Kobayashi Kenji

Gorgeous giant moss at tree base in Sinajina

Sinajina, the modern bonsai shop in Jiyugaoka, always has beautiful small bonsai inside with a focus on seasonal plants and flowers. Outside the shop, there are always rows and rows of plants that can be used for bonsais or landscaping. There are also some larger plants, like the tree above that is growing out of a giant mound of moss.

Sinajina always has amazing moss, and Kobayashi Kenji sensei and his staff are very skilled at combining the moss to look like a single piece. The moss is always gorgeous in the small bonsai, but this large one is spectacular.

Below is a shot of some of the unstaged inventory, including a pine with a miniature rope sculpture like the ones used in winter to prevent damage from snow that are typical in traditional Japanese gardens.

Making bonsai at Sinajina with Kobayashi Kenji sensei

Recently I had the pleasure of attending my second bonsai-making class with Kobayashi Kenji sensei at Sinajina. While last fall’s class focused on black pine, this time we made a miniature landscape with three gangly deciduous shrubs (Nanking nanakama) and a small flowering astilbe (tannachidakesashi). At the base, we added moss and gravel.

I like how this small combination includes different heights and forms, flowers, and leaves that turn color and drop in the fall. It should be fun to take care of it in different seasons. In addition to TEDxSeeds organizers, the class also included three sisters from Tochigi who come to five classes every year. They clearly were more advanced than us beginners!

I highly encourage anyone to take a class at Sinajina. They are offered several times per month. For basically the cost of the plant (about US $70 or 6,500 yen), you not only leave with a bonsai you have made yourself, but you also learn from Kobayashi sensei about the plants, how to arrange them, and his passion about how people and plants can live together. For now, classes are in Japanese, but recently Kobayashi sensei hired a bilingual American and may soon offer classes in English.

Rose and mountain hydrangea bonsai at Sinajina

I have had the pleasure of visiting Sinajina three times in the past three weeks: to talk with Kobayashi sensei about a project with the Portland Japanese Garden, to take a class with TEDxSeeds organizers, and to visit with my Newsweek Japan editor. In every visit, the store is set up differently, and the most seasonal bonsai are most prominently displayed.

Last weekend, the rose and mountain hydrangea perfectly capture the turning of the season from late spring to early summer. These bonsai are perfect in shape, buds just opening, and contrast with pot, gravel, and moss.

I also like the contrast between these plants and the hollyhocks I featured yesterday. All of them are seasonal flowers, yet they differ in scale and degree of human care. I like to think that urban nature extends from the wild and unruly to the groomed and domesticated.

Sodateck brings indoor growing to Japan

My friend Endo Masahiro’s Sodateck has developed a combination LED and fluorescent grow light system for Japan. By combining the two light sources, Sodateck offers an optimal spectrum for plants. I like how his product catalog, in print and web, shows indoor gardening in a very contemporary setting: edibles and decorative plants in a chic wood and stone house with bicycles and other signifiers of modern style and living.

Based in Tokushima, Shikoku, he recently exhibited his indoor gardening system at the Gardex (International Garden Expo Tokyo). It was great to see the full range of what he is creating.

The systems are very elegant: brushed steel with two buttons, one for each light source type. Endo-san also brought some of his indoor plant creations, including modern bonsais like this moss on black stone tray. It seems clear that Endo-san is influenced by his friendship with modern bonsai master Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) of Sinajina (品品).

Click the link below to see some more photos of his products, including hydroponic systems with his business partner Yakumo Trading.

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Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

In spring the sustainability director of ARUP showed me the incredible designs for Inujima Art Project, and I had known immediately that I wanted to visit and see it for myself. In an earlier post, I discussed its zero energy use through a creative natural cooling, heating and lighting system, and its wastewater recycling program.

