A wonderful day before winds will be ripping off some leaves the next days. The Tokonoma was used to do some recordings for next years new videos. I will later this year announce some news about these videos, so stay tuned. Cliffhanger intended.
The tree is a Crabapple I have been working on for some years (12 years to be exact). Startet as a garden yamadori tree, I got from a friend. Cut back and regrown. Now it is time to add finer ramification, but it will newer be as dense as a Japanese maple. It has a different nature, and I have to go with this.
For a number of years I have been growing a small Juniperus Shimpaku, and followed the original position until now. The tree was purchased as a semi-finished piece at the Mansei-en nursery in Omiya, Japan, of late Saburo Kato in 2005, and mainly bought as a memory of the time spent with this most respected bonsai artist. One of a few I could afford.
I named the tree “Kato” for the very same reason. To remember a personality and respected artist who as one of a few, deserved to be entitled master. A misused phrase put on too many people nowadays who still needs to deserve this predicate after proving years of dedicated high quality work.
Back to the tree. After a few years of training, a tree in this size usually needs some restoration, some work that brings it back in shape. I originally had to reduce the slightly overgrown canopy after the purchase, and after that I managed to keep it in it`s form for some time. The shari (trunk deadwood) was only worked on sparsely, and I enhanced the deadwood some years ago to add some interest to it. I also extended it a little to make it better.
Time gone, and the tree needed to be reduced a little again in 2017. New growth was developed further back, so I now had the opportunity to reduce the length and keep the size limited. This made me think of a new possible style of the tree. A simple change with a huge effect, with little effort done.
Where growth was removed new jins (deadwood branches) have been created, and this opened for a new vision of the tree. Same pot, but new position changes the view and expression of the tree. Only rearranging the left part of some roots was necessary. I was able to tilt the tree, so it performs much better now to my taste.
The repotting was done carefully, not disturbing the roots much. The new inclining position also lifted some older roots to the surface, that in future will be a good visual nebari adding strength to the image when the soil carefully is removed little by little over time.
Mind the gap. When positioning a cascade or semi-cascade bonsai it is of great importance to leave air between the trunk and the pot. A convincing cascade bonsai shows it`s strength only if it is able to hold it self and not supporting it by resting at the edge of the pot. Keeping air between the pot and trunk is therefore an important detail.
Click the gallery below for larger pictures.
2005. Original bonsai after purchase at Mansei-en.
2005. The original shari before it was reworked.
2005. Working the deadwood to bring in more age and interest.
2007. The canopy reduced and jins made at the end.
2008. The canopy beginning to fill in nicely again, and in proper size.
2016. Regularly thinning is necessary.
2017. Before changing the position.
Rootball left almost undisturbed.
Anchoring wire applied.
Using this method of applying the wire, takes less space at the soil surface, when the wire is fastened beneath the pot in stead of at soil level.
Trying out the new position.
Changing the angle slightly makes a big difference.
Time to pull the wire so the tree is fastened securely in the pot.
Here it is visible how little the wire is seen at soil level. Afterwards easy to cover with moss.
Final image. Notice the important gap between the pot and the trunk, that should not rest on the pot, but balance by itself.
As promised in an earlier post, I will take a little time going through some of the shohin displays at Noelanders this year. Not to judge them (judges already did their job), but to put some words on the way of displaying shohin-bonsai the classical way at a exhibition.
The obvious to put forward, is the two awarded seven point displays (nana-ten). They both are classical Japanese displays, with the largest number of trees in that size, fitting this type of five pieces racks. At competitions you are admitted a certain space to fill in with trees. The smaller trees, the larger quantity there is room for. Or room for more space if one prefers.
Both displays I think would have a fair chance at the highest level in Japan, because of the quality of trees, and the way the overall display is set up.
Pinus parvifolia, Trachelospermum asiaticum `Nana`, Pyracantha augustifolia, Acer palmatum, Zelkova serrata, Juiperus chinensis `Itoigawa` – Rita and Mark Cooper.
Why is it always the seven point displays that seems to win? In japan, and at Noelanders where Japanese masters also judged this year, there is a simple rule to follow. If there are an equal number of displays with the same overall quality, and same quality of trees, it always is the display that present most trees that wins. Simply because it logically is far more difficult to present a higher amount of high quality trees than maybe only two. When more displays are overall equally good, with same number of trees, detailed judging of each tree in the display will make the difference in the end.
It is not a matter of taste (not much at least) when judging this kind of competitions. It is a matter of judging quality in trees, and the overall impact of the display. The variation of trees, different colours, and especially avoiding repetition in trees, shapes and colours i.e. is considered. You might personally favour a display with fewer trees and another type of expression, but a competition is not about that.
When I look at a shohin exhibition I look at it at two levels. First I do it with the above described competition viewing in mind. Next I do it with my heart.
Looking for pleasure is about forgetting all the details that must be considered to find a winning display, and just look with my heart. Still viewing to see the beauty of the well trained trees, but without noticing numbers of trees i.e. Just enjoying the display as it is.
If you are going for prizes when you display shohin-bonsai, you have to have the competition judging traditions in mind. If you just want to show your work, and are less concerned about being a prize winner, you can go for the freedom of displaying as you like. Not being careless with the display of course, but you might want to focus on other qualities and expressions in the display like silence or emptiness (expressions often a feature sought for in the tokonoma display). Like the artistic display (shown below) where a gold screen is used to gather the display in a frame, and adding a special mood. Fewer trees is used in this display, and competition wise it will have fewer chances to win, compared to the displays with higher amount of trees in the same quality. That does not take away its beauty in any way, and there is even more room for being playful and express another kind of display using fewer trees. Two kinds of beautiful displays, each with different qualities.
The traditional display, often with seven pieces, always with an evergreen and almost always a Black pine on top of the rack is a Japanese traditional display. In the west I have a feeling that many find these displays a bit uniform and boring because of the repeated use of the same type of top-tree (the main tree of the display), and also a kind of uniformity of the general way of setting up these displays. That is of course a matter of cultural differences, taste and traditions. But also the difference of displaying for competitions or for just showing the beauty of the seasons.
