by Tokiko Oba of The Daily Yomiuri website
In Japan, bonsai was once considered a hobby for elderly men. But that image has changed in recent years, with a new type of bonsai winning fans among women. Bonsai artist Kaori Yamada is one of the key contributors to the art form’s newfound popularity.
“People are busy today, and they’re always in a hurry, not wanting to waste a single second. But bonsai slows you down and makes you concentrate on the plant in front of you. Besides, it takes months for a tree to bud or bloom. There’s joy in the waiting, and I think that’s what many women have found pleasurable,” the 28-year-old Yamada said.
Bonsai has long been known for its small trees, but nowadays it’s really small “mini-bonsai” that are proving popular. A mini-bonsai workshop in Tokyo last month, in which Yamada served as an instructor, proved bonsai was increasingly popular among women. About 100 people turned up to learn how to make kokedama bonsai, a kind of mini-bonsai whose roots are covered by moss.
At the workshop, each participant was given three kinds of plants: galingale, a tall plant with white flowers; Japanese silver grass, a medium-sized plant with long, thin leaves; and chrysanthemum, a smaller flower that blooms in autumn.The first step was to remove dirt from the roots using a stick. While some people were not sure how to do it and sought assistance, others apparently had some experience and could do it easily. The next step was to put the three plants together and arrange them in a pleasing way. After the participants fixed the position of their plants, they bound the roots with a long thread. The roots were then covered with two layers: first with sphagnum moss and then with feather moss and bound with a thread each time.The introduction to bonsai-making took less than an hour, but it reminded me how long it was since I had touched any soil. It was cool and comfortable to the touch, as if it had some kind of healing power.“Many people try it just for fun, but they’re deeply moved when the plants bloom,” Yamada said.The bonsai taught that day was a type of Saika Bonsai – a modern style of bonsai that Yamada practices. This style features combinations of trees or plants, whereas conventional bonsai uses only one tree. “You’re supposed to express nature with one tree,” Yamada said. “But it’s difficult for people who don’t know much about bonsai.”Combining a couple of plants makes it easier to create a little landscape while also making it prettier to look at.
Yamada is the fifth generation of a family who run a bonsai nursery named Seiko-en, which opened in the mid-19th century. The current owner is her father. The nursery is in the Bonsaicho district of Saitama, in which several other bonsai nurseries are also located.
Until the bubble economy burst, bonsai was a hobby targeted at elderly men who could afford the time and expense. When Yamada was growing up, even though she was taught how to water and prune the potted trees, she thought of bonsai as old-fashioned and was reluctant to tell friends that it was her family business.
That image changed when she visited France as a university student. To her, interior decorations there were garish. She realized that bonsai was the opposite, being all about removing everything unnecessary, and was something she could do on her own. “That was when I became positive about succeeding in the bonsai business,” Yamada said.
In the post-bubble period, as with other luxury products, sales of bonsai dropped, forcing producers to cultivate new customers. To appeal to people who had not been seen as potential bonsai fans, Yamada started to teach them a simplified form of the art. “Conventional bonsai has so many rules, and you’re supposed to learn all of them. But that’s not much fun,” she said. “The priority is to keep the plants alive and have fun growing them. I teach the minimum rules necessary for this.”
She started to appear on TV hobby programs as a bonsai instructor in 2002. This was around the time some interior shops started to sell bonsai, and people started to see bonsai as a cool item for home decoration. Earlier this year, a TV drama made one of its main characters a bonsai artist. Since then, more young women have been coming to Seiko-en, Yamada said.
Some bonsai artists have criticized her style as not real bonsai. But Yamada argues: “My aim is to create a bonsai landscape. The idea is the same.”
“My challenge is how many rules can I break? And how can I make bonsai enjoyable for women?” she added.
Some of her students have graduated from introductory level to intermediate level. That’s when Yamada teaches some more rules and helps her students create more complicated “landscapes.” For example, she suggests using two or four pots of maple trees and arranging them so that the branches make an arch, suggesting an avenue of trees in autumn colors.
“Now bonsai’s accepted, I can see some new possibilities for the future,” Yamada said.