Also listed was the the architecture by Sambuichi Hiroshi, art by Yanagi Yukinori using elements from Mishima Yukio’s house and writings, and the benefactor Fukutake Soichiro, Benesse‘s owner and the creator of nearby Naoshima, another island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Inujima: Ruins and Forest

Visiting Inujima on a beautiful fall day in October and spending the night in a school house closed many years ago and converted into a hostel was an incredible experience combining nature, recent history, art, and questions about Japan’s industrial past and its 21st century future.

Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

Inujima in the early 20th century was a small island with over 3,000 inhabitants in the early 20th century. In a brief period of ten years, Inujima was the site of a massive seirenshou, or copper refinery, placed in the Seto Inland Sea to keep the intense pollution away from Japan’s population centers. With the collapse of copper prices after only ten years, the refinery closed and the island entered a long period of decline.

Inujima: Reclaiming the Past to Envision the Future

Today there are approximately 50 residents, with an average age of 70 or more. The chimney built just before the refinery closed now serves as an integral part of the zero emissions temperature system in the new museum structure. Earlier chimneys had less structural integrity, and large parts of the refinery, including its original power station, are now being reclaimed by thick forest.

After the jump, a discussion of the art work and the island today.

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Balcony garden in early November

Balcony garden view of Mt Fuji

With cooler nights, fall is definitely upon us. I took these photos in the first week of November to document the passing of the seasons on our balcony garden. Above a dramatic sunset over Mt Fuji illuminates the very end of the morning glory green curtain. As you can see in the photo below, there are still many flowers, including cosmos, murasaki shikibu, cyclamen, geranium, fujibakama, a creamy daisy, and a few other annuals.

Balcony garden in early November

One of the satoyama unit‘s plant is flowering now, while some of the deciduous plants are dropping their leaves.

Blossom on satoyama unit from 5bai midori

The black pine bonsai I assembled at Kobayashi Kenji Sensei’s class at Sinajina is doing well.

black pine bonsai from Kobayashi Kenji Sensei's class at Sinajina

And we put the ojizō-sama made at the ceramic studio into one of the satoyama units.

Ojizō-sama in satoyama unit

More photos of fall plants, including lemon tree, ceramics, and more images of the satoyama units after the jump.

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Two young Nodai alumni

Suzuki Hokuto Nodai alum makes traditional gardeners' clothes

During the Tokyo University of Agriculture’s fall festival, the Garden Design Lab of the Landscape Architect Sciences department hosted a reunion for alumni under 35. I met two fascinating alumni who had studied at Nodai in the late 1990s. Alumnus Suzuki Hokuto (鈴木北斗), has a shop called Kyouen Store that sells traditional Japanese gardeners’ clothes and supplies, made of denim and using a special dye that repels mosquitos. There are even cool explanations of the different components, including tabi, kyahan, jyouba, harakake, momohiki, koikuchi, and tekkou. The site is in Japanese but the photos give you a good idea of what the clothes look like. The photo above is jyouba and below tekkou, which I have seen Kobayashi Kenji Sensei of Sinajina use. His landscape design firm is Kyouen.

Suzuki Hokuto's tekkou at Kyouen Store

I also met  Satou Koutarou (佐藤光太朗), who has a landscape business Iloha 1128 and also creates art from unbaked soil. It seems related to ceramics but somehow is not fired. He has a cool blog, and a gallery of his art work.

Satou Koutarou art gallery

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.

Metropolis article on Tokyo Green Space

Metropolis magazine article on Tokyo Green Space

Metropolis magazine in Japan published my article on Tokyo Green Space. It’s my first general interest article on some of the amazing green space innovators I have met during my research in Tokyo: including Ginza rice farmers and bee keepers, a modern bonsai Continue reading

Early fall at Sinajina

Early fall at Shina Jina

The exquisite miniaturization at Sinajina (品品) makes their modern bonsais a poetic reflection on season and landscape. Above is an image from last weekend, in which color and pattern capture the start of fall as surely as the first sighting of wool vests in the Tokyo streets.

To update my earlier post, I am also including some additional images of the new moss mosaic shop sign, a view of the modern structure housing the shop, and a shelves of bonsais for sale. Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) is a plant master with understated charm and extraordinary vision.

