Advanced Container Selection… What The Books Don’t Tell You

Which is the most important element when selecting a bonsai container? Size, shape, color or quality. Although varying according to the tree, I generally rank the elements by size, shape, color and quality. Personal taste is also a deciding factor based on your bonsai study through the decades, understanding of the art and level of bonsai you appreciate.

       Yesterday we transplanted an unusual Satsuki cultivar, Senbazuru, which has GREEN flowers, once placed in the shade. It’s been in full sun until today. It continuously flowers from May to September. The current color shown here is not the final color. A photo taken in late July clearly illustrates the true color. 

Senbazuru Satsuki Azalea, late July. No Photoshop tricks or filters, true coloring!

Which container is best? Which container did I use?

       I first posted this question on my Facebook post and received over 35 responses. When writing my thoughts on container selection, I wrote too much for my Facebook post, so am explaining here, where I am not limited space. ALL four of these containers are suitable for this bonsai.

A-  Chinese production quality. Workmanship not up to my standards for this container. But when the azalea whip arrived from Japan eight years ago I quickly wanted to pot it and get it established and healthy. I thought the green flowers would contrast with the bright orange-red glaze, which it did. However, the container was cheap and now the bonsai deserved a better container. Quality was the most important factor in this instance.

B- US, Red Tail Pottery, handmade by Mike Hennigan. I purchased this fine-quality container from Mike last week because of the unusual, contemporary design and superb workmanship. The cream color is quite subtle, and I wanted to present a quiet refined image. Normally, if possible, I try to use contrasting colors, like orange-red with green flowers. But I liked the unique design and thought the size was a bit too small. However, after wiring a few branches, the tree appeared larger than before shaping. So, not considering the new size I initially potted it in pot B. After studying the photo, the tree looked a bit too large in the cream glazed container. So I repotted it after studying photos. Photos present elements as they actually are; they do not hide anything. So after studying the photos further the bonsai it was transplanted. Again. So in this case the size was the deciding factor.

C- Japan, Yamaaki, aged with patina. I liked the color contrast with the green flowers and the depth because Azaleas tend to grow better in cold climates in deeper containers, plus they like water and don’t like drying out. The size was about right, but the strong formal appearance was a bit too much for this informal bonsai for my taste. The quality and patina were great, but here the match was better in the other shapes. So the container design was most important factor.

D- Japan, handmade by Gyozan. He is currently considered one of the finest potters in Japan because of his large size containers, craftmanship, clay body use, design and recently unusual glaze colors. He has customed made two containers for me specifically for a couple of bonsai. I really like, appreciate and admire his artistry and would use more of his containers, if I could afford them. I purchased this container from him several years ago when he first began to use glaze. Initially, I felt this container was a bit to large for my proportional taste and used the American container by Mike Hennigan. However, after a bit of wiring and a few guy wires the bonsai had more mass, and appeared too small for the tree after careful study. The quality was superb, perhaps a bit too good for this young developing bonsai. So the final selection was the Japanese container by Gyozan, based on the elements explained here.                          

First potting, Friday

Second and final container selection, Saturday

Now, should Mike Hennigan make a larger container of the same design, perhaps in a blue-green glaze my bonsai might be again transplanted, should I still own the tree….

International Bonsai Spring 2023 Open House & Sale

The International Bonsai Arboretum will be hosting the Spring 2023 Bonsai Open House & Sale on May 20-21, 2023 in Rochester, New York.

The Bonsai Society of Upstate New York will be having the 50th Anniversary one day exhibition on Sunday, May 21 from 9am to 5pm at the Golosano Autism Center. The exhibition is about a 10-15 minute drive to the International Bonsai Open House. It is also the last day of the famous Lilac Festival, just down the road from the exhibition. Make a weekend of it and visit all!

