Daytrip to Gunma

In this post I am going to show you the collection of a client we have who lives in Gunma. Gunma is located about an hour southeast of Nagano. The first half of these pictures were taken last fall. We had made a trip to clean old needles from his pine trees and a general cleaning of any weedy pots. The second half of the pictures were taken in mid February. We had made that trip to deliver a few trees and do some work on a few of his juniper trees, but it snowed and…well you’ll see.

The front enterence...WOW!!!

I like this cascading red pine a lot!

Here is the maple, var. shishigashira, that received top prize at this years Kokufu exhibition with all its leaves.

Nice landscaping. I wouldn't have wanted to move those rocks!

Ezo Spruce

Shady area

These trees sat under a covered area toward the side of the house. Gunma has very hot summers so many of the smaller and deciduous bonsai are kept in the shade during these hot days.

The shade house located to the side of the garden

White Pine

 When this client decided to build his garden, Oyakata assisted him in creating the layout. Its is very cool to see gardens like this as it gives me ideas about how I will design my garden once I return to America. Many houses here in Japan take pride in the layout and beauty of their yards. You typically don’t see large areas of grassy lawns as you do in America. I find myself snapping pictures as I walk around town of cool features and design ideas I find appealing.

Chinese Quince

Though most of this collection is made up of white pines, red pines and junipers, there are a handful of deciduous bonsai such as this chinese quince.

And then there was Winter….

Snow covered garden

On this day we woke up early to make our way to Gunma to do some work at the clients garden. On our way there it began to snow. When we got to Gunma we found about a foot of snow had fallen.

There's no work like snow work!

So our work that day went from cleaning up bonsai to cleaning snow off bonsai. We used brooms to knock the majority of the snow off the trees then our hands to get as much of the rest off as we could. We were to use our bare hands as to best protect the trees from damage and by the second tree, I couldn’t feel my hands.  It took about 30 minutes to clean most of the snow off and then we were finished for the day.

With all the fallen snow, the garden was very beautiful!

As we were about to get onto the interstate and head back to Obuse, we found that they had closed the road heading north, the way we needed to go.

Closed road to the north...many trucks were turning around and waiting it out. Can we find a back way?

A line of vehicles stopped due to snow, glad we weren't on that side!

 The interstate to the south wasn’t closed so we decided to head that way for a few exits then get off and make our way back on the back roads. The road was closed beginning at the exit were at and a line of traffic had built up to the south for a few miles.

Making the jump into hyperspace!!!!

The interstate roads were not too dangerous, but when we got off the main roads and onto a small winding road up the side of a mountain, my adrenaline was pumping…

Oh boy...this is gonna be fun!

Oyakata was fishtailing up this mountain road. He has lived with these type of conditions for most of his life and it showed. We were speeding up this road and I’m not sure if it was because he was afraid of stopping and getting stuck or he was having too much fun…by his many evil chuckles, I think he was having fun!

View from the top...

 By mid afternoon we had made it back to Obuse safely. It was a fun day seeing the countryside covered in snow from the inside of our van coffee in hand and not a broom. But with all this snow there was one thing in the back of my head the entire day…wish I had my snowboard!

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Adventures | 8 Comments

Important Bonsai Masterpiece

***UPDATE*** I’m happy to say that all of the trees we had submitted for the Kichou Bonsai judging were accepted!

About this time every year a judging takes place in Tokyo for the newest entries of bonsai into a select group know as Kichou Bonsai, or Important Bonsai Masterpiece.  These bonsai are ones that are recognized as being some of the finest quality trees, ones that have been improved upon year after year to the point where they stand out above most other bonsai. I am told that this judging has taken place over the last 35 years or so and although some of these trees have died over the years for one reason or another, there have been about 750 trees awarded with this honor. A handful of professionals from around Japan make up the group of judges and are typically the same group that has just judged the past Kokufu trees. After a tree is designated Kichou Bonsai, it is given a handmade plaque that can be displayed with the tree and a metal tag which is hung from a branch.

Being that Bonsai is a living art, these trees change over time. Sometimes they get better, other times worse. Sometimes big changes are made to the design of a tree or a disease or insects attack a tree forcing a change upon the tree. So not all trees that have been designated Kichou Bonsai stay as magnificent as they once were. I have seen a few of these important trees that have fallen ill and have been let to grow freely for some time. But the important thing about these trees is that when in their prime and perfect state, they exemplify what a bonsai is more so than any other bonsai.