Early fall at Shina Jina Early fall at Shina Jina Early fall at Shina Jina

Meeting Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品)

Meeting Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品)

Yesterday I had the amazing fortune to meet Kobayashi Kenji (小林健二) at Sinajina (品品) in Jiyūgaoka, Setagaya-ku. Recognized as a leading Japanese green designer and bonsai innovator, Kobayashi-sensei has a vision for bring an appreciation of nature through caring for plants to a wide audience.

By making plants into attractive small objects, Kobayashi-sensei has succeeded in attracting many young people to his shop, studio and classroom housed in a beautiful modern building. Trays of plants line the front of the building, and a shelf has been built above the door to the entrance for additional storage. Inside is a gallery setting, where small plants are growing in elegant yet simple pots arranged with moss and stones.

Sinajina entrance

My friend Britton, who is fluent in Japanese and a moss expert, and I arrived at his shop with little notice and no expectation that Kobayashi-sensei would have time to speak with us. I was surprised by his incredible hospitality: offering us cool green tea on a hot day, and talking at length about his philosophy of plants, his background, and his craft. He was wearing a t-shirt of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Having recently visited the far more traditional Bonsai Museum in Edogawa-ku, I immediately noticed the difference in approach. Whereas Kobayashi Kunio takes pride in caring for plants that are hundreds of years old, Kobayashi Kenji of Sinajina is excited to work with less expensive plant materials and to create modern imaginary worlds including miniature parks, decorative animals, and contemporary landscapes.

Kobayashi told me that his background was in landscape architecture, and that he worked on some large-scale projects including Tokyo Big Sight. In 1998, he went to Portland to study with Kawamoto Toshio-sensei of Japan Bonsai. Unlike landscape architecture where the drawings on paper represent large areas in small form, he enjoyed how designing miniatures means that the plan and the execution are at the same scale. And unlike traditional bonsai which focuses on a single old tree, Kobayashi’s style is closer to saikei, miniature landscapes that can contain multiple trees and younger plants. By studying outside Japan with Kawamoto-san, he learned traditional techniques but with great freedom to imagine his own style.

Kobayashi-sensei spoke and showed us two arrangements. The one in the photo at the top is a miniature park, with the small stones representing a path, the moss bushes, and the seedlings mature trees. Another was a tiny maple tree growing at an angle from a tiny round ceramic with a clump of moss and tiny stones. In neither case had he used traditional bonsai wires, and the plants were between six months and perhaps two years old.

Sinajina contemporary bonsai

Kobayashi-sensei says that traditional bonsai craft and ownership is the domain of old and powerful men. And that many urban gardeners are older women. As we talked, he was proud that his shop attracts many young people. A green entrepreneur friend had warned me that Kobayashi’s plants are “expensive,” but the $40 to $200 cost of plant and pot is nothing compared to traditional bonsai trees that far outlast human life spans. Yet, like traditional bonsais, they are both miniature environments and objects of tremendous beauty.

Kobayashi-sensei views caring for plants as a way for urban people to connect to the environment. He says it is not enough for urban people to visit the countryside for a day and appreciate the beauty of nature. In an age of “consumerist culture” where cut flowers and plants are considered disposable, he wants to seduce young people and children to see his plants not as accessories but as part of the family, like a pet, that requires care and attention.

By sending his magical plants into homes, and at prices that (at least some) kids can afford, he wants to inspire young people to appreciate plants at a very practical level. Care for them, or they will die. Close attention will allow city dwellers to learn about plant life cycles, witness seasonal change, see growth, and actively beautify them. Kobayashi-sensei compares plants to humans in that both need some grooming to look their best– people need to cut their hair and nails, while his plants need to to be up-potted every three years, pruned, and have their roots cut back. I was startled to hear him say that a potted plant has more chance to thrive than a wild one, because in the forest plants “fight each other” for light and nutrients.

Sinajina viewed from street