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The Art of Bonsai – Miniature Perfection


When Christian Dior’s models powered down the catwalk last January proudly flaunting headdresses inspired by bonsai trees, it was abundantly clear, if it hadn’t been before, that this mesmerising Eastern art had truly captured the Western imagination. Bonsai, the art of growing perfectly formed trees in miniature, is revered in Japan and in China for its beauty and philosophical overtones – observing the changing seasons on such a tiny scale is a meditative and satisfying activity, and bonsai growers speak of cultivating scenery nostalgic of their childhood. As other aspects of life in the East such as yoga, Buddhism, feng-shui and tai-chi take hold in the West as part of our attempt to de-clutter and find some sort of harmony, it’s not surprising that bonsai, a minimalist labour of love, is gaining avid fans.

The Eastern philosophical interest in observing universal truths and wisdom by simplifying or reducing things is clearly seen in bonsai, and comprises one of the strongest components of its attraction worldwide. It is described in a 13th century poem by a Japanese Zen Monk, Kokan Shiren: “These stones then, just a number of inches tall, are nothing short of a mountainous island rising from the sea! . . . I will blow on the water and raise up billows from the four seas! The person who changes these waters turns the whole sea upside down. The relative size of things is an uncertain business. Why, there is a vast plain on a fly’s eyelash and whole nations in a snail’s horn, a Chinese philosopher has told us.”

This reduction and simplification can also be observed both in haiku, the minimalist 17-syllable poetry which is endemic in Japan’s culture, and the simple raked stone gardens of famous temples such as Roan-ji in Kyoto.

There are numerous claims as to the exact inception of bonsai. One explanation is that a Chinese emperor in the Han Dynasty (206BC and 220AD) created a miniature landscape to represent his entire empire, so he could have the pleasure of looking upon his realm from his palace window. The universal fascination with dolls houses, model train sets, tin soldiers and the like demonstrates that this idea of the world in miniature (particularly one we can control) is a fundamental human interest crossing cultures and generations. Other claims state that the Chinese were attracted to naturally gnarled and deformed trees because of their resemblance to auspicious animals such as dragons and serpents, and began cultivating them in pots for spiritual and superstitious reasons. Today the fascination with these diminutive trees is being taken to new levels – ‘mini-bonsai’, some small enough to fit into tiny vials for hanging off mobile phones (and known as ‘pet trees’, a name which captures the other, perhaps counter-intuitive appeal of bonsai – its care-intensiveness), are all the rage in Japan.

Whereas bonsai originally used trees that were naturally deformed, nowadays trees are shaped from saplings, using wire to hold the branches in the desired position, and pruned and pinched to keep them small. Keeping them in a pot also necessarily restrains their roots, which prevents them from growing too large. Techniques used to add to the illusion of age involve the removal of bark and the carving of the exposed wood.

A visit to a well-kept bonsai garden is a soothing and uplifting experience, and there are several to choose from. The Kokufu Bonsai Exhibition in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno, Tokyo, is the largest and most prestigious exhibition in the world, and the conglomeration of Bonsai nurseries in Omiya, near Tokyo, provide stunning examples of the art in gorgeous, peaceful settings. For information, contact the Omiya Tourist Bureau at 630 Nishiki-cho, Omiya-ku, Saitama City Saitama Prefecture, +81 (0) 48-644-1144. The beautiful oriental garden in Happo-en, (1-1-1 Shirokanedai Minato, Japan, +81 (0)3 3443 3111, boasts some of the oldest bonsai in the world, at over 200 years old. A lovingly tended Japanese Garden in the US National Arboretum houses the National Bonsai Collection and provides a haven of meditative calm in the midst of the city (3501 New York Avenue, NE Washington D.C., +1 (0) 202 245 2726), while a selection of elegant bonsai can be seen in the UK in the idyllic setting of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AB, +44 (0) 20 8332 5655).

Image courtesy of Christian Dior Spring 2007

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