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We had a wonderful week with Matsusue-sensei, our bonsai master.  Matsusue-sensei’s nursery has a long history, and is also his family home.  It was a privilege to be here and I thank him for inviting us and spending the time teaching us, and also for his family’s hospitality and warmth.

I must admit I had scepticism about bonsai, as it is filled with contradiction.  However, I found that although some of my concerns were understandable, they were shaped with naivety.  As with many things I have found in Japanese culture, there is real depth of meaning, spirituality, feeling, emotion, and reasoning in the traditions i have encountered.  Many parts are inexplicable with words.

I learnt many things which I will try to share.  Bonsai is the expression of natural essence, a phrase which recurs throughout my travels.  It is highly symbolic.  For example, beauty is seen in the mixture of dead and live material, encapsulating the past, present and future.  The image of the bonsai is formed from imagination.  Images constructed from experiences of nature.  A master has much experience of plants in the wild, natural landscapes, ecology and habitats.

Bonsai has recurring themes, but each specimen is unique.  There is a dialogue between the plant and the master.  Plants are manipulated, but to heighten their uniqueness and character.  The nature of the plant and how it has adapted to conditions in its life are respected.  Previously bonsai were collected from nature, taken to nurture and revere their character formed over many years in interesting habitats.  Presently,  natural collection is illegal so new plants are grown from the seed of exceptional specimens.

Matsusue sensei’s family have owned the nursery for 3 generations, beginning from what was his grandfather’s hobby.  Matsusue sensei began his training at 18 years old, and following 5 years of training at Nagahoya succeeded his father in the business, in what was a his dream from an early age.  He has 20 years experience and cares for about 1000 bonsai each year.  Some of these specimens are hundreds of years old.  Some plants had been maintained for hundreds of years as bonsai. We were shown plants 800 years old.  The division of a bonsai’s life between its wild life and cultivated form was both new to me and added to the fascination of these specimens.  Bonsai has many facets that stem from the uniqueness of wild collection, and the longevity of cultivation some specimens have had.

However, Bonsai has an old fashioned image, and has difficulty in attracting interest from diverse groups.  It is not the only traditional art form to suffer like this.  However, all art forms must adapt and change to the society in which they exist to remain a significant part of culture.  This may be also true of ikebana, where whilst keeping a central core of tradition has allowed modernisation, seen most recently in the liberation of form in free style creations.  Bonsai also aims to develop new styles to suit a younger generation whilst holding true to its traditions.  The use of modern containers and innovative display methods are important, as is increased demand from China in recent years.  I think freedom and originality is vital to be relevant.  It is the responsibility of those that hold tradition to find ways to communicate the importance of these in the most appropriate way for the time.  However, it is also the responsibility of others to listen.

So creating a bonsai.  Firstly a plant must be selected.  This is done with feeling.  A connection must be made between the person and plant.  Then the tree is cleaned, and prepared.  Bark is a very important feature of bonsai and much care must be taken over it. The front and rear side is decided.  The viewpoint is paramount.  The flow of the environment that have shaped the tree are assessed.  This is why naturally collected specimens were so fascinating.  Matsusue sensei could tell us the individual stories of where his bonsai were collected, and the events that had shaped their lives.  The natural environment is simulated in the mind of the master.

Form should be able to enjoyed from 360 degrees.  The direction of the head is vital.  As is deciding the pinnacle, and  the leading branch.  When pruning and removing branches cuts may be left long to crush and tear to simulate natural pruning.  Leaves are cleaned first, then the removal of secondary branches is considered.  The form is then wired.   Copper wire used to wire as it becomes more rigid with movement.  It amazed the extent to which the form can be changed, particularly even older woody stems.  Wiring expresses many things.  I found how Matsusue sensei expressed seasonal snows interesting.

Wave and sinuous forms within bonsai are desirable.  Curvature represents natural aged growth.  Straight growths are difficult to harmonise these ideas.  Spacing within the plant’s structure is key.  Choosing the right backdrop, and viewing the plant within this during its creation is important.  A main focal point of bonsai is at right angles to this.  The girth of weight of branches must be balanced in the flow of the plant.  Branches are sought to bifurcate to form balance.  3 or more branches create swellings at branching points.  Branch structure aims to become thinner as it progresses.  Plants are wired for about a year.

Bonsai plants are repotted when necessary, dependent on the specimen, and the species.  This involves removing any substrate from the roots, giving these a hard trim, and then repotting into new substrate.  This is undertaken when the plant is dormant, or in early spring.  Dormancy is particularly important for the rosaceae family.  Gauze is wired over the drainage holes.  Wires are also attached to the pot which will hold the bonsai in place and reduce movement.  gravel is placed in the base.  Aoki blend is placed around the roots.  This is a mixture of water retentive clay particles and other stones.  Organic fertilisers are used when required.  Generally the pressings of oil seed rape (brassica napus) in the form of plugs are added to the soil.  pot design is required to balance the plant selection and habit, and must compliment, not detract from the plant’s beauty.

Plants are cyclically pruned.  The timing depends on the species, and character of the specimen but generally every 2-3 years may be a guide.  Plants with more vigour, and more leaf production than others may have more freedom in shaping.  This freedom allows bonsai to be made to a customer’s specifications.  Wound paint used for certain plants.

During our time with Matsusue sensei, we were firstly introduced to the specimens within the nursery and then discussed the principles of bonsai and his business.  We elaborated on ideas each day and Matsusue sensei was more than willing to answer any questions we had.  We had the opportunity to create our own bonsai from a selection of pines, and learnt about the techniques and tools required to do this.  We learnt how to clean, maintain and preserve some magnificent specimens. We were given the opportunity to prune a juniper chinensis ‘simpaku’.  The method involved removing leaves below the horizontal.   Weak leaves were also removed to improve health.  Smaller weaker buds were removed.  Terminal buds were disbudded if they would produce unnecessary or undesirable growth.  The number of growing points were balanced.  We also had the opportunity to visit the local area, to be shown a community shrine, and also to see a local bonsai community group’s exhibition.  We were able to see 2 groups visit the nursery, and to be a part of a repotting workshop.

I learnt many things from this week.  I learnt a respect for a beautiful artform so intertwined with history and culture.  The precision, thoughtfulness, delicateness, and detail fascinated me.  I was again reminded of the importance of knowing about how plants grow in their natural habitats.  I found bonsai interesting in its appreciation and knowledge of nature at a large-scale, to be able to successfully create the essence of this at such a small-scale.  The importance of understanding how plants respond to influences in their environment was also brought home.  I loved the focus on the knowledge of a plant’s history and character, and the intimate relationship between sensei and plant.  The dialogue which exist between the two is not to be taken lightly.  I began to understand the reward in the miniature, the detail within bonsai and the importance of essence.  The reverence of nature, and many ideas condensed into a living form.  The beauty of age.

I also learnt a lot from Matsusue sensei’s business ethics.  His business is humble and hospitable and a family affair.  The relationship with his customers is also one of family.  He gives advice freely, willingly, and happily.  Customer’s can come and relax at the nursery, discuss, learn, and use the workshop and facilities.  His business is diverse caring for amazing specimens for customers, sales and auctions, running tours and workshops, helping with local and wider bonsai events, and taking bonsai into local schools and other community groups.  Many thanks to him and his family for the time, sharing of knowledge, and hospitality which was truly memorable.

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