Our members are thrilled to be able to have our bonsai exhibition again to promote bonsai to the area and nearby bonsai organizations. A warm welcome to anyone who would like to join us for this special Bonsai Exhibition & Sale. A suiseki exhibit will be hosted by the Suiseki Study Group of Upstate New Work. Bonsai demonstration on Sunday at 2pm.

2023 Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Societies Spring Festival Club Exhibition

The 39th Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Festival was held on March 31-April 2, 2023 in Parsippany, New Jersey. This year there were many beautiful bonsai displayed by the 10 member clubs of the Mid-Atlantic Bonsai Societies. Each club displayed three or four bonsai. There were a total of 44 bonsai and several suiseki to delight the participants and public.

During the past year we lost three bonsai artists who significantly influenced and shared their skills with others: Nick Lenz, Pauline Muth and Marty Schmalberg. There were several of their bonsai on display the respect and tribute they deserved.

I was personally impressed by the high quality of the bonsai and also for the artistic effort put into the display compositions.  Although there were many bonsai which could be displayed in the 2023 8th US National Bonsai Exhibition, to a few were selected for the exhibition. Please join us in September 9-10 2023 to see which bonsai will be on display.

It’s always great when begin introducing bonsai to young people

Oribe Glazes

The color “Oribe” is a type of Japanese ceramic glaze in blue and/or green. It first appeared during the Keicho and Genna Eras (1596-1624). The name Oribe is derived from Furuta Oribe, a pupil of Sen no Rikyu, under whose guidance it was first produced. The color was originally used for serving food and drinking tea objects.

Oribe glazed Koyo water basins, Koyo Collection

Oribe glaze test tiles from the Koyo Kiln

Glazed container from the private Koyo Collection

Small glazed containers from the Koyo showroom

Most ceramic bonsai container artists in Japan, have their own distinctive variation of the Oribe glaze. One of my favorite ceramic artists is Kouichirou Aiba who specializes in Oribe glazed bonsai containers. His grandfather established a kiln specializing in pots for plants and tableware and Aiba established his Koyo To-en Kiln in 1969 in Tokoname Japan. Kouichirou Aiba’s (1944-2021) son Kuniaki Aiba continues with his father’s excellence under the name Koyo Juko. Kouso Aiba, Kouichiro’s wife also makes smaller containers for bonsai and kusamono.

Name card of Juko Koyo featuring oribe glaze

Mr. Kouichirou Aiba

Many Oribe glazed containers can be seen in my bonsai collection, since I specialize in deciduous, forest and unusual bonsai. Many different artists are represented in my bonsai collection. I personally like how the bright blue/green colors contrast well with spring, autumn and summer foliage. Some have asked me if I’m tired of Oribe containers. But I see something different in each containers because each glaze is unique. However, it is sometimes difficult to compose a bonsai display with many of the same colors. This is especially difficult when creating a shohin bonsai composition. But I have several different color containers for the same tree. I have 12 containers all of different colors for one Maple, some, however are unglazed for winter display.

Washington hawthorn, Koyo container

Deshojo Japanese maple, Koyo container

Koto Hime Japanese maple, Koyo container

Shishigashira Japanese maple, Koyo container

Shishigashira Japanese maple, Reiho container

Dwarf contort Bradford pear, Reiho container

Kiyo Hime Japanese maple, Reiho container

Full Moon maple, Reiho container

Full Moon maple, Suishouen Heikisui container

Yesterday, Diane and I were furniture shopping to fill our empty home which suffered another house fire on September 24, 2022. Having lived in hotels since September, we are anxious to return to a more normal life. As we were walking around I noticed a large painting which reminded me of the Oribe glaze created by the Koyo Kiln. The large painting will be hung behind a sofa, whenever we can move back home.

Painting for new Valavanis home

Toshio (Norio) Kobayashi

I’m always learning something new.

