My teacher or Oyakata as I call him, is Mr. Shinji Suzuki. He has been a professional for a little over 25 years now. Unlike most professionals in Japan who begin this career because their fathers were bonsai professionals and often goes back many generations, Mr. Suzuki’s start was slightly different. After the passing of his father, his mother sold their family hotel business and opened a small nursery selling flowers and other garden plants. She must have had some appreciation for bonsai because she pushed him to become an apprentice after graduating from high school. At the wishes of his mother, Mr. Suzuki decided to do so and became an apprentice at Toju-en nursery under Motosuke Hamano.
After completing his apprenticeship, Mr. Suzuki continued to study additional aspects related to bonsai such as creating displays, pots, stands and garden design from other teachers and professionals. As a professional, he began his career by working out of the back of a van he owned. He would design and wire trees for other professionals as well as buying/selling pots and trees of his own. I’m sure it was a difficult start to begin his bonsai career working out of a van, but a great story none the less. After some time of traveling around Japan doing “van work” to establish his name, Mr. Suzuki returned to his family’s home in Nagano where he set up shop. Soon afterwards, he met his wife to be, bought a house of his own and began his family. Although he had a collection of trees of his own, he continued to travel, gaining clients and maintaining private collections.
At the age of 30 Mr. Suzuki met the owner of Jippou-an, a hotel and restaurant in Obuse. They decided to team up and design a bonsai garden and gallery as an addition to the hotel/restaurant. This became Mr. Suzuki’s place of business for about 10+ years until Jippou-an (hotel and restaurant) went out of business. Consequintly, he moved across the street where he already had a nursery, and built a new garden. At that time, half of the existing nursery was covered with grape vines, all of which were removed. The big greenhouse, tea room and garden were then constructed.
Mr. Suzuki has become one of the more well-known bonsai professionals in Japan and has been awarded many prestigious awards. He has entered numerous trees for his clients to the Kokufu-ten exhibition, many of which have gone on to receive Kokufu Prize. He has also received the Prime Minister Award 5 times in the Sakufu-ten exhibition. This is more than any other single professional in Japan; and at the time he received his first one, he had been the youngest professional to do so. Very cool!
I have two Sempai, or elder students, who take good care of me here at the nursery, Matt Reel and Yusuke Nomura.
Matt Reel is from Portland, Oregon. He is 23 and is in the 6th year of his apprenticeship. When hard at work, Matt is quiet and concentrated on the job at hand. But when at play, Matt is a very fun person and is always willing to help in conversational translations with the local girls. Matt got interested in bonsai after seeing a tree displayed at his local mall. He found a professional in his home town and began working for him part-time. Matt met Boon Manakitivipart at a demo in Portland and expressed his desire in being a Japanese apprentice and asked for his help. After spending a number of weeks working with him, Boon made the introduction to Mr. Suzuki and the rest is history. After completing his 6th year, Matt will return to his home in Portland where he will begin his professional career.
My second sempai is Yusuke Nomura. He is from Tokyo, Japan. Yusuke is 22 and in his 4th year of his apprenticeship. He got in to bonsai by way of his father who runs a bonsai nursery in Tokyo. Yusuke is a very high energy person, always cracking jokes and making the busiest days seem a little less chaotic…or more. After completing his apprenticeship, Yusuke will return to Tokyo where he will work as a professional at his father’s nursery.
Thank you for reading!