Bonsai: a Subtle Art Form

Over the last several decades, Japan's global influence has only grown as people around the world have become increasingly interested in everything Japanese, from video games and cuisine, to even fashion.  These aspects, however, represent only a fraction of a culture that is infinitely rich and sometimes dauntingly complex. Travelers in Japan soon learn that it is away from the bright lights, bustling streets and soaring skyscrapers of the big cities that a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of Japanese culture can be found. One way to do this is through one of Japan’s more quaint and subtle art forms: bonsai.


The History of Bonsai

The art of bonsai has existed for well over a thousand years. In China, the art of creating miniature landscapes, called penjing, has mythological origins dating back to as early as the 3rd century AD.  The process of growing miniature trees from source specimens is thought to have begun in Japan in the 7th century AD when Japanese Buddhists returning from China brought source plantings back with them. The first written record of bonsai that we have dates back to around 970 AD. It was not until the 1800s, however, that bonsai really gained widespread popularity and mass cultivation began, eventually culminating in a ‘Classical Period’ of bonsai that saw the introduction of copper wire, which allowed for greater manipulation of a tree’s development. By 1941 over 300 bonsai nurseries in Tokyo were cultivating 150 species of plants and exporting them to both Europe and America. Bonsai now has a global audience with an estimated five million hobbyists growing trees worldwide, but while there is an abundance of information on keeping bonsai, it is becoming increasingly difficult to grow and maintain the trees due to rising summer temperatures.


Not Just a Pretty Tree

So what is bonsai all about? Can it be anything more than a miniature tree in a plant pot? As with a vast array of Japanese art forms, bonsai is a complicated yet subtle process in which the desired gravitas of the plant arises from the simplicity of the aesthetic, the product of painstaking hard work and patience. As any one who is even vaguely familiar with Japan might expect, bonsai is governed by a set of aesthetic guidelines that range from an aversion to symmetry to a desire to accurately mimic the proportions of a fully-grown tree – all of which must be accomplished without any trace of the artist being evident. The desired effect is one that expresses the Japanese concepts of wabi sabi and mono no aware. While wabi sabi is best understood as 'beauty in imperfection' (evident in the avoidance of symmetry), mono no aware can be translated as ‘the pathos of things’ and is about appreciating the transient nature of existence and the impermanence of nature through caring for the bonsai plant. Bonsai, therefore, is intended to posses a certain poignancy through which the viewer is able to reflect on some of the weightiest of philosophical considerations humans have found themselves wrestling with.


Note how the bonsai plant is intentionally asymmetrical, mimics the proportions of a full size tree, and contributes to the overall aesthetic of the room.  ©Japantimes

Where to find Bonsai today

Of course we have only begun to scratch the surface of the unbelievably complex world of bonsai. Dig a little deeper and you will find out for yourself how aspects such as pot shape, color and size converge with what is known as negative, static and dynamic space to alter the overall aesthetic of different bonsai according to the desired effect.

If you want to see some trees for yourself during your next visit to Japan, there is nowhere better to experience the art of bonsai than the Omiya Bonsai Village. Located in a tranquil neighborhood of Saitama Prefecture, the village is just one hour from downtown Tokyo. Set up in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake when nurseries were forced to relocate from central Tokyo, the village is a collection of privately run nurseries which have been owned and maintained by the same families for generations. Here you can stroll through 6 independent gardens as well as visit the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum to truly indulge in all things bonsai!


The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.  ©

One nursery that is particularly worth a visit is the Kuku-en Bonsai Garden. Owned by the Murata family, who are the official caretakers of the Emperor’s bonsai trees, at this garden there are several ‘imperial’ trees on display. Over 300 years old, the trees – which were gifted by the Imperial family – are considered by the Murata family to be priceless. Announcing a price, the family says, would give the wrong impression as if they were for sale. Interestingly, however, bonsai are never specifically priced in Japan. When a collector is looking to procure a new tree, the nursery selects a tree based on the amount they receive.

Thankfully, you don’t need to commit to buying a tree in order to appreciate everything bonsai has to offer – an afternoon spent sauntering around the Omiya Bonsai Village provides ample time to reflect on the transience of the universe! If you are visiting in early May you can even catch the Great Bonsai Festival held every year from May 3rd to May 5th. The Omiya Bonsai Village may be the single best place for visitors to indulge in all things bonsai. 

Whether it's in a famous garden or simply in a friend's home, bonsai represents a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Japanese culture, and even reflect on different cultures' standards of beauty. We hope that this short introduction to bonsai has helped give you a new appreciation for a widely known, but perhaps not deeply understood Japanese tradition.


Bonsai at Kyuka-en. The largest bonsai in this photo are around 300 years old, and formerly owned by the Imperial family. ©TOKI

Bonsai at Kyuka-en. The largest bonsai in this photo are around 300 years old, and formerly owned by the Imperial family. ©TOKI

Rumiko Murata greeting us with a warm smile by some bonsai-style lotuses, which her son cultivates as a hobby. ©TOKI

Rumiko Murata greeting us with a warm smile by some bonsai-style lotuses, which her son cultivates as a hobby. ©TOKI

Also at Kyuka-en. Tools used to create the perfect forms of the bonsai. ©TOKI

Also at Kyuka-en. Tools used to create the perfect forms of the bonsai. ©TOKI