Japan Satsuki Bonsai Tour– Part 1

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In order to share the beauty of Satsuki azaleas with friends and introduce a bit of rarely seen areas of Japan, Kora Dalager and I introduced a new tour to Japan this week– The Satsuki Festival Tour. Our group includes 14 people from across the United States as well as Australia who want to see colorful Satsuki azalea bonsai as well as some of the finest bonsai Japan has to offer.

We arrived on Sunday evening to visit the private bonsai garden of Shinji Suzuki who lives north of Nagano on Monday. After a two hour bullet train ride we took a local train for 30 minutes. Upon arrival in Obuse, the town where the Suzuki garden is, we walked around and had a wood fired lunch in an old sake factory. Obuse is a quaint town where many wanted to simply walk around to absorb the sights and culture. There was a Hokusai Museum as well as the largest Dawn redwood I’ve ever seen.

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Mr. Suzuki is a younger award winning bonsai artist who has traveled the world teaching his shaping techniques and sharing his bonsai philosophy. I was fortunate to introduce him to the foreign bonsai community when he made his first foreign appearance at a past International Bonsai Symposium years ago. At that time he brought buddy, Isao Omachi who was unknown, as an assistant.

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Mr. Suzuki’s garden complex is unbelievable, not only for his distinct bonsai creations and those he maintains for clients, but the layout is unique, unlike other I’ve seen in Japan, as well as the world. Also, it’s the most immaculately kept, you could actually eat off the floors. All the bonsai are maintained in green houses or poly houses with shade cloth. Even the repotting room is in a greenhouse with heavy shade, and you could eat off that floor as well. All the tools were nearly hung up, all facing the same way, which is habit I particularity admire and love to observe.

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Perhaps one reason of the unique garden layout is because Mr. Suzuki lives two hours north of Tokyo in a cold snowy part of Japan. The fist time I had the unexpected opportunity to visit his garden in February, there was 10 inches of snow on the ground. Check out my blog entry from February to see the snowy photos. The garden and trees look much better without snow. Everything looks better without snow other than Christmas cards and Christmas trees….

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One of Shinji Suzuki’s apprentices is American Tyler Sherrod from North Carolina who has been studying with him for three years. He showed us around and answered all of our questions, and there were loads from our group.

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It was most interesting to see Mr. Suzuki go around, looking and studying the bonsai as he went. Suddenly he told his two younger apprentices to water some pines. Now, the weather was not warm and sunny as I like, it was cloudy and looked like rain, but he still wanted his trees watered. So, out came the copper watering cans and spot watering began on the pines which were outside in the display garden. As luck would have it, it began sprinkling. Still they watered and good thing because it stopped for a while, but still not sun.

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I noticed there were several short plastic collars around the soil surface which served to hold water for specimens which needed extra water or time to penetrate the soil. There were even some small drainage holes in the bottom area as well.

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Looking around, and I do look around and try to study everything, I noticed an apprentice using Super glue on a tree. That was strange to me so I watched for a while and then asked why. The specimen was an old Japanese flowering apricot which had borer damage with a lot of dead wood areas. The application of Super glue strengthens the dead wood and keeps it from moving and breaking off. Also I was told that the Super glue acts as a wood hardener rather than using other commercially available products commonly used for preventing rot.

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A while later the sprinkles began to return and Mr. Suzuki asked if we would like to see Tadashi Iura’s bonsai garden which was a short 10 minute car ride away. Mr. Suzuki drove us in his car and the others in our group in one of his vans.

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Mr. Iura is a young award winning bonsai artist who travels around the world. In fact he was one of the headliners at the Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Festival a couple of weeks ago in New Jersey. He specializes in carving, grafting and shaping old Shimpaku juniper bonsai. Well, his garden was over loaded with old grafted Shimpaku junipers, as well as Japanese yews and Needle junipers.

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Unfortunately Mr. Iura was not at home, but his parents allowed us to look around his garden and even go in the back areas where there were numerous old trees waiting to be carved and grafted. The rain began to fall harder and we were given umbrellas to keep dry. Our visit would have lasted longer but rain prevented studying and enjoying the bonsai.

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There was one huge tree which was all grafted and wired, but the massive trunk was not finished carving nor treated with lime sulfur. It promises to be an award winning tree in the not so distant future. There were trees like this all over the garden. A few Japanese five-needle pines as well as a few deciduous species as well.

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Mixed in with the hundreds of bonsai was a large, award winning Shimpaku juniper bonsai which was prominently displayed in a past Asia Pacific Bonsai Convention held in Takamatsu, Japan, a few years ago. There it was displayed with powerful Japanese calligraphy. Mr. Iura studied with Takeo Kawabe, one of Masahiko Kimura’s graduate apprentices from decades ago. Thus Mr. Iura specializes in grafting, carving and shaping old evergreen bonsai which continues and improves through the years and an individual’s creativity. Modern technology helps too with with rooms build for sand blasting.

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Every time Kora and I lead tours to Japan we experience unexpected pleasant surprises, that’s one reason our bonsai tours are so popular with participants from around the globe. We have had tour members from Canada, Alaska, Mexico, Russia, England, Australia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Singapore, South America, Europe as well as the good old U.S.A. Well, the surprise began at the beginning of our Japan Satsuki Festival Tour. Who knows, there may be more. The Japanese bonsai community is unique and you never know what will happen. Just because something was there last time does not mean it will be there again.

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