White Pine Cascade

It can be refreshing getting back into the world of blogging.  Writing was always a passion of mine, finding time for it can be another story though… hoping to produce more insightful posts before the end of my apprenticeship here in Japan, coming soon!   Perhaps not as soon as I imagined… so please bare with me here.  I may become (or already am) the longest staying foreign apprentice to study Bonsai in Japan.  Here is another sample of some of the wiring I’ve been doing here at Mr. Suzuki’s nursery here in Nagano, JP.  Hope you enjoy.

Goyomatsu – before

Goyo – after styling

Cascade style tree’s always look at home on a nice root stand (nejouku.)  The current pot is a little strong and over-powering, even though it is a dominating cascade.  A nice round or Nanban style pot would be more fitting for the overall balance of this tree and display.

That’s all for now, just a simple before and after.  Stick with me I’ll need all the support I can get during my 7th year. I am constantly surprised at the broadness of Bonsai, how it manages to tie everything together in unexpected ways.  Look forward to sharing my work and experiences with all of you in the year to come.  My old English teacher in high school (he taught Eastern philosophy and religion in my first year) always taught me two things: “repetition breeds mastery,” and “work hard, but don’t work your ass off.”  This year I’m sure I will be doing both.




The Past & Present: A Kichou Bonsai with a Promising Future

Japanese Bonsai deserving to be deemed “Kichou Bonsai” (important Bonsai masterpiece) most likely have a long history living in a pot maintained by caring individuals throughout the past.  Even during difficult times such as WWII, Bonsai stayed alive because people never wavered in keeping them that way.  In my mind, Kichou Bonsai represent many things besides the title and dog tags they are given.  They are all we held and still hold, living objects of great importance and age; a symbol of peace.  In this post I share with you a Shinpaku Juniper that I prepared for the Kichou Bonsai judging that took place a few days ago.

Here I am in deep contemplation before repositioning the branches. Unfortunately this is the only before pic!

We finished repotting the soon to be Kichou and  luckily my good buddy and partner in crime was there to capture the action, thanks for the great shots Tyler!  I won’t fault him for standing around taking pictures when he has a collection of paparazzi photos like the one above… since this was taken I haven’t dozed off a single day during our lunch break… bad Kohai!!!

Ok I lied. Here is a before of the tree after repotting.

Looking spiffy in a antique Chinese Shudei. Soft yet sturdy, a good match for this tree.

Good Bonsai are often dealt between client and professional like professional athletes in some ways.  My teacher acquired this one from a trade with one of our clients in Niigata.  We always like working on his trees because he keeps them very healthy and has an impressive collection of natural Itoigawa (un-grafted), which are difficult to come by these days.  In Japan, many have died in the past, making those that are left pricey even in todays lagging economy.

The same tree pictured in a past Kokufu album.

There you have it, history in the making!

Not completely satisfied with the left side of the atama (head)
Both require a little more adjusting!

Any work on the branches was very subtle, as the tree was previously wired last summer.  However, a closer look at the overall balance and cleaning up the lines were routine but necessary tasks nonetheless.  Refinement can be some of the most head-splitting work in Bonsai!  In the end your attention to detail will always pay off… so only look on the bright side!  Only by doing this will our Bonsai reach a higher level, along with our patience and understanding.

After re-working the top left side of the apex. Can you see the change?! More compact and in line, keeping in mind the natural flow and emphasizing the movement to the right.

A nice root stand was chosen. Presentation is very important to the judges, and they are strict indeed.

If you enjoyed this post, check out Tyler Sherrod’s blog for complete coverage of our Kichou Bonsai entry’s this month!  Happy blogging I’ll be back with more soon!

The Beheading

A few days ago Tyler and I had the luxury of “house sitting” the nursery while team Japan (our oyakata and the other apprentice named Yuusuke) were out of town hunting for new trees and various Bonsai treasure via auctions in Tokyo and Saitama.

Although we are expected to take care of business in his absence (no slacking off!  Ok, maybe a little…) we get the rare opportunity to work on some of our own trees and experiment, using some of the knowledge we work with on a daily basis in our own way.

Before separation - making one tree into two

This is a tree that was grafted for fun a couple of years back by one of our clients.  As well as an extreme change in planting angle, roots and a branch (a variety more suitable for refinement) were added using approach grafts.  I’m sure many of you have seen this technique used by Iiura-san, one of the grafting godfathers of Japan.  I initially brought this bunjin into the workshop to get a closer look and look for signs of success, but after wiggling the branch grafted on top, it was clearly a failed attempt just by the way the thing moved if you were to touch it in the slightest.  The root graft felt solid enough, so we decided to chance it and end it with one fell swoop… off with the head!

Oops! After sawing off the uninteresting top

I won’t go into great detail about Juniper grafting techniques in this post, just always take great care and be cautious before being bold with these kinds of decisions!  Sometimes the only way to find out is by taking chances, so always leave many branches and make sure your juniper are strong and growing well before grafting.  And if you know you want to graft, hold off on repotting as this tends to slow the tree down a bit.  The type of approach grafting we like works better on larger trees, as the scions are not little cuttings, but rooted seedlings.  This way you can water the roots of the seedling, keeping it alive until it has fused with the parent.  Branch grafts using this method, if performed correctly are very efficient, taking only one growing season before the supporting roots can be chopped.  Vice versa, root grafts tend to take longer because you want enough roots to grow before discarding the original mass which can destroy the tree if the graft was faulty in some way.  One way to tell is by simply cutting off the foliage of the grafted sapling, if the roots continue to grow then you know they are helping support the tree.  Also, if you notice swelling above the area of insertion, you may assume that things are going well.  In the case of THIS tree, we had nothing to lose, and two or three years had passed since the grafting was done… so all in!!!

