A Visit To Shunka-en Bonsai Museum

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I spent Thursday morning on my way to Narita Airport en route to Indonesia at Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. I’ve had numerous opportunities to visit his beautiful garden with the many bonsai tours Kora Dalager and I lead to Japan and also when photographing for our large-format book Fine Bonsai. However, it’s not often that I have the rare privilege to just wonder around his garden, alone, uninterrupted attempting to appreciate, study and absorb the beauty of Mr. Kobayashi’s bonsai, distinctive alcove displays and to look for new ideas to adapt to the western bonsai community.

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Formal display of Japanese black pine bonsai

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As always Mr. Kobayashi arranges eight formal alcove displays along with several others in his museum to visitors can sit and enjoy the beauty. Ever see me just sit and study a bonsai display?

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Informal display of Japanese paulownia

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A very simple and elegant display of a literati style Pourithia in the small tea ceremony room alcove

This year I’ve visited Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in February, June and will again in a few weeks for our bonsai tours. Each time more and more bonsai are artistically packed into this small garden. In June I personally thought, the garden if filled to capacity, no more space for additional trees. But, I was wrong! There are many more trees than what I saw in June.

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For many years now Chinese collectors have been traveling to Japan, paying high prices for antique Chinese containers and returning them to their origin country. This influx of “new” money has been responsible for maintaining many Japanese bonsai gardens open while the domestic market for trees is not nearly at the level it has enjoyed in the past.

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Well, it seems to me that the Chinese have purchased most of the antique Chinese containers they want from Japan and are now turning to buying bonsai.

For the past several years there has been a huge increase in large size bonsai of mostly Japanese black pine bonsai that are probably being trained for the Chinese bonsai collectors. The Chinese love large massive bonsai and the Japanese black pine is one of the easiest species for importing into China. I’ve watched the quick development of what appear to be “garden tree size bonsai” into acceptable large size bonsai in Japan. Mr. Kobayashi and other artists are masters of training bonsai, of all sizes and quality, which is necessary to produce income so they can enjoy developing and refining fine-quality masterpieces.

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The six foot branch on the right is being used to thicken a major branch or will be used for inarch grafting

Another new recent addition to Shunka-en Bonsai Museum is a section devoted to maple bonsai. I believe a shade cloth might be used during the hottest part of the summer for leaf protection from intense sun and heat. There are a great number of trees that will quickly develop into masterpieces. Plus I noticed many established famous maple bonsai masterpieces back in wooden boxes or deep containers for additional training, structural repair and to improve health.

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During my visit I thought Mr. Kobayashi was hosting a BBQ party with individual grills. I know he likes to BBQ, especially on rainy days. In addition to the increase of large and numerous bonsai the most impressive technique that attracted my eye was the addition of large lump charcoal (biochar) to as a surface application. While this is nothing new and has been a common horticultural and agricultural farming practice for hundreds of years. Many bonsai growers, including me, regularly incorporate charcoal INTO the soil mix. I visited Shankar-en Bonsai Museum in June and did not see the great amount of lump charcoal added to the soil surface. Yes, there were a few surface applications of small size charcoal and if you carefully looked at the soil mix it could be seen. Perhaps Mr. Kobayashi learned something new since June, or is simply experimenting with charcoal for improving plant health.

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Japanese black pine with yellow-green needles

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The majority of trees with large amounts of lump charcoal were pines with yellowish green needles and junipers. Charcoal provides many benefits for improving the soil mix, but perhaps the most important is that it makes plant nutrients more readily available.

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For a thorough, authoritative article on the horticultural charcoal (biochar) benefits for bonsai please see the 2013/NO. 4 issue of International BONSAI on page 22. The author, Dr. Peter Hobbs, is a professor of plant crops and soil science at Cornell University. He also grows bonsai and is one of my newer students who travel from Ithaca, New York to Rochester to attend classes and workshops. What, you DON’T subscribe to International BONSAI? No problem, you can easily subscribe at the link below and back copies are also available too:

http://www.internationalbonsai.com/product/IBM

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Perhaps a bit of rusty iron might help too. I’ve frequently seen old rusty nails stuck into the soil.

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Additionally, a few unusual training techniques were displayed to move and lower branches. With a great number of trees, creativity helps the bonsai artist to quickly move branches so more trees can be trained.

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