If you look through Japanese bonsai magazines you will find a great variety of displays, and expressions showing much more freedom and creativity, than the ones showed at exhibitions were the goal is to collect an award.
You see these beautiful aged bonsai set for sale by private bonsai enthusiasts from time to time. For bonsai pros it is naturally a part of the business. But for private collectors I find it disturbing to see a personal tree set for sale. There can of course be a number of very good reasons to do so, and I will not be the judge off why it is so.
I just hope it is not for the one reason that you get bored with a tree. Bored of its development or bored of seeing at the same bonsai year in and year out. Bonsai attracts many artists who wants to create, being creative, making changes and event something new. I too enjoy the journey of starting something fresh and new, finding the way through the branches, discover the beauty of a tree within, challenging my visions and my artistic soul. But I find it even more rewarding to be there when the real beauty of a bonsai develops after years of training and care, and being there all the way.
Back to the business side of the subject. In Japan there is a food chain of pros developing bonsai in different stages. Stage one nurseries propagate new trees by seeds, cutting i.e. that they field grow and develop in containers to a certain stage. Stage two nurserymen then buys what they find interesting, and take the trees up the quality ladder. Step three is when the high end bonsai nurseries steps in and take over such a qualified bonsai, and put it up another step. Finally, already great bonsai are bought from private collectors that might have mistreated a bonsai, or no longer can have it because of age i.e. Or they buy it from another nursery on an auction. That’s how business is.
A few years ago I was asked about selling a good bonsai of mine. I was tempted for the money, but something in me said I shouldn’t. Maybe that’s why I gave it a price tag that was so high that it wasn’t sold, and after a few days I regretted and took it of the very short time sales list. The best decision I could have made.
My point is that I find it such a rewarding journey to stay with a bonsai throughout my lifetime, that I will not sell that rewarding experience.
The tree hopefully will shift hands when I am gone, but the reward in bonsai for me is to stay with the tree as long as I can. After a certain time of development, a bonsai will for years just have small adjustments from time to time, that not changes much of it´s overall expression. No big changes, just care and the ongoing small developments and corrections of twigs and branches, repotting, feeding and so on. No big artistry skills challenged, just daily care and steady commitment to the tree. Maybe the most difficult of all. Keeping the tree healthy and just caring.
This is where the big reward is found. Being with a tree for a long time, after developing it from raw material. Watching small changes happen over time, when bark ages, even on the finer branches developed over time, knowing the tree in the bones and enjoying watching it at a daily basis. Seeing it as it matures and becomes majestic.
There roughly are three types of bonsai people. The professional nursery growers who do not have trees they follow from scratch to mature high end specimen bonsai because they are sold before that happens or buys trees others have trained. Next there is the enthusiast who buys finished trees for pleasure and finally the enthusiast who do all the work from beginning to an established tree. The last one is the one where I find it difficult to see a personal developed tree over many years, just being sold because you get bored with it, not collecting the final reward of staying with the bonsai into the stage of ageing and perfection.
The absolute highest reward I get with my bonsai, is after some years where I can’t do much groundbreaking shaping and creative work to my bonsai for a long time, when the bonsai steps into the aged stage and needs steady daily care as the main effort.
Meanwhile I work creatively with other younger trees, and have the pleasure of this part of bonsai. This is when I begin noticing small changes in the bark structure, watching how it is spreading throughout the former young and now older branches. When the tree gets the Japanese wabi sabi feeling of age and imperfectness. When the nebari (root surface) develops with an aged expression you can’t force, and just have to sit and wait for. The same goes with pots that gets patina after years outside. Only time makes the changes.
I would miss all that if I sold a tree, so I don’t. I’ll leave that to the business people, and the enthusiasts who loses their interest in their trees because they rush to something new. But what I learn from trees I have developed and nursed for years, watching the beauty of nature as it ages and matures, I will not change for something else. Just a friendly reminder of thinking twice before you rush into something new, skipping the past and the history.
A tree with many of development ahead, that I will enjoy following.
Behind the story. The original story was lost on the internet, but due to steady work Brian Van Fleet succeeded to rebuild the story and track down lost photos. The story was then republished at Brians Nebari Bonsai website.
It is astonishing to realize that the Shimpaku juniper so beloved for bonsai culture was first found only a little more than a century ago in Japan. But in that short time, due to overcollecting, the Shimpaku growing in the wild have vanished!
When and where were the Shimpaku discovered? Who collected them from the mountain cliffs and how did they do it? What happened over those 100 years to these collected masterpieces? Do any Japanese bonsai nurseries still have collected Shimpaku for sale today?
These and many other “secrets” about the Shimpaku are revealed in the fascinating article that is being published on this website. This article was written by Kazuki Yamanaka and recently published in Japanese in the June 2003 issue of Kindai Bonsai Magazine. Due to a generous donation from Daizo Iwasaki, WBFF’s Vice-Chairman, WBFF obtained permission from the publisher to translate the article into English and publish it on the WBFF website. We thank Ikuyo Shisaka for her sensitive and faithful translation of the original Japanese text into English. The English text has been edited for the benefit of non-Japanese readers and reordered for a more chronological presentation.
Chapter I. Discovery of Shimpaku
Today, the Shimpaku junipers growing in the wild in Japan face extinction. These junipers are only known to exist on Hokkaido and Yakeshima Islands, and extinction is said to be certain if very strong steps are not taken. The Shimpaku is a variation of Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis, or Ibuki or Byaku-shin in Japanese). Its Latin botanical name is Juniperus chinensis ‘sargentii,’ named after C.S. Sargent who identified it on Hokkaido in 1892. The Japanese botanical name of the Shimpaku juniper is Miyama-Byakushin. It belongs to the family CUPRESSACEAE which also includes the Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa). Categorized as a conditional limestone plant, it is also sometimes found in areas rich in the mineral peridot.
The tree on the right is called “Noble Satake’s Shimpaku.” It was such a rare specimen that, after it was collected, it was initially named “The Smoke of the Volcano.” This name described realistically its powerful swirling trunk and and Shari. This was one of the best Shimpaku bonsai, but regrettably it died during the devastated period after World War II. Nowadays, because virtually all of the naturally-grown Shimpaku have been exhausted, it is impossible to find a Shimpaku with such character. So many famous trees have been lost, but at the same time many stories about Shimpaku have been born.
