Bonsai Museum and Shibamata with Nodai

Kobayashi Kunio's Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku

Last weekend I had the great fortune to go with Professor Hattori of Nodia’s Garden Lab and about twelve students to visit Kobayashi Kunio sensei’s Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku. Kobayashi-sensei has won numerous Japanese and international awards for his mastery of Japanese bonsai. By chance I had met him, his foreign apprentice Valentin, and other students a few weeks ago at the Iriya Asa Gao (morning glory) festival.

The Bonsai Museum, open six days a week in Shitamachi, far exceeded my imagination. Our large group was met at the gate by one of the Japanese apprentices. Initially we were left to admire the astounding bonsais set on simple wood stands in the courtyard. I noticed Valentin and another apprentice lifting and carry several plants, and later realized that they placing the trees in the very traditionally designed rooms of the ten year old Museum.

matthew and link at bonsai museum

On first view, the dozens of trees are overwhelming: each a miniature world combining meticulously crafted tree, moss, in ceramics or on stone bases. Some of the trees are 600 and even 1,000 years old, and all display a refined beauty that is a mix of taking natural elements to extreme conditions. In a photo book describing his career, Kobayashi sensei says that early on he often tried too hard and in retrospect apologizes to those trees that he killed.

2 formal rooms in bonsai museum

The Museum structure is a series of five interconnected formal tatami rooms, including one set up for tea ceremony with a small door entrance and area for coals and a kettle. Each room has one bonsai tree arranged with a scroll, small figurine, and short table in the ceremonial, slightly elevated section. Kobayashi-sensei worked closely with architects and designers to create an ideal environment for the contemplation of his master works. It is hard to believe the building is only 10 years old; it was so well designed that on a hot summer day, you could feel cool breezes.

Hattori sensei at bonsai museum

More photos of Bonsai Museum, a master lesson from Kobayashi sensei, and lunch in Shibamata after the jump.

The architectural details, including elegant tree trunks and finely crafted details, make you realize that Japanese craft is still alive. Below is a cut-out using a common three part series of plum, bamboo and black pine called shouchiku bai (松竹梅).

shouchiku bai (松竹梅), bonsai museum

On the second floor of the Bonsai Museum are two rooms devoted to special occasion bonsai ceramics. From inside the Museum, I noticed an older man cleaning out a side garden, which I later learned is full of bonsai trees that corporations and individuals have entrusted to Kobayashi sensei to revive. I asked the apprentice who was our guide if the man was a volunteer. I was startled to learn that he is the 94 year old father of Kobayashi sensei, looking very “genki,” undisturbed by the mid-day heat, and fully absorbed in basic garden maintenance.

Bonsai Museum tree hospital, with sensei's father

Nodai’s Hattori sensei also explained what seemed inexplicable to me. Why are small pots hanging from some of the larger bonsai trees? They are grafting new branches to old trees.

Grafting at bonsai museum

After marveling at the trees and building, we were treated to tea and a brief master lesson by Kobayashi sensei. Working on a persimmon sappling, he showed us how he uses wires to quickly create “upright” and “cascading” styles. I was amazed to see him use three scissors in one hand, with the tools a natural extension of his body.

Kobayashi with 3 scissors

Kobayashi sensei also imparted some wisdom and bonsai philosophy. The three qualities bonsai trees must have are dignity, individuality, and harmony. Dignity is most important of the three.

Kobayashi sensei's master lesson

A novice might think that the trees mind being manipulated, twisted, tied, and forced into unnatural shapes, but the plants know that they are being made beautiful so they accept it. Kobayashi also said that you might see red spots after a tree has been manipulated, which he attributed to the plant knowing that it is beautiful and also feeling shame. I wish my Japanese language ability was better to fully understand all Kobayashi sensei had to say.

As we left the class, the apprentices gave us each a persimmon sappling to take home. I was incredibly moved by their graciousness.

Later that evening, returning to my apartment, two of the old ladies who were tending to the front garden after 10 pm, because it’s cooler then, looked at my plant, and said, “That’s too bad. Persimmons take 8 years to fruit.” I guess one of the lessons of bonsai is patience.

(Update: I have also blogged about a modern bonsai master, Kobayashi Kenji, of Sinajina. His work is an interesting contrast with Kobayashi Kunio’s).

After the Bonsai Museum visit, Hittori Sensei showed us around Shibamata, famous for being the setting of the Otoko wa tsurai yo (男はつらいよ, “It’s tough being a man”) series of 48 movies whose lead character is “Tora-san,” the son of a dango shop family who is unlucky in love.

Below are photos of the Shibamata Temple with an amazing “dragon” shaped tree with three incredibly long boughs, the dango shop from the movie, a sembei shop, the delicious tendon (tempura over rice, with a sweet sauce) we had for lunch, and a street vendor’s amazing squid surume (sun-dried) machine.

Shibamata Temple with "dragon" tree Tora-san's dango shop Shibamata senbei jars Tendon lunch, Shibamata surume ikka or sun-dried squid machine, Shibamata surume ikka or sun-dried squid machine, Shibamata

4 comments

  1. It was a fun day in shitamachi, or “low city” of Tokyo. Kobayashi sensei astounded me with his artistry. His hands knew exactly what to do and within a minute my small persimmon sapling was transformed forever.

    The bonsai museum was a great way to spend a few hours away from the heat of busy Shinjuku. Jared – do you have a picture of the 1 million dollar bonsai?

    1. Matthew, Thank you for helping with translations. I didn’t hear about the million dollar tree, but if you have a photo, I’d be excited to post it.

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