Mastering Bonsai with a True Bonsai Master

I have recently returned from a week spent learning the art and craft of Bonsai from Matsusue sensei, a Bonsai master based in Kasai City. What an opportunity! Matsusue truly is a master in his field and I learnt so much from my time with him. Below are a few photos of Matsusue’s studio – you can see that there are a wide range of Bonsai at the studio. Many belong to loyal customers who prefer to leave their Bonsai in Matsusue’s capable hands then to chance tending them alone, while others are very old and not for sale, preserved here by Matsusue for the nation.

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Interestingly Matsusue told us that there are two main types of Bonsai he works with. The first kind are the thick-trunked pines which are popular with the ‘ordinary’ people and which thus pay his wages.

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The second type are the real art forms which have been appreciated by true Bonsai enthusiasts since the origins of Bonsai as a hobby craft in the upper echelons of Edo society. These Bonsai are more ‘natural’ in shape and style and to an untrained eye can look a little neglected compared to the former type.

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I have to say that before spending time with Matsusue my taste in Bonsai would have been akin to that of the ‘common people’ but my horizons were well and truly widened over the week and I can now see that there is greater beauty and artistry in the latter, more natural type.


This brings me on to one of the main subjects of this week’s blog – nature. When I visited the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum during our recent trip to Tokyo I was surprised to read that one must try to imagine an entire landscape condensed into a miniature pot to really appreciate and understand Bonsai. While this all sounded rather wonderful it didn’t make much sense to me at the time: I struggled to understand how an artfully constrained and meticulously pruned tree in a tiny pot could possibly be a reflection of a natural landscape. Indeed, before arriving in Japan I wouldn’t have put the word ‘natural’ anywhere near Bonsai. Yet somehow in the few days I spent at Matsusue’s studio my perception of nature has shifted so that now when I look at a Bonsai I no longer see just a pretty little tree in a pot but a beautiful old battle axe of a tree fighting against the elements in some wind-strewn, rocky, mountainous setting, just in miniature form.


One of the most valuable lessons I learnt from my week at Matsusue’s studio was that a Bonsai master has a real understanding of nature and how nature’s elements and the passing of time affect a tree. Matsusue explained that as he shapes and prunes a Bonsai he is always thinking about the play of nature on its form. Wind is perhaps the most important element and a good Bonsai will reflect the presiding wind direction from the curvature of the trunk and major branches down to the twists and turns of tiniest twigs. Branches growing against this imagined flow of wind will either be removed or will be trained into a more ‘natural’ position. Sun light is another key element: the upper storey of branches casts shade on those beneath, causing them to become weak or to die out completely.


Unlike with the pruning of full-sized trees in the UK dead wood is not generally removed as it is seen to enhance the natural beauty of the Bonsai and belies its age. Indeed, a Bonsai master such as Matsusue may choose to make deadwood (‘Jin’ or ‘Shari’) from unwanted branches to reflect nature’s grasp on the tree over the passing of time. In my blog about the Omiya Bonsai Museum ( I briefly discussed these vital Bonsai elements but to recap, Jin is deadwood which protrudes from the end of branches, whilst Shari is deadwood which forms part of the main trunk or a branch.


Some examples of Jin on Bonsai at Matsusue’s studio…

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…and some of Matsusue’s beautiful Shari.

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Balance is also part of a successful Bonsai, but here, reflecting the principles of Japanese design, that balance is not symmetrical but ‘natural’. A Bonsai master is always thinking several years ahead as he works. Matsusue explained that he might intend to cut above a bud to remove a stem growing in the wrong direction but it is necessary to wait a few years to allow sufficient time for that bud to break and produce, say 5-6 buds itself. Cutting the branch above a bud before the bud has broken will cause it to produce a vigorous and unnaturally strong branch or stem, whilst cutting it after it has extended a little year by year results in a more natural effect. As Matsusue pointed out, the branches of a tree get gradually thinner the further away from the main trunk they get, so a Bonsai master must also keep this in mind as he shapes and prunes a specimen.


The right tool for the right job is also essential to Bonsai and, looking through a catalogue of Bonsai tools at Matsusue’s studio, I was astounded by just how many different tools there are!

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I suspect you’re wondering what Phil and I actually did whilst we were with Matsusue! Whilst we would have greatly increased our understanding of Bonsai by observing Matsusue at work for several weeks, we were fortunate to be given the opportunity to try our hands at the skill for ourselves. I was a little daunted to say the least, especially as I tend to be a hard pruner!


Our first task was to use Bonsai tweezers and scissors to thin out the new shoots on this lovely old black pine tree (Pinus nigra), to leave one per stem. It took a little while to gain confidence in deciding which of the shoots to retain; ideally one should retain the strongest of the 2-3 new shoots, but if the strongest shoot is growing in an ‘unnatural’ straight upright direction then this should be removed and a secondary shoot which is growing in an outwards and upwards direction should be retained instead. As part of the job we were asked to remove the old pine needles from beneath the retained shoots.

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Our next challenge was to create our very own Bonsai. How exciting! For this Matsusue took us to Hiraoka’s studio.

