“I am always caring for my bonsai trees — it’s as necessary for me as eating every day,” says award-winning bonsai sensei, Kunio Kobayashi.
A cross between horticulture and art, bonsai trees may be tiny, but they have an immense impact on the masters who care for them.
Originating from the ancient art of “penjing” in China, bonsai was first introduced to Japan in the 6th century by a group of Japanese Zen Buddhism students returning from their overseas travels.
They dubbed it “bonsai”, which literally means “planted in a container”, and at its most elementary level the art is simply growing a wild tree inside a small vessel.
Maintenance and care
Years of styling, wiring, watering, repotting and pruning separate amateur bonsai trainers from master sensei. The fragile plants must be monitored every day for signs of deadly insect infestation or disease.
Kobayashi, who has spent nearly three decades dedicated to bonsai, says paying careful attention has helped him keep an estimated 1,000-year-old juniper tree, which he bought at auction, alive and thriving.
“No matter how much love and passion you have, you cannot take care of bonsai if you don’t know the basics,” says Kobayashi, who cares for the ancient tree at his Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Tokyo, Japan. “It takes six to 10 years of apprenticeship to learn those basics by repeating them over and over.”
On the other side of the world, at the US National Arboretum in Washington DC, bonsai museum curator Jack Sustic looks after a 400-year-old Yamaki white pine that survived the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.
“It’s a very humble art,” Sustic says. “When you work on bonsai, we’re working on their schedule, not ours. I have to make my schedule based on the time of the year, and when it’s best to do certain tasks on certain trees.”
“Often people say bonsai are like children, and they really are,” he continues. “You care for them, you’re concerned for them, you worry about them. If they look healthy and beautiful you are proud and want to show them off.”
Below, Kobayashi and Sustic discuss how they care for some of the world’s longest living bonsai.
A natural touch
“I want to express the tree’s inner beauty. So I am watching the way that the trunk and branches move,” says Kobayashi. “The goal is to make the tree look natural, as if a human never touched it. The silhouette should resemble a wild tree, with proper proportions.”