Welcome to the Saruyama Blog, intermittent and generally off topic. Occasionally you might see some trees...and weird ones at that.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Youth of today...

A theme which has been playing on my mind of late is the lack of expression of youth within bonsai, not just in the West but also in modern Japan.  What is that you say??? surely this is contrary to all the accepted aesthetic idea and teachings that we have drummed into us...wabi-sabi , mochikomi, patina, antiquity, bending all our branches down to make them look old, dead wood etc.

I'm a big fan of proverbs and sayings, although they can be quite trite, there is generally a truth behind them and it can spark off a train of thought which can often derail...as it did with "saruyama no taisho". One that I read which has stayed with me is applicable to this situation i have found myself in..."You start with flowers, end with flowers...". In a sense, this refers to the focal point of one's interest within bonsai as you age, something which changes as experience builds up and life ebbs and flows.

As a youth, the attraction is to the bright, immediate and showy, so colourful flowers are appealing. They are easy to understand and disposable. As we age, gain power and wealth in our lives; big, powerful black pines, convoluted, deadwood heavy junipers and elephant footed maples become the focal point. Immediate and obvious impression making trees. Time passes, we grow weary and the novelty of power and wealth fades along with our vigour.  Subtle trees with less showy characteristics become more and more prevalent in our thoughts; aged literati and elegant deciduous built on years of dedicated work and patience, both of which are understood better after years of suffering. Once we reach the twilight years and a profound understanding of the vagaries of life has been achieved, the spectre of death looms. At this point we come almost full circle and flowers become appealing once again.

At this point although the focal point is the same, the perspective is entirely different. A lifetime of experience and a change of priorities make the same flowers appear in a new light. When faced with the truth of human mortalilty it is inevitable to celebrate new life and the awakening of buds after the harsh winter. Although this may seem morbid, traditionally death is not to be feared in the Japanese mentality, it is not seen with the same finality as it is from a Western perspective.

So coming almost full circle, we return to the appreciation of youth, something which is really only apparent in the use of accent plants within our bonsai world. When was the last time you styled a tree with upward pointing branches? Reachng for the sun, striving to explore, grow and experience....now I am not saying we should turn our back on the traditions of bonsai, making our trees look as old as they can is as important as ever, it too has its deeper meaning, but the follies of youth should not be forgotten, they are still a part of the natural cycle, an essential part of life yet strangely overlooked in a rush to get towards the finish line.  I should say that creating a tree to look young still takes time and effort and the point I am trying to make should not be confused with trees that are still young in development.

So what caused this refrigerated truck of thought to veer into conciousness? Travelling around looking at trees in their various natural habitat I have always been struck by the difference between much of the deciduous styling and natural growth habits, but the main catalyst was a chance meeting between me and a sweet and tender hawthorn.  I was rooting around behind the benches of a nursery and there she sat, under a tree, surrounded by others; unappreciated because of the upward pointing branches, the slender pubescent trunk and lack of commonly accepted character. The uniqueness of it struck me and made me feel invigorated and I was moved to purchase it for further development. Moving the tree around the other day, I wish it could have invigorated me more, sadly my vigour, especially in the lower back is lacking.

Yes, I know that it is a little on the strange side and doesn't fit in with the normal accepted side of bonsai but...well, it's important to be at every stage on the natural cycle and if we always stay camped within our own box and show a distinct lack of adventure, then eventually we will go out on penalties.

Once the garden is finished, I will work on styling it, so expect some pictures eventually. I may even use a camera.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Onward and Upward...

At 36,000 ft. the trip across the US doesn't seem so bad. On my way home after a long and eventful four weeks in America, and in four and a half hours I am covering the same distance as 3 days of non stop trucking...

The lack of updates has been due to a combination of tiredness, work to do and the European Championships. Been some cracking games so far, lets hope we don't crash out in a John Terry fuelled ball of fire. Spending time at International Bonsai Mirai, the garden of Ryan Neil, it is at times overwhelming, both the amount and quality of material he has and how much he has been able to achieve in two and a half years. As a contemporary and friend it is difficult to not draw comparisons, we all suffer from tree jealousy and ego problems no matter how hard we try and restrain or justify it. Thankfully the pair of us have different skill sets and also different but similar visions of bonsai and how it should be done, so comparisons are a bit like apples and oranges...plus we are both relatively happy with the paths we are walking.

