A tree may be the greatest teller of time. In its youth we see hope and in its age we see resilience, and as the years go by, it simply gains character. Here in Japan, age is beautiful, resilience is beautiful, character is beautiful, so if anything is to exemplify beauty, it would be the trees.
Some trees have been the recipients of great care and affection, so much at times that they need a bit of protection. They are almost without flaw because of the care taken to preserve them, and have at times been able to reach great sizes. These gods of the forest are usually few and far between, which makes their discovery quite a memorable experience.
The most sacred shrine in Japan, Ise-Jingu is home to some of the largest trees I’ve ever seen.
At Kasuga-taishi, the 8th century shrine of a thousand lanterns, in Nara, just two trees make quite a statement.
On the other hand, there have been many times I have found myself under a tree thinking, ‘Please, just put it out of its misery.’ Propped up like a tent, seemingly half dead, some poor souls are not given up on, and nursed through some very hard times. This is not a practice I am terribly familiar with as, in the States and in England, there are many concerns to human health when a tree goes into decline, and it is pruned or even removed accordingly. Also, people do not typically care for a tree that looks like gnarled umbrella after a thunderstorm. Yet, to be fair, that umbrella does tell quite a story, after the storm passes and the sun comes out. Some of the most interesting trees I’ve seen are those that have been through a struggle or two, have more than a bump or a bruise, and while not initially beautiful, can soon become so.
Even the remnants of great trees are preserved at times.
This beautiful life of struggle that some trees live, can tell us a great deal about what we see in the created landscape. There is a clear admiration in Japan for the journey through time, the kind of journey that sees people come and people go, buildings rise and buildings fall, and this journey has become the inspiration for gardening throughout the country. We see trees pruned into small, shapely forms resembling trees of great age or great struggle, when in fact, they have experienced neither.
The epitome of this practice is the art of bonsai, in which a tree is both nurtured and oppressed, to create a living sculpture. These diminutive creatures can express as much character as any living thing, but only through the lens of its creator. It can be effortless to see the strong sinuous trunk of a juniper, twisted and contorted by tempest or typhoon, sitting almost out of place, in a pot on a table. Through its shape and style, a bonsai tree can tell a story much more beautiful than its own, and are perhaps the most devoted actors you will ever find.
From our great teacher Matsue-san’s bonsai nursery in Kasai, a few specimens for the stage: