Bonsai master breeds happiness in a pot
Kunio Kobayashi, 60, opened the Syunkaen Bonsai Gallery in West Tokyo eight years ago to promote the art of miniaturized plants to a wider -- and increasingly international -- audience. Since then, thousands have strolled through the gardens, workshops and display areas of the 15-time winner of the annual Kokufuten Competion, taking away a new understanding and wonder for a cultural heritage synonymous with Japan.
CNNGo: When were you first bitten by the bonsai bug?
Kunio Kobayashi: I still remember the very first time that I saw a real, true bonsai tree, on display in the Sakafuten exhibition, held near Tokyo Station. I was in my twenties, and it was just a revelation. It wasn't any old tree, but the famous -- and 600-year-old -- 'Oku no Kyosho,' or 'pine at the end of the road.' It was so powerful and impressive that I decided that I wanted to follow that path and become a bonsai artist.
CNNGo: OK, what precisely is a bonsai and when were the first ones cultivated?
Kobayashi: These are miniaturized plants grown in containers and they can be found as far back as ancient Egypt, with potted olive and date trees often found in the grounds of temples. The term 'penzai' cropped up in China during the Jin Dynasty and the practice spread to Japan during China's Song Dynasty, between 960 and 1279. It was a time when Japan was importing and adapting many of mainland Asia's cultural pastimes. Cultivation of plants became a hobby of the wealthy and influential during the Tokugawa period.
CNNGo: Why do they appeal to the Japanese so much?
Kobayashi: They fit so perfectly with the people and society of this country. When you work on a bonsai plant, you feel nearer to nature -- to the forests or mountains -- even though you might be in an apartment in the middle of a city. Japanese homes are also very small and often people cannot have their own garden.
CNNGo: What is the secret to growing the perfect bonsai?
Kobayashi: You can grow almost any plant as a bonsai, although specimens are chosen for their suitability and happiness at being in a pot. If you take a maple and work on it at the right time of year, the DNA in the plant makes the leaves shrink. The leaves of an oak tree, on the other hand, will never become smaller and large leaves then look out of place on a tiny bonsai.
CNNGo: A real problem for high-school-age bonsai. What are some of the most popular styles?
Kobayashi: There are numerous styles that a plant can be encouraged to take, ranging from the formal, upright style -- known as 'chokkan' -- through cascades of tiny foliage that are reminiscent of flowing water, groups of trees that resemble growing forests and individual plants whose roots grow out of the cracks and holes in a rock, a style known as 'ishizuke.'
CNNGo: Is modern-day bonsai going in any different directions?
Kobayashi: 'Pop bonsai' is a modern take on the ancient approach, with seedlings encouraged to grow out of beer cans, coffee mugs or any other receptacle. This practice encourages the owner to use his or her imagination and creativity.
CNNGo: Don't you ever get tired of looking at miniaturized plants?
Kobayashi: No, I still get that old feeling whenever I see a particularly good example. The aesthetics of the plant may be very attractive, but there is also the inner element. It is seeing the living and the dead combining to create a vision of beauty. When I look at a good bonsai, I have a feeling of the importance of life and new respect for nature. These trees have been struggling to survive for so long and I feel humbled by that.Syunkaen Bonsai Gallery: Nihori 1-29-16, Edogawa-ku, tel 03 3670 8622, www.kunio-kobayashi.com