Over the last five days and also during the more lucid conversations in the truck, a great number of ideas and bits of information were shared and discussed. One great learning experience for me was to be forced to work outside the comfort zone a little and style a tree for Ryan. He had been telling me he had a tree he wanted me to style for him for some time and kept dropping the idea. I had done it a year or so ago with a little literati spruce which i worked on again this time. It seemed a very alien and to be honest quite frightening idea...to style a tree for another professional, especially a collected piece for one of arguable the most talented and knowledgable yamadori artists around. Opening up the potential for criticism, for faliure and for ruining a valuable tree is difficult enough for a client, but the stakes are raised even further in this situation. Still it was time to go big or go home and it was done to the best of my abilities...but with a great amount of caution used...despite Ryan's comments to have at it.

Lovely, leggy, elegant juniper before....

Having never really worked with Rocky Mountain Junipers on a massive scale I took great care in the approach. Maintaining a large foliage mass is essential with all junipers and there were a number of branches with internal growth that I would normally have cut back to, but by the end I had removed around 40% of the foliage and so that was bordering on the limit of pruning. The foliage was left on the end of the branches to become photosynthetic energy generation area which would create the resources to generate new foliage growth inside the tree. As the tree would need to be transplanted next year, there is a need for foliage to create the energy to grow roots.

The RMJ has been getting a bad press for a long time, recently it has been taking some flak from certain people with very strong ulterior motives but it is clear to see with the trees that were in the 3rd national show that given a few years and the correct techniques and care, the foliage does turn mature and become compact almost to the point of looking like the holy grail, Itoigawa. Rather than slander the RMJ in the US or Sabina in Europe as a difficult and unworkable tree, there needs to be a major change in the way people approach styling, because the demonstration style "image in a day" hasn't worked at all. Maintaining as high a foliage mass as possible whilst pushing the tree in the correct direction is important, not cutting back to a bare skeleton structure with next to no foliage and expecting it to grow out.

Stood up, wired and initially styled. The sacrificial branch at the front is tied up and will be used to maintain balance and for energy production. Yes i know it is a terrible picture...what do you expect from me? There will be better pictures in the future.

Ryan seemed happy with the final tree and was generous enough to say that he would not have styled it that way. I took it as a compliment. I thought it a very brave and humble move for him to have trees styled by other artists in his garden, but he said that it was necessary to have those trees as it opens his horizons and stops him falling in a rut. It certainly helped me to do the same by styling it and I am looking forward to him repaying the favour when he comes in January.

Much of the conversations during the trip centred around the upcoming Artisans Cup of Portland, the bonsai exhibition that will be held in the Museum of Modern Art in October of 2013. It promises to be an amazing event and it will take bonsai to a new realm, a different audience and I am very excited about this. Different display methods and new ideas are to be encouraged and thinking outside the box will be a big part of the show. American Bonsai will hopefully come out the otherside with a strong voice and identity. It is an interesting and exciting time to be involved with bonsai and there is great anticipation. On a personal level, it has given me the kick up the backside that I needed to do similar things in the UK. Having had a few opportunities which I didnt pursue, I have nobody to blame but myself. Ideas are forthcoming but the resources to back them up are not so enthusiasm slowly wanes. Like Ryan who is dipping very deeply into his own pockets to fund the show, I need to go big or go home...

Anyways, here are some shots from around the garden. Nothing much as he is making a new website, lots of pictures will be available there, so no spoiler shots here.

This, rather strangely, was one of my favourite trees in the garden. A 25 year old container grown beech that looked so natural and had the greatest sense of mochi-komi which is impossible to recreate. An outstanding little tree.

I had a good time hanging out with the boys...Ryan has two full time apprentices now, both great guys who are at the start of a long journey. It reminded me of the age of innocence. So much to learn and look forward to...