Last week I visited the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum and enjoyed a special exhibit on Bonsai Chronicles curated by Dr. Fumio Taguchi. There were large images and even accompanied with English translations. I was surprised that Norio Kobayashi’s first name was mentioned as “Toshio.” For over 60 years I have known this bonsai pioneer as “Norio.” He even wrote one of the first books in English with the name Norio in 1951. Mr. Kobayashi was instrumental with the founding of the Kokufu Bonsai Club which sponsored the first Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition in 1934. In the 1960s the Kokufu Bonsai Club reorganized to become the Nippon Bonsai Association, current sponsor of the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibitions. He is not related to Kunio Kobayashi.

1927 Bonsai Exhibition

Mr. Kobayashi first published and edited the monthly magazine “Bonsai” beginning in 1931. This was the third bonsai magazine published in Japan and became the most influential magazine for over half a century. He published and edited 518 consecutive issues, with the final issue in October 1967.

The last issue of Bonsai Magazine, No. 518 was published i n October 1967

While at the museum, one of the curators Dr. Fumio Taguchi approached and gave me a few copies of the English commemorative album from the special exhibition on Yuji Yoshimura where I presented a program on Yuji Yoshimura in November 2019. While chatting with Dr. Taguchi, I asked about Mr. Kobayashi’s first name, which I thought was Norio. He said that I’m wrong. The correct translation of his first name is Toshio! For decades we have been using his incorrect first name!

Mr. Kobayashi with the 518 issues of Bonsai Magazines

On the same topic, Yuji Yoshimura’s younger brother’s name was Kanekazu, and his family knew him as such. But, about 20 years ago I learned that the correct pronunciation of his name is Kinichi. Even Mr. Yoshimura’s two daughters did not know their uncle’s correct name. The Japanese language, especially names, is difficult. But at least we can now begin using the correct pronunciations. 

Kinichi (Kanekazu) Yoshimura

Photos courtesy of Dr. Taguchi and the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum.

There is always new for me to learn and share with the global bonsai community.

2023 97th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition- Part 5

This year, Part 2 of the 97th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition is being held on February 15-18, 2023 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan.

I’m not quite certain what the exhibitor was featuring here, the container or Gardenia

My “guess” the 400 year old antique Chinese container, valued at US $350,000 was being shown. The quality of this unique container overpowers the Gardenia, but it did have a few fruit.

An elegant Japanese hemlock forest

Hard to beat this Shishigashira Japanese maple. It has trunk movement, taper, surface root display, asymmetrical silhouette and evenly distributed fine twigs throughout the tree. Fine, delicate twigs on a Shishigashira Japanese maple are rare. And, it even looks comfortable in the antique Chinese container which is matched with the quality of the bonsai. One of my favorite bonsai, even though it looks like needing a repotting in my learned eye….

2023 10th Japan Suiseki Exhibition

The 10th Japan Suiseki Exhibition was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, on February 14-18, 2023. This is the same venue as the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition, but in a different gallery on the 2nd floor. Kunio Kobayashi and Seiji Morimae head up the Nippon Suiseki Association.

It was Toshio’s (Norio) Kobayashi’s (no relation to Kunio Kobayashi,) dream to elevate the art of bonsai by having an exhibition in an art museum. He succeeded, and in 1934, with the assistance of Count Matsudaira, a now annual exhibition of miniature trees can be enjoyed. Toshio Kobayashi was a pioneer in bonsai promotion and published the monthly Bonsai magazine for 518 issues. This year marks the 97TH edition of the Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition. For a couple of decades, the exhibition was held twice a year, but changed to an annual event in 1960.

Exhibited by Ronald C. Maggio III

Displayed by Ronald C. Maggio

I found it interesting that in 1934 museum officials did not originally want to display bonsai because they were “dirty” with soil and “smelly” from organic fertilizers. That was the main reason soil needed to be 100% covered in green moss. The bonsai exhibition is now held on the bottom levels of the current art museum with ceramic floor tiles. The suiseki exhibition is held in a 2nd floor gallery which is carpet covered. No water is allowed in this exhibition room which is the reason why water is not included in the water basin displays of suiseki, the traditional and formal way of appreciating suiseki. Also, that’s why there are no accessory plantings displayed with the stones.