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Here we were shown a rather special Bonsai – a 125 year old ‘Kabudachi Souken’-style Acer, once tended by Shogun Tokugowa in this very studio!

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Over tea Matsusue, Hiraoka and one of Matsusue’s clients, Manabu, talked us through some of the different styles of Bonsai. Kabudachi bonsai have many stems or seedlings per pot like this one here.



Soukan means ‘two trunks’, which is why it is affixed to Kabudachi in the description of the Shogun’s Acer. Kabu bonsai have one plant or stem per pot; those with a straight stem are ‘chokkan’ whilst those with a twisted trunk pattern are ‘myougi’.


After tea it was time for Phil and I to each chose a small Shimpari (Japanese juniper) to train in our own style. I chose mine for its beautiful, twisted trunk, and because I could envisage the flow of wind through the tree and how this might affect the way that I trained it.

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Back at Matsusue’s studio it was time to hit the drawing board as Matsusue asked us first to draw how we would like our trees to look in several years’ time. I had an idea of how my little Shimpari might look in a few years’ time but envisioning anything beyond this and getting this down on paper was very difficult for me, especially as Matsusue had asked us to make notes of which branches we would remove, shorten or retrain in a different direction.


It was immensely helpful to have Matsusue show us how he would alter the shape of another Shimpari of a similar size.

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To give us a little inspiration Matsusue took Phil and I, along with his wife and daughter (possibly the cutest three-year old ever!) to Himeji castle to view a Bonsai exhibition which had recently opened. I think he realised that we were struggling to envisage how we wanted to transform our own little Shimpari and thought that the exhibition might give us the stimulus that we needed.


I don’t know whether it was the beautiful Bonsai…

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…the good company and gorgeous cherry blossom…

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…or the delicious treat of matcha tea and warabimochi…

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…but the next morning Phil and I seemed to have gained some sort of insight into how we could work with nature to create our very own Bonsai trees and we were finally let loose with the Bonsai scissors.

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After we had removed the unwanted branches and stems or shortened them with the intention of making Jin, and decided on the ‘face’ of the Bonsai, Matsusue showed us how to use wires to bend and train the remaining growth into our desired shape.

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Returning to our own Bonsais we then used various grades of wire; thicker wire for thicker stems, thinner for thinner. The professionals tend to use copper wire but this is harder to work with for novices like Phil and I as, once bent into shape, it cannot be undone. The aluminium wire which we chose to use is much more forgiving in this way.


Starting with the thickest branches on my Shimpari I attached lengths of wire at a central point between two branches, twisted one end of the wire in a clockwise direction around one branch, and then twisted the second half in an anticlockwise direction around a second branch. This then enabled me to move some of the major branches in accordance with the flow of the wind and the overall balance of the tree. Once I had finished wrapping thinner wire around the more delicate growth on my Shimpari I was able to put the final twists and turns in place.

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Well I say final… Matsusue said that my Bonsai was very nice but I was delighted to have him cast his expert hands across the plant to make one or two small changes to increase its natural appearance.

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Next it was time to choose the pot, which should not be overshadowed by the Bonsai tree, nor should it outshine it; pot and tree should complement and enhance one another perfectly. I chose a rectangular pot to balance the one-sided appearance to my Shimpari. Matsusue then showed me how to repot the Bonsai.

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After a gentle watering and a bit of Jin-making…

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… my Shimpari was finally finished – just in time for Mori-san and Matsushita-san to collect us from Matsusue’s studio! The first picture below is the ‘face’ of the Bonsai. I have decided to call my little Shimpari ‘Wuthering Heights’ as for me it seems to conjure an image of the tempestuous Yorkshire Mores in Emily Bronte’s tragic romance novel. Pretentious? Me? Never…

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We were given the opportunity to take our Bonsai back to the UK with us but, quarantine regulations being as they are in the UK we instead decided to leave them in Matsusue’s masterful hands. At least that way we also have an excuse to come back to visit to see Matsusue and his family and to see how our Bonsai are developing.


Matsusue and his wife treated us so kindly whilst we were at the studio that we almost felt like part of the family. Every day we were treated to a delicious lunch in a local restaurant – we tried ‘go-round’ sushi, udon noodles and warabimochi amongst other things. On our last day we were even treated to a delicious, traditional Japanese meal at a former sake brewery which, amongst other delicacies featured Kasu-jiru (a soup made from sake lees (Sakekasu)), sakemanju (a bean-filled sake rice cake) and umichu (a plum wine). The family’s generosity knew no bounds as Matsusue gave us gifts of new Bonsai pruning scissors, and Bonsai brooms used by his own hands (we will particularly treasure these). He even gave us a cheeky bottle of sake for us to sample from the aforementioned brewery!

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Matsusue’s wife kept our thirst thoroughly quenched throughout the week with all manner of delicious teas and coffees: my favourite was a pretty pink cherry blossom tea.



Perhaps the most important thing that I learnt during my time with Matsusue is that four days is simply not enough time to work in Bonsai to really understand the profession or to develop one’s skills in the area. I understand now why professionals such as Matsusue must train for so many years and work for so many more to truly be considered a Bonsai Master: Matsusue himself has twenty years’ experience in the art of Bonsai and it was a real privilege to learn from him.


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