A close up - Tyler holding his new tree!

The next step will be to pot this baby up in a growing container and let nature have its way.  Next year we can graft better foliage and eventually end up with a decent shohin with lots of deadwood, perfect material for our future experimentation.

Alas, we have two tree’s with unworthy foliage.  However, we now have clarity and a clear game plan.  Keep in mind, an amateur  first grafted freely on this poor guy, and who knows what was going through his mind.  Before we had a mass of confusion with a nice lower trunk, now we have two trees with good potential.  But what to do with the lower trunk?  More grafting coming this June!  Here are some more shots for your contemplation.

Some nice twist and shari near the base

This is the type of stock we use for grafting (rooted cuttings)

Another view revealing the movement, critical to have in a bunjin Juniper!

Always good to have a lot of cuttings! My hair is starting to look like this now...

Still haven’t decided on the front and inclination for the lower half… I’ll take another look when summer arrives, grafting time.  Hope you enjoyed the beginning of this project, I’ll continue documenting the progress of both tree’s and share the results!  We should see some interesting results within the next 2 years, hope you look forward to seeing them!

Intimidating Clients

Just got home after another late-ish night in the workshop.  What does one do when being plagued by unsettling thoughts or experiences?  Put them on their blog immediately before they become repressed!!!  On that note I would like to share with you now such an experience that involved working on a clients tree.

Clients Red Pine before wiring

One day about a month ago my Oyakata (Mr. Suzuki) came back from an auction with a van full of new material.  One of the following days we put this tree on display inside the main greenhouse (the nicest of the 4) keeping in mind that one of our big-spending clients would soon pay a visit and reap the benefits of Oyakata’s findings.  Well, he really liked this tree, and was keen on making it his, which would mean more work for me!  Having been de-wired soon after entering the nursery (very bad scarring on 80 % of the branches) I would need to be careful and not cause the poor old guy any additional stress.

After wiring

I didn’t want to over-work the branches with unnecessary wire; the branches were all there, they just needed some lift and more light to balance the overall strength.  I remember the day I started working on this tree because they don’t usually happen like that day.  Our client had made his way into the workshop (taboo in some nursery’s) and began critiquing my work before I had barely  managed to put on a few pieces of wire!  He went on with his dialogue, stating that if he was not satisfied with my work, he would re-set the branches himself; I smiled and tried to explain that I wasn’t close to being finished when Oyakata entered the workshop too.  He gave me a slight nod of understanding and told Mr. Takahashi, “don’t worry, Matt knows what he is doing.”  It was indirect but his words gave me the confidence.  Later that night I made a phone call thanking Mr. Takahashi for a bottle of  Ballentine, guess he had a good day.

More to come soon keep me on your radar!

2006 Summarized

Browsing through the endless mess of photos in my library, I stumbled upon a few keepers from the beginning of my apprenticeship.  My level of determination was matched only by my lack of hair… I would do anything to stay.

Part of the morning routine (the best part)

The old garden (Jippou-an)

Constant rearrangement and lots of lifting

When I had proven my ability to handle the more simple yet important aspects of maintaining a clean and healthy Bonsai nursery/garden, I was tested with something that mentally challenges every beginner: wiring.  Testing a first year student is part of the initiation; if you can show you are learning through the quality of your work, you will not be frowned upon… yet.  First you need to master the basics (using the correct size of wire, elegant line, soft application, etc.)  Then you will be expected to know correct branch placement in relation to the tree, does it look natural, balanced and convincing?

Here is an example using the first tree I ever wired in Japan, a Bunjin Japanese White Pine.  Bunjin are often given to the new apprentice to practice on, as they tend to be very good at forcing the eye to see both positive and negative in the overall design, they can be tricky.

Goyomatsu before initial styling

After initial styling

Not too shabby, it was a start.  Greatness in wiring comes from constant exposure to beautiful and simple technique, I have had many outstanding examples to study over the years; combined with patience, practice and a mind in the state of constant unrest this may (or may not) be achieved.


Hopefully ya’ll are a little caught up, sorry I waited 5 years to share these inspiring pics and rad experiences.  I intend to update my blog as often as apprentice-ly possible, where are all my encouraging followers??!  Holllllllla

To all of you bold Bonsai lovers out there

Allow me to formally introduce myself!  My name is Matt Reel, I am currently 23 years of age and come from Portland, Oregon of the U.S.A.  My addiction to Bonsai began when I was a 14-year-old teenager; upon graduating high school, with the help of many great friends, family, and mentors, I somehow landed myself in a small town called Obuse, located in Nagano-prefecture, Japan.  Since that fateful day 5 years ago, I have been eager to gain as much knowledge possible under the expansive wing of my master (Oyakata, or to an apprentice, very strict yet caring father figure/teacher) Shinji Suzuki.  I have learned to fly and am now maturing in the last thralls of my apprenticeship; it is therefor my wish to share with you what I am beginning to understand after all this time.  I come back to you now, old friends, so let us enjoy the wonders of all that is Bonsai!

Enjoy the read~