Bonsai tree: Apprentice life

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bonsai tree: Apprentice life

Apprentice life

More than a few friends and family members have asked what it was like living as a bonsai apprentice in Japan for 6 weeks. Some days were filled with mochi parties and antique shows. Other days involved lifting, carrying, and more lifting. There was a lot of sitting in the car as we drove as far as Tokyo and Takamatsu, and there was a lot of second hand smoke.

As much as I lived the day-to-day life of a bonsai apprentice, I was a short-timer, and this helped keep my spirits high throughout my visit. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like for Peter Tea or the other Americans studying bonsai abroad. Fortunately for us, they’re doing a great job writing about their experiences.

Peter started the Aichi-en Apprenticeship Program to expose more people to the bonsai life. So far at least four of us have stayed with the Tanakas in their Nagoya home.

My room at Aichi-en

Apprentice quarters at Aichi-en

My room at Aichi-en

The sum of my furniture: futon, comforter, storage unit, rubbish bin

You’ll notice that the sliding doors and walls offered very little privacy. At any time, the Tanaka’s boys would peek inside to say hi, see if I could play, or stop by for an impromptu computer lesson.

Impromptu computer class

The industrious Hiyuu navigating Facebook

I was fortunate that Peter had been at Aichi-en for seven months when I arrived – plenty of time for him to learn the routine and improve his already considerable bonsai skills. His comfort at Aichi-en insured my comfort there.

Each morning we ate breakfast with the family and then headed out into the sea of bonsai surrounding the house.

A sea of pines

Sea of bonsai

We spent much of our time in the workshop. Mr. Tanaka sat just inside the door – I sat to his right, then Peter, and finally the other Mr. Tanaka, a third-year apprentice, sat at the far end of the workshop. Some days were quiet, others were chatty. Snacks appeared around 10:30 and 3:30 each day, as did lunch and dinner at fairly predictable times. What was not predictable, however, was how much time we got to spend in the workshop.

I visited Aichi-en in Fall – show season. This meant that we spent a lot of time with show-related activities that included picking up trees from customers, preparing trees for exhibits, and setting up and later striking the actual exhibits.

Daiju-en sales area at Takamatsu convention

At the Daiju-en sales area, part of the 11th Asia-Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention and Exhibition held in Takamatsu

Fall is also pine season. When we weren’t doing exhibit-related work, pines filled the workshop.

The workshop

Aichi-en workshop

In the workshop

Mr. Tanaka and I appraising a white pine


Debatable wiring technique

Mr. Tanaka

The intrepid Mr. Tanaka – no relation to the boss

Workshop time doesn’t necessarily equate to bonsai time. Peter, apprentice-Tanaka, and I, cleaned the workshop every day and performed tasks that varied from packing boxes to painting display stands. The same was true for Mr. Tanaka. His work came to a halt whenever customers visited, and evenings were often filled with projects like the fabrication of root stands.

Working on a root stand

Mr. Tanaka at work on a root stand

One apprentice-related topic that deserves special attention is food. It’s one thing to have little control over one’s time. It’s another to have little control over what, and how quickly, one must eat.

I was fed very well and I missed the food the day I returned home. But because we had so little control over what, where, and when we ate, our free time often focused on food.

On those special occasions when we had time off – maybe one day per 10-20 days – we often headed across a busy street to a mall that had a great grocery store. Peter and I picked out everything that looked good and then spent the rest of the day snacking. Treats ranged from the healthy, including Japan’s outstanding – and expensive – produce, to all manner of things fried.

Fried snacks at local super market

Fried treats at the local grocery

$7 for 3 apples!

Amazing apples – only $7 for three!

Cherry flavored mochi with red bean paste

Roasted cherry-flavored mochi with red bean paste

The meals rarely left me hungry – the Japanese develop great appetites at an early age.

Prodigious eater

What are you looking at?


Finding the bottom of the udon bowl

Peter and the fish (Taiyaki)

Peter vs the Taiyaki – waffle batter with red bean paste inside

Our precious days off gave us the opportunity to catch up with friends or with blog posts, explore the neighborhood, or simply sleep. Mundane activities included laundry. Peter and I used the Tanakas’ washing machine, but dried our clothes at a laundromat a few blocks away. In one of the more surreal moments of my visit to Japan, I found myself alone with a uniformed laundry attendant vacuuming beneath the dryers on her hands and knees while the Carpenters sang their greatest hits.

Days off also provided social time with the Tanaka family. One day we headed to the oldest Temple in Nagoya to participate in a service for young boys, of which the Tanakas have three.

Aichi-en kids

The Aichi-en children

Afterwards, we visited an open house hosted by the man who built the Tanaka’s residence.

Open house

Traditional Japanese home – hinoki and tsugi

We also had a little free time in the mornings before Mr. Tanaka came out to the workshop. I typically walked around appreciating the trees – and pots, of which Aichi-en had plenty.

So many great trees and I'm focused on the pots

Hmm, Japanese, 40 years old – maybe just the thing for that pine back home

Above all, I can say the time spent with Peter and the Tanakas was great fun. I learned a lot and had a wonderful time along the way. I sincerely appreciate the effort Peter and the Tanakas took to ensure I had a great trip – if any of you are reading this, thanks again!

On my last evening, Mr. Tanaka presented me with a certificate for completing 6 weeks of study at his nursery. To celebrate, we headed into town and visited a driving range!

Aichi-en Apprenticeship Program Certificate

Here’s the paper – now on with the party

Of course, it was early December in Nagoya – not the warmest time of the year, but as good a time as any for golf, a sport which all three of us – Mr. Tanaka, Peter and myself – have neglected in recent years due to our obsession with bonsai.

It wasn't warm

Mr. Tanaka armed against the cold with cigarette and coffee – me with hoodie and 5-iron

The driving range was pretty incredible. After striking a ball, the tee dipped below the artificial grass and arose with another ball in place – there was no bending over at this range. And the vending machine that provided us with the cards used to magically dispense balls proved to be the most thoughtful vending machine I’ve seen. The text reads, “CARD: This machine represents pleasant feeling with simple form and fresh color patterns. Glory producing machine by respecting convenience of users and others.”

Amazing decoration on vending machine at Nagoya driving range

“Glory producing machine”

At the driving range

Intense competition on the range – brrr!

After proving that we aren’t the golfers we once were, we lit out for a late night snack. The ramen shop was decorated with hundreds of cards drawn by patrons.

My Central Japan bonsai represents in a ramen shop tough guy face

Why the smirk?

Outside the ramen shop, Peter and I found more great vending machines – and a wall of cute animals.

Making time with

New UFO Cat

Little puppy

Cute puppy

The evening made for a great finish to an outstanding trip. I can’t wait to go back!

Thanks for reading :)


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