In “Bonsai Gahou (Magazine)” No. 5 (September 1907 issue), there is a discussion of the origin of Shimpaku bonsai. It says that in 1889 a bonsai lover, Rokurou Ohta, obtained a juniper bonsai that reminded its admirers of a famous painting of “Kanzankokai” (an old Japanese cypress in the winter mountain). The rumor spread among the traders that “this is the authentic (=shin), oak (=paku).” Thus, the juniper was named “Shinpaku.” (Accounting for the conventions of Japanese word combination, it becomes “Shimpaku.”) This word was not known in either the Chinese or Japanese language and so the name “Shimpaku” was conceived within the world of bonsai as a new variety of junipers.
Shimpaku junipers have been popular since the 1890s, but for some time they were appreciated as one of the Kinseijyu group like Rohdea Japonica (Omoto), or were considered too thick and too heavy in appearance. Even so, this juniper has had an extraordinary popularity since its very first appearance. Its popularity gave birth to enthusiastic collectors such as Tason Ohata, and from the beginning almost all the major bonsai lovers devoted themselves wholeheartedly to this juniper. Indeed, by 1900 the Shimpaku juniper became accepted as one of the classic species used in bonsai.
During the early years of its popularity, there was an extreme shortage of Shimpaku, particularly compared to the mainstream trees used for bonsai at that time, such as Japanese red pine
(Akamatsu) , Japanese black pine (Kuromatsu) and Japanese cedar (Sugi). As a result, you could have boasted of having it whatever the quality. If the Shimpaku was really of high quality, it would cost you a fortune, and the exorbitant price resulting from the rarity of Shimpaku seemed to be its destiny. Many of the best Shimpaku inhabited only inaccessible cliff areas, and thus they were very difficult to collect. Behind the scenes of the brilliant popularity of Shimpaku bonsai, there were collectors risking their lives. Shimpaku, the fascinating tree, has a hidden history which will be revealed in this article.
Chapter II. First Shimpaku: “Ishizuchi Shimpaku”
It is said that the first Shimpaku to be collected in the wild came from the Ishizuchi mountain range on Shikoku Island. This is an area in which collectors had, for a long time, obtained Japanese red pine (Akamatsu) and Japanese black pine (Kuromatsu) for use in bonsai. These collectors included experts in mountain collecting who had extensive experience and knowledge of transplanting and growing new roots on collected specimens. It was one of these collectors who found in the mountains for the first time a form of Chinese juniper that would later be called Shimpaku. Chinese junipers grown in pots had been appreciated for a long time. If the Chinese juniper he had found was suitable for pot plantings, he felt he could not miss.
Wasting no time, this collector dug up the juniper, transplanted it into a pot, and then brought it to a bonsai trader in the town of Takamatsu, which faces the Seto Inland Sea on the northern coast of Shikoku. At that time, Takamatsu was one of the centers for bonsai material from Shikoku, and traders would come to buy not only from Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, but from as far away as Tokyo. The Chinese juniper variation that became known as Shimpaku first became popular in the Kansai region, and its popularity soon reached Tokyo. This is because a skillful trader from Kunpu-en Garden made good ones available, which impressed those persons having good taste.
The golden age of Ishizuchi Shimpaku existed during the Meiji period from around 1868 to 1878. The aesthetic sense of people of that time toward Shimpaku was greatly different from that of today. In a word, they yearned for a taste of the mountains. The Jin and Shari of the Shimpaku
were not greatly appreciated; instead, they were deeply impressed by the natural posture of these junipers fostered by their growing in the mountains. Those with extreme twists and turns were not in fashion, but instead they sought those expressing age in a subtle and tasteful manner (shibui). Indeed, the pictures from the Meiji period show that there was almost no trace of branch shaping. They exercised restraint in pruning the Shimpaku as much as possible, and they did not peel off the soft outer bark of these junipers or polish their trunks.
The way they cherished the Shimpaku was similar to that of antiques. Ishizuchi Shimpaku, compared to Itoigawa Shimpaku which came later, had an untamed but sensitive shape and, since they could just be planted in a pot and be appreciated, they became very popular. Many were of medium size and thus were perfectly suitable for bonsai.
Chapter III. Collecting Ishizuchi Shimpaku
At the beginning of their popularity, Shimpaku were everywhere in the Ishizuchi mountain range and one did not need many tools. Many Shimpaku could be found and were easily dug up. As the demand for Shimpaku heightened, excessive collecting began to occur. At the time, there were no restrictions on taking plants from the mountains, and collectors from all over Shikoku went into the mountains in droves. They included not only the professional mountain hunters but also those people with a taste for bonsai and even ordinary people seeking a quick profit. As a result, in only 20 years the Ishizuchi Shimpaku in their natural state were virtually extinct. They even began to take the trees left in the rear mountain area of Besshi and those left growing on the cliffs.
The collectors went to the mountains in pairs. Each person took two thin ropes and two thick ropes, and a special pickaxe illustrated here. The pickaxe is a very functional instrument, but it could prove to be a dangerous tool in unskilled hands. First, one of them — the hunter — would tie a rope around a tree at the top of a cliff and then climb down using the rope as a life-line. The other person — the spotter — would look down the cliff with a pair of binoculars to see if he could find a favorable Shimpaku. Once sighting a good specimen, the spotter would inform the hunter by waiving a red flag. According to the spotter’s instructions, the hunter would use his pickaxe to help him move about on the wall of the cliff. Sometimes the hunter would swing his body into the air away from the wall to reach a distant corner of the cliff face. This activity was very dangerous, for if the rope snapped, it could be the end of the hunter’s life. Upon reaching the right tree, the hunter would break apart any impeding rocks, uncover the tree roots, and by using the edge of the pickaxe proceed to cut the roots to release the tree.
During the period 1903-1908, there were reportedly accidents in which both the spotter and hunter would slide down the face of the cliff, one after another. Most of these victims were either miners from the Besshi copper mine, employees of wealthy merchants or others who were not bonsai professionals.
