Posted on Monday, October 09, 2017, under , ,

‘On behalf of Kyoto municipality, thank you for coming today to the special bonsai exhibition’ begins a slim, middle-aged Japanese lady dressed in lemon-tinted kimono, addressing a dozen or so visitors (mostly tourists) who have joined the tour on this rainy Friday afternoon. Her yellowy attire which blends well with the moss and juniper greens of the bonsai exhibits, her black hair styled into a bob cut, her small steps as she glides across the wooden parquet of Nijo castle, her synthetic smile, are all part of the eye-pleasing décor, at the same time feeling a tad oppressive, lacking in warmth and spontaneity. This is Kyoto after all.

The latter is thankfully provided by a colleague of hers, a Japanese male in his early forties congenial, well informed and instantly likeable. Whatever information the lemon-lady delivers in sober, unexcitable manner, he livens up with interesting detail or insight. There is something in his demeanour, calm yet passionate about the subject, that drives visitors to bombard him with questions. For my part, I wait until after the 30-minute tour is over and the tourists have by and large dispersed. This is my chance: everything I always wanted to know about bonsai but was afraid to ask.

Q: Which plant species are most commonly grown?
A: Pine, juniper, maple are the most common. Ordinary, everyday plants.
Q: In human terms, a bonsai plant can be said to be a midget, a person of restricted growth, do you agree?
A: Yes, but with a significant difference: it is a gardener who imposes restriction on the growth. 
Q: The growth of roots too? For instance does a root stop growing because it ‘feels’ it is placed inside a container?
A: As with treetops, bonsai roots are cut and trimmed, otherwise they may grow too long and even damage the container.
Q: But how on earth does a gardener reach the roots in the first place?
A: The plant needs to be lifted up out of its container.
Q: Some of the trees look quite heavy!
A: Yes. It might take at least two people to hold the heavy plant while the third gets busy lopping off the root ends. It takes years, decades, in some cases centuries to look after a single bonsai tree, to keep it alive.
Q: Speaking of which, how old is the oldest bonsai in Japan?
A: Hmm... I’d say 700 or 800 years old.
Q: So, that juniper over there, is one of the oldest?
A: That’s right.                                     
Q: Fascinating. Quite a few of bonsai junipers here have trunks at least partly coloured in white. We find it very impressive.
A: Yes. The white is actually a dead part of the trunk.
Q: We kind of suspected so. Never has a dead thing looked so beautiful!
A: [smiles] Foreigners in particular like the white bonsai trunks.
Q: But how come the dead part does not simply rot?
A: Good question. The white, dead trunk has to be looked after too. It is regularly coated in special solutions to prevent rot and disintegration.
Q: What else should we know to appreciate the bonsai art?
A: One way of enjoying is appreciating the asymmetry of the tree’s shape, which in a good bonsai reflects the irregular shape of things found in nature. Also the bonsai tree has a deeper cut from the front, so that the viewer has a better look. The best way to enjoy bonsai is to crouch down and look up at the tree.
Q: [crouching down and looking up at the old juniper] Ha, the tree looks much bigger from here! I feel much smaller too, as if sitting under a fully grown tree.
A: Which means the gardener has done well.

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