Preparing plants for New Year’s celebration

Sinajina class: Preparing plants for New Year's celebration

Recently I had the pleasure of taking Kobayashi Kenji’s modern bonsai class at Sinajina. In addition to making my own miniature landscape with a black pine, rock and moss, I learned that gardening in October is focused on making plants beautiful for New Year’s celebrations and guests.

The class used eight year old black pine trees. First we removed all the old, longer pine needles by hand and with tweezers. We removed nearly all the old soil to replace it with a fresh mix that includes volcanic rock and to expose some of the oldest roots at the base of the trunk. Then, we examined the tree to identify its “face” and position the tree in its new pot. Finally we added moss– in my case a taller hill that passes underneath one of the roots and a lower meadow– and small rocks.

Pruned red pine in residential garden, preparing for New Year

Careful attention to form and style is clearly something that extends from miniature landscapes to residential garden landscapes. I am sure that many home-owners and gardeners are pruning their trees now to make sure that they are spectacular at New Year.

I also learned how to distinguish between black pine and red pine. Black pine needles are hard, unbending and sharp, while red pine needles are much softer to touch. Only when fully mature do red pine trees exhibit the bright red trunk that also distinguishes them. Black pine trees are mostly found near the sea, whereas red pine trees grow in the mountains.

Kobayashi Kenji at Sinajina class

Kobayashi sensei continues to be an inspiring guide to plants in urban life. In his anthropomorphism, plants become more human, and humans more embedded in nature. Plants are like people, he explains, in that they require most care during their first year, including more water. Once domesticated, plants cannot be returned to the wild since they have lost their survival skills and require continued human care.


  1. Not too long ago I have discovered the rather intense discussion among Western bonsai practitioners on whether bonsai is an art form. I am writing with a question…

    For background:
    True enough, the word ‘Art’ is dispensed quite liberally these days and ‘what is art’ is a tedious pretext for chatter, but this time, the debate seemed quite interesting: for once there seems to e good evidence that, at the very least, ‘western bonsai’ is accepted along the flow of stylistic innovations ‘at home’, Sotheby’s carried them and not via their Asian Arts department, the community looks very much like any in the arts despite the form having been imported as a craft or form of exotic decoration, etc. More interestingly, this may be the only ‘Asian Art’ – all derogatory reductionism built into the term considered – that got itself transplanted. AND via a rather different process then the market onslaught of ‘western art’ going east. Odd bird, this ‘art’!

    The question:
    The discussion takes somewhat for granted that bonsai is an ‘Art’ at home, particularly in Japan.
    And this is why I am writing here with the question: well, is it?

    Further on with the question:
    Is it THAT simple?

    The MOFA seems to have grappled with the matters of cultural translation as well, proposing ‘Pastime Art’. []. Some notion of ‘arts whose object is time’ or the perception of time, feels either terribly tempting in a philosophical way, or terribly forced. I am wondering whether there are any honorable references for this official innovation. [English, French, Spanish would do, Japanese, not so much]

    Certainly, I must apologize for the lengthy cold call. I am glad to have found your Blog and would be grateful for any reply. Please feel free to use my e-mail.

    Many thanks for your attention!

    1. I am not qualified to answer the question about whether bonsai is art or not. Maybe another reader has an opinion?

      Certainly bonsai requires training and an eye for beauty. Unlike most art, it must also be cared for by gardeners, amateur or professional, or it will simply die. It’s funny that the term craft used to be viewed negatively, and now has been elevated.

      I am curious what motivates your question. How do you define art? What makes the boundaries of art important and to whom?

      1. I found the question interesting ‘by contagion’ – because quite few others find it also, here:

        Certainly the history of this question being asked is quite a bit larger then I am aware of. Of all its aspects, I am most interested in how the economy of various arts, crafts and fashions is /was organized around standards of aesthetic appreciation or tastes. The more distinct, the better. The instances of transformation – craft-art-decoration – and geographic transplant – the Asian arts as decoration, say – make handy snapshots.

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