In the first decade of the 1900s, Ishizuchi Shimpaku was priced from ¥200 to ¥1,000. Today, that would translate to a value of several million yen to tens of millions of yen. (Today, one million yen would equal about US$10,000.) It was natural to lose one’s sanity because of the Shimpaku’s high value. But, there were also collectors who appreciated bonsai and did not sell their collected Shimpaku but kept them for themselves. Thus, there were countless wonderful specimens which could be found in the residences of ordinary people in Takamatsu, Niihama, Saijyou and Imabari.
Although Kuransouke Fujita of Niihama, Tahei Suzuki of Doi and so forth were known as the famous professional hunters, there were countless semiprofessionals doing business with local persons having a taste for bonsai or with large-scale merchants in Takamatsu. However, toward the end of the Meiji era (1912) when Ishizuchi Shimpaku became exhausted, some people sought out Korean Shimpaku for resale by crossing the sea. Thus, around 1908, almost all the Shimpaku sold around Takamatsu included Korean specimens. However, these Korean junipers were called “Shikoku” Shimpaku because their quality was so good and could hardly be differentiated from Shikoku Shimpaku. People then spread specimens to Kyushu, Yamato, Kishu, Koushu, and so on. When the news went out that collected Shimpaku were available, the collector-dealers of Shikoku would be the first to arrive. Some of these collector-dealers also journeyed out to look for any unknown new area where the Shimpaku might be still growing in the wild. This group of collector-dealers knew the value of Shimpaku and had acquired the knowledge to collect the specimens.
Mountain collecting is similar to hunting. Once having acquired a taste for it, people might never have been able to return to stable jobs such as farming, nor be able to become a merchant. They would find themselves longing to wander in search of prey. As for Shimpaku junipers, by the early 1900s trying to collect them by climbing aimlessly among the mountains was like trying to grab clouds. By that time, there was almost no possibility of finding any Shimpaku growing in the wild. But, there was one man who possessed extraordinarily good luck.
Chapter IV. Famous Collector, Tahei Suzuki
This lucky man was born in 1865 on the eve of the Meiji Restoration, at Doi in the Ehime province (presently Doi-cho, Ehime Prefecture). Doi is located along the route of a pilgrimage between Kawaone and Niihama, and had been a post town since the Edo era (1603-1868). Although it can be said that it faces the Seton Inland Sea, there are some low mountains that actually block its view of the sea. Since the area lacked open plains, it could not produce much rice, so instead the main food staple was yam. In addition to yam, the mountains yielded such precious gifts as edible wild plants, mushrooms, and firewood. From the latter part of the Edo period when bonsai became popular in Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, as a secondary means to earn money people began to collect pre-bonsai material and were successfully collecting young trees of Japanese red pine (Akamatsu), Japanese white pine (Goymatu) in the neighborhood mountains, such as Mt. Kumataka, Mt. Akagi, and the Akashi mountain range, which brought collectors comfortable earnings.
In the western side of the town of Doi, there was a community called Sekigawa which had a lot of families whose name was Suzuki. During the Meiji era, there were many bonsai dealers among the Suzukis who brought down seedlings of Akamatsu or Goyomatsu for bonsai from the mountains and sold them to dealers in Takamatsu or to people who had a taste for bonsai.
During the first decade of the 1900s, Tahei Suzuki (pictured above) wandered all over Japan seeking Shimpaku. While traveling by ship on his way back from Hokkaido Island, he saw Mt. Kurohime in the Northern Japanese Alps. Mt. Kurohime is made of limestone and he found an abundance of Shimpaku there. That story has been retold repeatedly through the years. From Mt. Kurohime to the Aikomi plains to the Hiyodori pond, he walked on the ridge and reached the summit of Mt. Myouji, and was astonished by the view below him. It was a huge colony of Shimpaku surrounding Mt. Kurohime. What he saw were countless numbers of Shimpaku jostling one another on the wall of the mountain, exposing their Shari of pure white.
All of the Shimpaku from this general area are called Itoigawa Shimpaku — a reference to the town of Itoigawa (in what is now Niigata Prefecture on the western coast of Honshu) where these Shimpaku were bought and sold.
When you see Mt. Kurochime from the side of the Himekawa River, it looks like a woman donning a loose robe. The mountain was named for Kurohime (Black Princess), the ancient Nunagawa Princess, who was renown for her intelligence and beauty. At the summit of Mt. Kurohime, there is a small stone shrine dedicated to the princess, and many people climb the mountain on the day of the annual festival on April 24. At the foot of the eastern side of the mountain, there is a large limestone cavern called Fukugakuchi (which means where good fortune lies), and legend has it that the princess lives there. (For more on the Black Princess, see http://www.infocreate.co.jp/hometown/itoigawa/rekisi-e.html.
Tahei Suzuki would have soon learned about the legend of the Black Princess. He certainly had luck beyond his dreams by finding such a bountiful supply of Itoigawa Shimpaku that he could never finish collecting them all. Tahei’s intense passion toward Shimpaku even caused such friction with others that they began to call him “Eccentric Tahei.” It is said that because he clung to the rocks for so long when he was collecting in the mountains that his arms and legs became so distorted that he had difficulty doing everyday things like eating and sleeping.
Mt. Myouji and Mt. Kurohime, which are connected at the summit, are made of limestone and have similar vegetation. Both of them also have the best valleys of jade in their bosoms. Mt. Myouji stands at a little more than 1,000 meters above sea level as does Mt. Kurohime, and is less impressive that the other summits found in the Northern Japanese Alps. Mt. Myouji is not difficult to climb if you know the way to go. During the fall, if you take one of the mountains trails, you can enjoy hearing the crunch of dried leaves under your shoes as you walk up the mountain.
But this Mt. Myouji is no ordinary mountain. On its southeast side, it has a wall that looks as if it had been cut with a knife. It is almost always covered with clouds and gets a good deal of both snow and rain. The wall can be very easily viewed from the mountain route leading to the Takanami-no-ike pond to Otaki. From this vantage point, the rock climbers clinging to its walls resemble little ants. World famous climbers such as Tsuneo Hasegawa (1947-1991) trained himself on the walls of Mt. Myouji and made renown the southeast route.