Here are a few trees from our nursery that we have challenged to undergo this years judging. We have matched each tree with a stand as to better display them for the judges. A funny thing about this is that we tend to select stands that elevate the trees slightly. By doing so, we help to save the backs of the judges who are looking at them from every angle. Many of the judges are elderly gentlemen and you wouldn’t want to give them any reason to knock points off your tree, such as having to bend over too much to see the trunk! 😉

Goyomatsu, White Pine

Arakawa, Cork Bark Maple


The juniper pictured above was worked on by my sempai Matt and just may be the subject of a post on his blog in the near future. You can visit his blog here,

Goyomatsu, White Pine

Juniper...I also really like the stand in this picture and am thinking of a way to get it into my collection...

The next tree is one that I was tasked with working on for the judging. Here it is before…

When telling me what I should do to this tree, Oyakata cut a large branch off the apex and told me to make it more compact.

In addition to the cut on the apex, I removed a large branch on the front about half way up. The branch was blocking the trunk and an interesting part of the whole composition. I feel that the tree becomes more refined after removing this branch and allows the viewer to move up and down the trunk of the tree more fluidly. There wasn’t much detailed wiring on the tree so I began placing some where it was needed. Obviously on the apex, most of the branches needed some wire in order to fill the new hole and to make the apex more compact overall. For the rest of the tree, some detailed wire was placed in order to pull branches back into line making the silhouette fluid. Also, the line of each pad was cleaned, pulling needles that were hanging down. Then the deadwood was scrubbed clean and lime sulfur was applied.

Here is the tree after my work…

Lastly, each tree was mossed and the pots were oiled. As an added bonus and a little fun, I have begun to make T’s with moss and hide them on the surface. So far, Oyakata hasn’t spotted one of my T’s, so i don’t know if  I am that good at it or I just haven’t made it powerful enough! (Power T for all my Tennessee readers!) In one case I used lichen to make a T…can you spot it?

T marks the spot....

Lets hope that all of these trees receive this prestigious award of Kichou Bonsai. I will let you know as soon as we hear the results.

I've done all I can, now its up to the tree to shine!

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Posted in Before and After, Bonsai Exhibition, Display | 21 Comments


Well it has been one year since an earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Japan, including a nuclear power plant, killing thousands and leaving countless more without homes and in fear of atomic energy. It is events like this that often wake up the collective consciousness of the human race and, if only for a brief moment, allows us to take a deeper look at our lives and the choices we make.

It was one year ago this day that I was packing my bags and about to embark on my journey as a bonsai apprentice. After watching the news and learning what had happened in Japan, I decided to postpone my plans. Especially after hearing about the danger of the nuclear power plant and extent of radiation leakage, I was left sitting in front of the TV wondering if this was a sign and if my intent on being an apprentice was the right choice. I was given a moment extra to reevaluate my life. After all was said and done, I felt confident that my set course was the right one. I am still sure of that to this day! But even one year later, there are events out there, both big and small, that keep me on my toes and act as a constant reminder to take a moment and pause. Constantly reevaluate your life and ask yourself if you are happy with it, if not, do something about it!

Today we had such an event at the nursery…

Notice the number on the front plate....a reminder, a sign, coincidence...

Apparently two cars had trouble passing through one another at an intersection to the back of our nursery. One car was T-boned and pushed into the gate and fence where we turn on and off our nursery’s security system. The car really made a dent in the metal fencing and completely knocked down the back gate. Luckily none of the drivers were hurt and no bonsai were damaged in the process. But as I sat down this evening having a drink and looking back at the pictures, I saw the license plate reading  3 11. WOW!

They just couldn't wait for the nursery to open!

What a way to start the day, guess somebody forgot their morning coffee.

After to police made the report and both cars were moved away, we had a local carpenter come to put up a temporary fence. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, but we all were looking over our shoulders from now and then. We kept saying that today was dangerous, be careful!

Later on in the day, Oyakata had Yusuke and me go to the crash site and pour salt, rice, water and sake on the ground. Apparently this act helps ward away the ‘spirit’ or ‘ora’ of something or someone in hopes that it will not return. I hope it worked!

Yusuke spreading rice and salt around crash site.

Here I am spreading water and sake around the crash site.

After we did this I told Yusuke that we might come back tomorrow to find some drunken birds with bellies full of rice lying around the nursery! Hope this trick works, but only time will tell.

On a more upbeat note, my good friend Peter Tea who has been chronicling his life as an apprentice at Achie-en has finished up his first year. We both began our apprenticeships around the same time and we often chat with one another swapping our war stories. He is now back home on a short vacation (years in apprentice time) visiting his family and somehow finding time to work in a little bonsai. Please check out his latest post,  talking about this past year as well as some of the events where he’ll be demonstrating at while home. Congratulations Peter!

As always, thanks for visiting!

Posted in Around the Nursery | 4 Comments