Bonsai branches out into the world

Bonsai branches out into the world
Masashi Hirao gives a bonsai performance on May 8 in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

Bonsai depict a landscape within a limited space. They tend to be seen as a hobby for grandfathers, but new ways of enjoying them are catching on, including performances at which bonsai are improvised on the spot, and art in which bonsai are created from artificial materials.

I took a look at some of the new endeavours involving this piece of traditional Japanese culture, which has many fans overseas as well as in Japan.

An event targeting young people was held early this month at the Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo's Minato Ward. Surrounded by lively music, bonsai artist Masashi Hirao, 34, appeared on stage, stared intently at the tray in front of him and planted materials such as shinpaku juniper and wild grasses and flowers one after another in a rock about 40 centimeters high.

When Hirao removed his shirt to reveal only a tank top, the performance had reached its climax. About an hour later, he took a sharp breath and his landscape of trees growing thickly on a cliff was complete.

"I move my hands as my thoughts come to me. I want people to watch the landscape as it changes with each moment," Hirao said. He wiped away his sweat as the audience clapped and cheered him.

After graduating from college, Hirao trained at a long-established bonsai establishment in Saitama. In 2009, he began his "bonsai performances," which he conceived as a new way of viewing the plants, and drew attention from Italy, Spain and other countries.

Hirao has already performed in 150 cities in 20 countries in Europe and elsewhere. He was also invited to the Expo Milano 2015 on May 19-20.

Popular with foreigners

Bonsai is a form of gardening in which one tree is planted in one vessel and observed. A painting of a bonsai appears in the Kasuga Gongen Genki E picture scroll from the Kamakura period in the late 12th century to the early 14th century.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), bonsai became popular, among people including politicians and financiers, and it came to be seen as a sophisticated hobby for men in the prime of life. It took at least several years for bonsai to grow to a point where they were fit for display, and there are masterpieces said to be 1,000 years old.

Bonsai require time and money, and domestic devotees are growing fewer. Overseas, however, bonsai's popularity is on the rise. Exports of garden plants and other items including bonsai have soared to about ¥9.43 billion in 2013, more than 10 times the ¥880 million exported in 2003.

"Character, balance, elegance," said Italian visitor Edoardo Moretti, 31, describing what appealed to him about bonsai. Toward the end of this month, Moretti learned about expressing himself through bonsai from Kunio Kobayashi, 67, head of the Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo.

He cut the branches and shaped the tree while receiving such guidance from Kobayashi as "You can cut this."

When Moretti finished in a little more than an hour, he whispered, "Cool" and took a picture of his creation.

About 10,000 people visit the Shunkaen museum each year. Foreigners have increased over the last few years and now account for 70 per cent of all admissions.

"Even though bonsai are so small, you sense the vastness of nature," Moretti said. The traditional values of bonsai are shared overseas.

Like beautiful sketches

Women as well as men can enjoy this elegant hobby, says Kaori Yamada, 37, head of the Saika bonsai school. Of about 1,300 students who attend classes at the school's Omotesando and other branches, 90 per cent are women.

Based on the idea of sketching a beautiful landscape on a trip, the school teaches students to make bonsai that can be completed in one go, using materials like colorful leaves and mountain hydrangea.

Art director Takanori Aiba, 61, creates "bonsai art" using artificial materials. With plastic, plaster and other materials, Aiba creates spaces like theme parks by combining Western-style houses and trees whose branches undulate outward.

Interested in the world of miniatures since he was a child, Aiba said, "I express my world view and stories by using bonsai techniques to bring the spirit of nature into small spaces."

The five artworks he has released have all been well received, and are said to have sold at very high prices.

I was a complete layman when it came to bonsai. I loved the scene where Namihei's bonsai planter was broken in the "Sazae-san" comic, but that was about it. I became interested, however, as I met people looking for new ways to enjoy the hobby. Maybe I'll buy a small pot and try to create a landscape of my own.

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