2023 10th Japan Suiseki Exhibition Statistics

8 Featured Entries

32 Alcove Displays

1 Guest Entry- Hosokawa School of Bonseki “Surging Sea”

78 General Exhibits

22 International General Exhibits from:

United States








Kunio Kobayashi and Seiji Morimae both have fine taste and the drive to promote and elevate both the arts of suiseki and bonsai. They have dedicated their lives to these arts and endlessly work year around and all day long for their passion.

Hosokawa School of Bonkei “Surging Sea”

A Visit To Shunka-en Bonsai Museum

On our journey to Tokoname, we visited Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in Tokyo.  It’s been a few years since I last visited his museum and can’t believe he has even more larger bonsai than before. However, each was meticulously manicured and beautiful as well.

I noticed a great number of Japanese maples which were being approached and thread grafted. The Chinese want maples with red leaves, so they are changing the maples from the common Japanese maple, Acer palmatum to the cultivar “Deshojo” which has scarlet spring new growth. Sometimes the red foliage lasts through the summer. I was surprised they did not use “Seigen,” “Chisio,” and “Beni Chidori,” which all lead out red in spring. Perhaps Deshojo is a more vigorous grower and easy to cultivate. I also saw many such maples being grafted at Seiji Morimae’s S-Cube garden in Hanyu. I’m going to watch these trees develop in November when will be bringing a few people to visit Taikan Bonsai Exhibition.

2023 97th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition- Part 4

Chinese hackberry, Celtis sinensis.

This year, Part 2 of the 97th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition is being held on February 15-18, 2023 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan.

Part 2 has all new trees, accessories, suiseki and other ornaments. I personally thought Part 1 was superb, and it was. However, Part 2 seemed to have higher quality and more unusual species. This was the opening day for Part 2, and I did not see big crowds, perhaps because of Covid?

Winter flowering cherry

Data from Part 2:

140 Exhibit Areas

90 Large Bonsai

27 Chuhin (Medium) Compositions (54 Pcs.)

14 Small bonsai

8 Shohin Compositions (52 pcs.)

Total Displayed Bonsai, Approximately 212

3 Kokufu Prizes

12 Kicho (Important Bonsai Masterpieces)

2 Special Exhibits

Foreign Exhibitors:

1 Italy

1 Thailand

1 Suri Lanka

Kokufu Prize. Amelanchier asiatica, Shadblow

Kokufu Prize. Sargent Juniper.

Kokufu Prize. Shohin Bonsai Composition, mixed species,

Rock planting, clinging-to-a rock style, SHOHIN bonsai.

All of my study is not completed yet, I got tired because I spent all morning in the suiseki exhibition, held on the second floor of the same building. I did however enjoy seeing an Amelanchier, Shadblow bonsai win one of the Kokufu Prizes. Also I noticed three Hemlock and many Shishigashira Japanese maples. Part 1 also had several too. Additionally, there as a Chinese hackberry, not often displayed. For the first time I saw a Japanese or Chinese plum Prunus salicina, NOT Japanese flowering apricot, Prunus mume, which is misnamed “Plum.”

I’ll probably notice more tomorrow. Think I’ll visit the bonsai exhibition first, then meander to the suiseki exhibition.

2023 97th Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition- Part 3

We spent our third full day of visiting Part 1 of the 2023 Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition and the Ueno Green Club sales area of the Nippon Bonsai Growers Cooperative.

Enjoy these last few photos from Part 1 of the exhibition, plus a few random images from the Ueno Green Club.

US $750,000. Sold1

US $30,000.

We leave tomorrow to visit other bonsai gardens on our way to Tokoname to purchase containers. Look for additional images soon.