Mt. Kurohime and Mt. Myouji are made of limestone.
However, it must be said that the first people challenging this wall were not the adventurous mountaineers like Tsuneo Hasega, but instead were the Shimpaku hunters. Even today, many rock-climbers who climb Mt. Myouji keep diaries on a website in which they mention the word “Shimpaku.” Also they say they can still find evidence of mountain climbing pitons or worn out rope embedded in the limestone walls, left behind by Shimpaku collectors. Skilled climbers have expressed amazement when they sometimes find these remains in what they consider to be inaccessible overhangs having more than a 90 degree incline.
The mindset of a Shimpaku hunter and a mountaineer are different. They both carry only the minimal necessities, but the Shimpaku hunters also must be able to carry a Shimpaku on their back. The Shimpaku hunter also may be more focused on the business of collecting, while the mountain climber is in it purely for adventure. But things are never so simple. The collectors risk their lives too, and they cannot be hunting Shimpaku merely for profit.
Chapter V. Collecting Team of Tahei and His Brother Fukuji
When Tahei Suzuki took his younger brother, Fukuji, to Mt. Myouji for his first time, Fukuji thought he was dreaming. But there they were, Shimpaku junipers as far as he could see. For the first few years, he and his brother sent the trees they collected back to Shikoku and tried to root them there. But because the trees were traumatized by the long transportation period before they were transplanted, their success rate was very low.
Around 1912, realizing they had to do something to increase the survival rate of their collected trees, Tahei moved to Shimizukura which is located at the foot of Mt. Kurohime, and Fukuji moved to Kotaki, at the foot of Mt. Myouji, so they could collect the Itoigawa Shimpaku and transplant them locally. They invited Aikichi Ozaki from their native community on Shikoku to assist them with shaping the trees after new roots had been established. They also invited several other local people to aide them in collecting the specimens. One young man named Kumeji Ito from Kotaki assisted them from the very beginning and improved his skills dramatically.
During the Taisho era (1912-1926), because of the abundance of the Itoigawa Shimpaku, the Suzuki brothers were able to pick only the very best specimens. While there were many masterpiece bonsai that survived, there were also many that died. One of the reasons for this was that the Shimpaku junipers were located on the cliffs and their roots had grown deeply into the rock crevices. It was a lucky case when they could remove the rocks and salvage even a little amount of the roots, but in most cases the specimens were collected by tearing off only the trunks. Another problem was that the time of transplanting was often not the best. Since Shimpaku is a robust tree, even one piece of root can continue to live and grow. But if the trees are replanted during the dormant season of winter, they cannot cope with the change and are less likely to survive. In those days, hunting was done even during winter when there was snow in the mountains, and the trees were dug up and exposed to those harsh winter conditions.
Also there was a problem with the soil used for transplanting and growing new roots. Tahei, for example, had obtained a large quantity of sand from Kiryu (a town close to Kanuma where akadama and kanuma bonsai soils are produced), but this sand has a little acidity. Because Itoigawa Shimpaku junipers grow naturally in a limestone soil, the trees had a difficult time adapting to their new soil. The Itoigawa Shimpaku was different from the Ishizuchi Shimpaku, which was found in the area of olivine rocks.
Having recognized that Shimpaku was profitable, even those who did not know much about plants went seeking them out in the mountains, and this was another reason why so many good specimens were lost. In some cases, junipers that looked less valuable were simply thrown away. “If Itoigawa Shimpaku had been discovered 30 years later,” said Michio Kataoka, “the story may have been different.” Many first-rate masterpieces disappeared mercilessly.
(In 1910, Tahei reportedly collected the famous Shimpaku later known as”Fudo,” which was between 600 and 1,000 years old. In 1970, Fudo was sold by Kyuzo Murata to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and unfortunately died shortly after it arrived in the United States. See the article by Robert Baran at http://www.phoenixbonsai.com/KMurata.html.)
Chapter VI. Mysterious Jade Connection
Tahei Suzuki first found Itoigawa Shimpaku junipers on Mt. Kurochime around 1908. Tahei’s encounter with jade as he crossed a river to approach the collecting area has been described as follows:
“The river was as clear as it could be, and it was almost scary. The man went through the quick current in the wake of the rainy season. In midstream, he almost fell and, as he did, he grabbed the bottom of the river. The water was up to his chin, but finally when he reached the other side, he found something hard in his hand. Its skin was so blue and smooth from being washed in the river. Putting the jade stone in his shirt, he crawled up the rocky cliff like a spider, and suddenly there were Shimpaku all around him!”
At the western foot of Mt. Kurohime (around the town of Hashidate) and at the southern foot of Mt. Myouji (around the town of Kotaki), there are places called the jade valleys, and even today you can see huge, heavy rocks of jade sitting there. You would not recognize the jade, however, if you were not told it was there. Like limestone or peridot, it just looks like an ordinary rock.
When Tahei and Fukuji Suzuki left their native Iyo (the old name for Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku) and moved to the Northern Japanese Alps, their new homes were coincidentally at the foot of Mt. Kurohime and the foot of Mt. Myouji — and both places are just next to the jade valleys. On the bottom of the Oumi River and the Kotaki River, both of which ran next to their houses, there must have been a lot of jade stones which tumbled down from upstream. Even though the brothers were attracted by the Shimpaku and not by the stones, they might have picked up some of the stones once in a while.
The color tone of Shimpaku and jade is mysteriously similar to each other. The whiteness of the Shimpaku’s Shari, the redness of their trunks, and the greenness of their needles — all of these are included in the colors of jade. Jade is generally thought to be an opaque stone with green color (“Hi” in the Japanese word “Hisui” means green), but actually there is jade with the color of black or even purple. What is more, some jade is pure white. Most jade has green dots appearing vaguely on its white or pale green base. However, because the surface may often be covered with a dirty brown skin from oxidation, it is difficult for a layman to recognize the stone.
