsai rooms, and an exhibition hall containing rare images and a historical timeline of bonsai in Japan. English is spoken at the museum, and an audio tour is available for an additional 300 yen. Behind the museum you’ll find a small outdoor gift shop (it’s a nursery) with bonsai and ceramics for sale, with prices ranging from 150- 20000 yen.
The museum also holds monthly workshops in bonsai making, featuring a different varietal each month. At 2500 yen, this is the perfect add-on to museum visit.
The Anatomy of Bonsai
So you know what you’re looking at, here are a few of the features of bonsai and some of the most popular varieties.
The roots are a sign of vitality and a key component in bonsai appreciation. Visible rootage (nebari) is judged on its quantity and direction.
Happo-nebari means visible root spread in all directions—a good thing.
Bankon is the rock-like formation of roots, creating a thick base for the tree.
The lowest part of the trunk, “tachi agari” is categorized by its shape and style.
Kabudachi, “clump trunk”
Sokan “twin trunk” (looks like two trees in the same pot)
Gokan: The “five-trunk” style.
Moyogi “curved trunk” (usually manipulated by wiring)
Chokkan “straight, upright trunk” This is a formal and very symmetrical style.
Fuinagashi “windswept style” Just like the name implies, this tree looks like it’s been exposed to fierce winds. Very asymmetrical.
Bunjin: “Literati style” Breaks all of the rules of conventional bonsai. (Pretty much anything goes).
The branches are judged primarily on their shape, which can be manipulated by wiring or pruning.
Ebaburi, “gracefully shaped branches” are the goal.
Imi eda “faulty branches” are considered crude.
Leaves are meticuously pruned and judged on quantity, condition, and overall aesthetic as it relates to the breed. Much like a purebred in a dog show, bonsai have specific qualities expected for a given tree (i.e. the Goyo-matsu (五葉松 ) “Japanese five-needle pine” should have plentiful, short, glossy needles).
Speaking of goyo-matsu, here are a few other popular varieties to look out for:
Shimpaku(真柏): Japanese juniper
Seigen（清玄）: Japanese maple
Tsukikage sokan (真杏): Japanese apricot
Karin(花梨): Chinese Quince This is an especially important variety, many politicians (including the Prime Minister) own Karin, as an artful symbol of status.
Tranquil, artful, outdoorsy—spending a warm afternoon checking out bonsai culture in Omiya-Koen is so worthwhile. The blend of history, art, and nature makes this a perfect springtime day trip.
The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama
Admission: 300 yen
Station: Omiya-Koen, (by way of Tobu Noda line)
2-24-3 Toro-cho, Kita Ward, Saitama City