Tea with the bonsai master

We had been told that bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi was overseas but that one of his senior apprentices would show our group around the master’s gallery in a Tokyo suburb – found only on the second attempt after our affable bus driver missed it because he was so enchanted by the street’s blossoming cherry trees.

However, there was clearly a man in charge and this turned out to be Kunio Kobayashi himself, his travel plans altered and our group the beneficiary (especially as he was off the next day to another overseas destination).

Mr Kobayashi is matter-of-fact about the practical aspects of  creating a bonsai but, he says, if someone does not understand the work in their heart, then they will not succeed.

“If your heart is not in the right place you will never make a good bonsai,” he says. “Plants are very direct and straight in how they react to their care. Passion is just as important as knowing how to prune.”

The garden grows all its own moss – three different types – for use in the bonsai pots.

Acknowledged as one of Japan’s top two bonsai masters, Mr Kobayashi opens Shunkaen, his purpose-built gallery in Tokyo, to the public.

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Bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi with the 400-year-old azalea that won Japan’s top prize in 2012. He is particularly proud of the tree as when he bought it at auction it was ‘almost dead’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

At any one time there may be as many as 17 apprentices at the garden – “raising people is much harder [than bonsai] for me”, Mr Kobayashi says. He accepts Japanese students  at the end of their secondary schooling, refusing anyone who has embarked on tertiary study, but takes in foreign students of all ages.

He has been involved with bonsai for 40 years and won the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award four times, and the Grand Prix at the Kojuten Azalea Exhibition six times, as well as regularly giving demonstrations and lectures around the world. He is also the author of a highly regarded book.

The key to bonsai success, he says, is creating the right balance of water, light, temperature and food, while recognising that each tree is different.

Working with trees that are damaged or dying is a challenge he enjoys – he had a juniper with only one living branch so formed it as a “mountain tree” apparently gnarled by the elements.

“The tree becomes more valuable due to the impression of hardship the plant has had but what you do with it depends on the tree.”

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A pine tree on show in a tokonoma (display alcove). Photo: Sandra Simpson

Mr Kobayashi has a room full of antique Chinese pots awaiting their trees but has sold one that was once been owned by a Chinese emperor. The government of Japan bought it to present to China as a symbol of friendship paying Mr Kobayashi more than $NZ15 million.

Unfortunately, he said, the sale came after he had built his gallery, which had cost $1.5 million for the building alone. “Imagine what I could have done with the extra money.”

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Part of the outdoor display at Shunkaen Gallery in Tokyo. Photo: Sandra Simpson

  • Thanks to Robyn Laing for the translations.

Read more about Mr Kobayashi and bonsai here.

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission. It has been expanded slightly.