Even today you are allowed to collect the jade stones on the beach, but you almost always are cheated and find only fake jade called Kitsune-ishi (fox stone) which makes you happy for nothing at all. If the stone you find is about the size of a nail, it could be authentic, but you will not find any jade that will constitute a precious gem. This reality is similar to trying to find naturally grown Shimpaku in the wild.
A jade collector once told me the following about the Shimpaku junipers growing in the jade areas: “Yes, the tree’s roots sometimes bite into and wrap around the stones. We simply cut off the bothering trees.” On the cliffs of Mt. Myouji, there seem to be Shimpaku entangling their roots around the huge stones. Completely and naturally, a rare tree and a piece of precious stone are united. Shimpaku is found by those looking for jade; jade is found by those looking for Shimpaku — both are valuable gifts of nature. Two people thinking about their value may reach totally opposite conclusions. When I told the jade collector how much Shimpaku junipers are worth in the bonsai world, he laughed and replied: “Oh my, maybe I should throw away the stones from now on.” But of course, he will choose the stone next time, too. Stone or tree, in either case the attraction runs deep and is hardly influenced by money.
In the Itoigawa area, there were other valuable items to be found. During the period from 1878 to around 1898, gold was extracted from the Kanayama-dani valley (closed in 1906). At that time, this small valley was very productive, and a mining tunnel as long as 80 kilometers was dug. Thousands of mine workers lived in the valley, and even a theater was opened. The valley also produced corundum, garnet, nephrite and so on. However, what brought the largest wealth was limestone which seems unlimited. Both Mt. Kurohime and Mt. Myouji can be said to be made of limestone, and from the Meiji era until today, these mountains continue to be mined. Here you can find suiseki from the Himekawa River. It has a texture of Hakkai-zan-ishi (Mt. Hakkai stone) which has a profound color of darkness with tasteful shapes of uneven surface.
Chapter VII. Drama of Itoigawa Shimpaku
The junipers referred to as Itoigawa Shimpaku up until now in this article were not called
by this name when collecting first began. Before World War II, they were called “Jyouetsu” Shimpaku. They later became known as Itoigawa Shimpaku because they were bought and sold at the Jikishi-in Temple or the Kiraku barbershop in Itoigawa.
Mt. Kurohime was a part of the town named Oumi-cho and Mt Myouji was a part of the Otaki-mura village (in the old zoning). In fact, it was not only these two mountains where Shimpaku grew. Shimpaku also grew in great quantities in the depth of the Kurobe Canyon to the west, in the mountains surrounding Kaitani and Togakushi to the east, in the Hakuba mountain range to the south, and along the coast of Sado Island to the north, The Shimpaku from all these areas became known as Itoigawa Shimpaku. “Noble Satake’s Shimpaku” introduced at the beginning of this article is known to have been collected from Kaitani. The Kaitani lineage has soft needles.
Those trees collected from the depth of the Kurobe Canyon (called “Uozu Shimpaku”) are said to be as good as that of Myouji in terms of the quality of their leaves and the artistic value of their trunks. (The Kurobe Gorge is the deepest gorge in Japan, extending for 80 kilometers, or 50 miles. Its peaks plunge some 1,500 to 2,000 meters, or 4,921 to 6,562 feet, to the bottom. For more information, see jin.jcic.or.jp/atlas/nature/nat05.html) On the other hand, those trees coming from the Korenga-dake high mountain of the Shirouma mountain range are called “Renpaku,” whose leaves have a coarse texture and a whitish color. Although Itoigawa Shimpaku characteristically have good texture of leaves, there is no uniformity. There are only a few specimens having all the characteristics sought — the best color, dense foliage, and thinness.
Varieties of Itoigawa shimpaku collected near the Itoigawa river: 1. Sado coast line lineage, 2. Kurohime and Myouji lineage, 3. Kaitani lineage, 4. Uozu lineage, 5. Renpaku lineage, and 6. Togakushi lineage
There is a difference between the Itoigawa Shimpaku and Shikoku Shimpaku regarding the artistry of their trunks. Generally, Shikoku Shimpaku has a trunk that reflects calmness with a well-tamed shape, which is appreciated because of the simple yet profound shapes. There are not many large Shikoku Shimpaku, but they are very attractive in pots. On the other hand, Itoigawa Shimpaku has powerful movement in their trunks and magnificent Shari, and many extra-large specimen exist.
The discovery of Itoigawa Shimpaku totally revolutionized the way bonsai enthusiasts have come to think of Shimpaku. After they appeared on the scene, the Shari of the Itoigawa Shimpaku, which had not previously been much appreciated on the ShimpakuI from Shikoku, became one their most admired features. Bonsai lovers were fascinated by the marvelous shapes created by nature, and collectors were absorbed in looking for new rare specimens.
By around 1930, almost all the good Itoigawa Shimpaku in easily accessible areas seemed to be gone. The trees previously collected had been located in terrace areas or on gentle slopes. Even getting to these specimens involved difficult vertical climbs, and clearly one missed step could cost a hunter his life. Every morning before embarking on their hunting trips, brothers Tahei and Fukuji Suzuki said prayers at their household Shinto alter, and thanked God upon their return.
The best earner during the Taisho period (1912~) and the earlier years of the Showa period (1926~) was Kumeji Ito, a native of Kotaki who assisted the Suzuki brothers in earlier times and was a gifted climber. Kumeji would often go down cliff walls that had no foothold. He collected specimens by crushing rocks with a chisel and a hammer, then digging out a tiny amount of the roots, and cutting out the thick roots with a saw.
Kumeji Ito collecting from rope (before WWII).
As the materials became scare, the Shimpaku prices climbed. One Shimpaku that Fukuji Suzuki collected in the late 1920s was sold for ¥3,000. With the money from the sale, Fukuji build a mansion made entirely of Hinoki cypress and had it painted with lacquer. Until around 1937 at the outbreak of the Japan-China War, the market price of Shimpaku continued to appreciate. The increasing value of Shimpaku caused many to seek them out.
But by the late 1930s, the easy-to-reach specimens had already been collected. Many attempting to reach the remaining Shimpaku were careless, resulting in countless climbing accidents. Nevertheless, the tragedy of these accidents tended to increase each year because the wealthy families living in Tokyo and other areas were willing to pay the asking price no matter how high.
Shimpaku hunting in the snow (before WWII).
All collecting ceased when World War II broke out. Tahei Suzuki left his house in Shimizukura and returned to his native
home on Shikoku. Having reached his mid-70s, he decided to stop hunting Shimpaku and, according to those who visited his home during his later years, he kept only a few bonsai. He and his brother, Fukuji had grabbed the luck that had been bestowed upon them; they both had enjoyed a long life of mountain collecting, and died on Tatami mats.
Chapter VIII. Supply Diminished, Dangers Increased
Following the end of World War II, around 1949, the mountain collecting of Shimpaku junipers resumed. Although there were no guarantees that Shimpaku collected after the war would sell for the pre-war prices, there were still good specimens to be collected. However, collecting from Mt. Myouji required entering into a contract with the public office of the village and was limited to the time from when the snows thawed in the spring until the Myouji festival. The collection period was limited because of the many accidents that resulted from sliding down the mountain in the harsh winter and from avalanches in early spring. As a result, there were very few people whose sole subsistence depended on collecting trees from the mountains.
By around 1955, the Shimpaku worth collecting had dwindled to only a few. Those previously passed over for poor quality were now being collected. And yet, as the bonsai world began to revive, the popularity of Shimpaku came back. By 1975, there were more than 10 mountain collectors and in 1979, the Itoigawa Collectors’ Union was organized. This organization paid a fee for permission to enter the mountains to the Kotaki Production and Forest Union and members were allowed to enter between April 12 and June 15.
The leader of the collectors’ union, Tetsuya Nakamura, began to emphasize safety as a priority. When Kindai Bonsai gathered information for an article on Itoigawa Shimpaku for the November 1985 issue, Mr. Nakamura indicated that he took great care to see that collectors were not injured. According to Hajime Umesawa (the Himekawa-en Garden) who was Mr. Nakamura’s friend, “He was sensible and cautious. Since he was such a cautious person, he would knock on the stone of a stone bridge to test it for its durability, and a result there were few accidents and other mountain collectors had confidence in him.”
Another active collector at that time was Shinichi Nakamura. As Mr. Umewasa recalled, “He was the sort of person who could easily walk around where others had to crawl on all fours.
Because he was a lot older than Tetsuya, I advised him that the time had come to retire every chance I had. But every time he answered, ‘What nonsense! I would be the luckiest man if I could die in the mountain. I’ve already decided that the mountains are the place where I shall die.’” It was as though he were possessed by something. Although both Shinichi and Tetsuya had the family name of Nakamura, they were unrelated. Together they successfully hunted the last masterpiece, “Hiryu” (Flying Dragon), which was also called God’s Tree through a magnificent close teamwork.
Although mountain collectors were minimally outfitted, a helmet was deemed an essential piece of gear. This was partially due to the number of collectors who had the confidence to attempt climbing at Mt. Myouji, which increased the danger from falling rocks. Even small stones could cause serious injuries if it hit climbers in its path. Other than Hiryu, most of the specimens collected at this time had small to medium-sized trunks. Collectors would carry in their backpacks one or two trees of these sizes at a time, and only larger specimens were tied to the Shoiko (wooden rack to carry a load on the back) for transport down the mountain.
As the trees were collected, they were put up for auction the very same day. The bases of each of the trucks were tied with grasses, so the condition of the roots could not be determined. Even so, there seemed to be a tacit understanding among bidders not to ask about the condition of the roots. Prices varied but the revenue generated during the three-month period when collecting was allowed was obviously not enough, and most collections had other jobs to supplement the earnings they made from collecting Shimpaku. Considering the fees that had to be paid and the dangerous nature of the work, it was not the kind of job for those with little determination.
Even Tetsuya Nakamure retired once in 1983. Just four years later, in the spring of 1987, he fell to his death on Mt. Myouji. On May 4 of that year, he had prayed to God at his household shrine as usual, and went to the mountain with his Eisen (a device with claws to put over boots to prevent slipping on ice). There was still snow in the sunken areas of the rocks. “He changed to a new Eisen with which he was unaccustomed, and I believe that’s why the accident happened,” said Mr. Umesawa.
About four weeks later, on June 4, 1987, Mr. Yamanakajima of Kaitani, also a mountain collector, was killed in an accident. “It was a terrible year,” Mr. Umesawa recalled. And then, in 1998, the last mountain collector, Shinichi Nakamura, died in the mountains. Mr. Umewasa merely remarked:
“That was his destiny.” Concerning the circumstances of Shinichi’s death, the Itoigawa police office stated that they kept the death records of suicides for only a short time.
Only a decade ago there were still some cases of illegal hunting of the trees, but not anymore. Today there are only the thefts of bonsai. The history of the mountain collecting of Itoigawa Shimpaku thus ended simultaneously with the death of Shinichi Nakamura and the disappearance of Shimpaku from the mountains.
It is estimated that perhaps as many as 20 to 30 people died collecting Shimpaku, but those numbers do not take into account those who entered the mountains secretly and were never heard from again. In a sense, Itoigawa Shimpaku which were collected from the mountains are living now as a tribute to those who collected them and are now gone forever.
Chapter IX. Last Best Shimpaku from Mt. Myouji
The Masterpiece “Hiryu”
It was called “God’s Tree” among the mountain collectors of Shimpaku even when it still lived on the rock walls of Mt. Myouji. Named “Hiryu” (Flying Dragon), the base of its trunk measures as wide as 60 cm (about 2 feet). The trunk of Hiryu is carved out by the harshness of nature, giving it a very mysterious shape which is beyond human artistry. Compared to the many outstanding Itoigawa Shimpaku found on Mt. Myouji, the imposing majesty of Hiryu demonstrates that it is truly a masterpiece.
It was 1983 when Hiryu was brought down from the mountain. Tetsuya Nakamura, a leader in the bonsai collectors’ union, took a central role in collecting this Shimpaku. With several people, he tried to get the tree off of the cliff, but because of its large size and heavy weight, they were initially unsuccessful even after a concentrated effort. Although it seemed too difficult to do, they finally developed a detailed plan and, with a strong will, they succeeded in the end.
Considering the fact that by the 1980s, all the naturally grown Shimpaku had largely disappeared from the wild, it was a miracle that such an outstanding specimen as Hiryu was still left in the mountains. This might have been because it was thought to be too big to be a bonsai. There were certainly pros and cons about taking Hiryu off the mountain. The name Hiryu, or Flying Dragon, seems to come from its rough trunk and winding Shari, and they are strangely vivid. Following its successful transplanting by Naoji Itoh of Kotaki, still today it is being cultivated and pruned by Shoshin Nakagame of Shinzuoka prefecture. Let’s look forward to the day when it will appear on the center stage of the world of bonsai.
Air-layered from the top of the original tree, Hiryu’s sibling is being grown in a wooden box. Himekawa-en Garden of Oumi focuses on the mountain-collected Shimpaku of Itoigawa, and keeps quite a lot of these junipers which were some of the last ones to be collected in the mountains. Hiryu’s sibling is shown in the photographs below.
Although the above Shimpaku is not as good as Hiryu regarding its artistic level and Shari, the imposing majesty of its trunk is quite something. Since both the front and back have uncommon potential, it is a little hard to choose, but I am told that its
owners want to show the side as its front where the root is forwardly rising powerfully. I am told that they are planning to place this Shimpaku in the pot by keeping the front as it is but inclining the trunk a little bit to the left and forward. I am also told that they will cut away the upper part which will be sharpened into three or so stalks of Shari to make them look like blazing flames. This tree has the real potential to become an important work as the last Itoigawa Shimpaku.
We may say that Hiryu and its sibling are the two distinctive trees which bring down the curtain on the 100-year history of mountain collecting the Shimpaku of Itoigawa, which started during the first decade of the 1900s. To be called bonsai, both of them need further training, but they nevertheless have very important significance.
Chapter X. The Shimpaku Protector: Sennichirou Ikehara
lthough Itoigawa Shimpaku are prestigious, today there is no way that you can find any of these junipers growing wild in the mountains. Since there used to be so many of them growing in the mountains, I once thought it would still be possible to find some previously undiscovered Shimpaku still growing there. However, after having visited the mountains where they used to grow in such abundance, I was just amazed to find out that there really are none left in the mountains.
But what happened to all of those Itoigawa Shimpaku that were collected in the past? When I had almost given up ever knowing the answer, Michio Kataoka (of Kataoka Garden) gave me some precious information. “There is a bonsai devotee — Sennichirou Ikehara — who has never sold what he collected,” he said. “If you want to see mountain-collected Itoigawa Shimpaku, why don’t you go there?”
I found Mr. Ikehara to be genial with a voice full of life. Wasting no time, he took me where his bonsai were stored. I was just astounded. Perhaps his Itoigawa Shimpaku junipers are locally known but they are definitely unknown to the outside world, and I found that he had first-rate materials one after another in front of my eyes. The patterns on the trunks had been polished out after many years in the mountains, and the marvelous Shari was full of the brilliance that only the authentic ones have.
Mr. Ikehara is 77 years old, with 40 years of bonsai experience and a mind of steel. He takes care of everything himself — repotting, trimming and wiring — with great skill. He is honest and not arrogant, but he is not easily persuaded either, which is an admirable trait.
“There is nothing worthwhile showing you,” Mr. Ikehara said, but this of course was far from the truth. I had been told that Kennichi Oguchi of Nagano prefecture had once suggested that Mr. Ikehara should open a Shimpaku museum to display his treasures. When I asked Mr. Ikehara if he was going to follow up on Mr. Oguchi’s suggestion, he scratched his head and answered, “I don’t have the means (money) to do that.” He also added, “No, I will never sell them.” That’s why so many are still in existence locally.
Chapter XI. Bonsai Nursuries To Visit
Seeing, learning, and hearing about the authentic ones. Those whom I met while gathering the information for this article: The local bonsai gardens where Itoigawa Shimpaku collected from the mountains are preserved.
HIMEKAWA EN GARDEN
Owner: Mr. Hajime Umesawa. A modest and honest person. Totally committed to the mountain collected Shimpaku, and you will see the air-layer of “Hiryu” here.
Located on the coast side of Oumi-cho near Mt. Kurochime. To find the garden, look for a large billboard on the bridge crossing the Himekawa River along Highway No. 8. Here, there are many Shimpaku from Mt. Myouji — ranging from large to medium to small sizes. Because he believes that the Shimpaku bonsai today “are crafted too much,” he is working hard not to spoil the natural atmosphere of these trees from the mountains. The garden also has many suiseki found in the Himekawa River.
Owner: Mr. Michio Katoaka. Active and very kind. He introduced me to an amateur lover of bonsai, Mr. Ikhara. Mr. Kataoka also let me use many of his old photographs and documents for this article.
Located along Highway No. 148 from the Itoigawa River in the direction of Ohmachi. In addition to the materials collected from the mountains, there are varied works from cuttings to bud graftings. You can learn how to achieve the best condition for the leaves here. He has been working with Shimpaku for a long time, and you can gain much from his vast knowledge and experience.
SHOUFUU EN GARDEN
Owner: Mr. Shigeki Ohta. A warm-hearted sincere man who knows much about the history of Shimpaku. He works to foster the dissemination of Jyouetsu Goyo (Himekomatsu: Japanese white pine) as well as Shimpaku. From his nursery, Mt. Kaitani and other mountains can be seen rising in the distance.
The garden is located a little bit east from “Nechi” along Highway No. 148. This is a third-generation bonsai garden, and the family had a shop at Ogikubo in Tokyo before World War II. This garden has a deep relationship with the history of Itoigawa Shimpaku. Hanging on the wall is a picture of “Tsuro no mai” (dancing crane) painted by Gyofuu Souma. The garden cherishes the natural characteristics of mountain-collected Shimpaku and resists changes to that style. They own the well-known stones from the Himekawa River. The garden’s location is near Kaitani and here you may hear generally unknown anecdotes.