Tom is from Tennessee via the Army and California...

JP is from Paris and is a quiet, sensitive soul. He is balding and bearded...kind of sounds familiar.

Both rather amusingly are massive Shohin enthusiasts...I wonder if that will last.

I will be back in the UK for a while, got my corner of England to sort out. Apparently there is a cat sized slug attacking the vegetable patch although methinks the lady doth protest too much. There are some workshops up at Willowbog at the end of the month and I will also be doing some private work around the country. Once the garden is up and running a little, some more pictures will be up and I will start to work on my own trees for once.

Thursday, 14 June 2012


After leaving Rochester At 7pm on Sunday night, we made it back safely and in one piece to Ryan's. The pce was equally as punishing as the trip out...we stopped the one night in Cheyenne At what can nly be described as the greatest hotel/haven we have ever encountered, Little America. God bless you Little America.

We are all exhausted and in a state of mental and physical exhaustion, not helped by the constant diet of caffeine, Cliff bars and buffalo wings. I have had a few emails badgering me to blog more but it has been kind of difficult...so rest assured that we did it, not a single tree damaged, pot or stand broken and all the trees look happy and well watered after their little trip east.

The show was a success in many ways and more on that later...I just want to share with you the sight that greeted us as we drove into Oregon this morning at 6 am...I had just switched over after driving the night shift and the sun rose over the hills and Jeff Buckley came on the ipod at random...it was a sublime moment of exhaustion combined with elation at a job nearly done and awe at the natural beauty.


I will describe some of the highlights later when we have sifted the truth from imagination and also censored some of it.

There is a sense of relief in the camp...now we have to hang up our trucking gloves and deal with real life again...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Safely arrived...

After a gruelling first session that took us to Cheyenne, starting Sunday night and arriving 24hrs later, we set off for the second leg of the road trip. Originally we had planned on going as far as Chicago, a 14 hour drive, stopping the night and then driving the rest the next day. Things however never go to plan and due in no small part to the immense manliness of us all, we pushed on non stop right through to Rochester. Operating in rotation we literally trucked on through the night with a marathon 35 hour drive.

The main concern was the temperature in the back of the truck and although we had a refrigerated unit, it was only used a couple of times when the temperature rose significantly above 70 F. Allowing the trees to get too hot in a humid and stale air environment could result in fungal problems so we kept a close eye on the temperature. Equally of concern was making it too cool and subjecting the trees to a massive temperature gradient on arrival and due to some mild weather here in Rochester, that too has been avoided. As all the trees had been thoroughly watered before loading up there was no need to water then en route, but needless to say they were checked every six hours when we stopped and changed up or refuelled.

The main reason for pushing the driving to such limits is one of tree safety, the longer they are in the truck, the highest rate of developing problems. Carefully balancing that factor with the safety of driving we managed to do it in the least amount of time possible and with only one scary point where we limped into a truck stop with the red fuel light glaring. Other than that it was plain sailing....and contrary to some comments, the clutch was not burnt out as it was an automatic. So there Snarty.

Although it sounds pretty tiring and dramatic, we did actually have fun, the conversations ranged far and wide and ae definitely not safe for publication...we talked a little about bonsai. It was mainly just guys talking rubbish. We did have a lengthy comparison of the idiotic things we did during our apprenticeship and relived some of the dark old days...although they were quickly forgotten in favour of things less cerebal.

The pressure on Ryan is very similar to that which I felt in the run up to Noelanders earlier this year. It is a huge commitment to make, taking the responsibility for the trees which are clients prized possessions into which a lot of time, effort and money have been invested. One false move, falling asleep at the wheel or losing concentration could spell professional disaster...but it is an essential part of pushing bonsai to a higher level of quality which will benefit all involved in the art. Without creating a national or international exhibition of the highest level where trees can be displayed, then the art will stagnate and the level ultimately drop. Having shows like the US national, Noelanders and also the show next year that will take place in Portland, the level and expectation of quality in Bonsai will undoubtedly improve. Raising the standard in a sustainable eay is the responsibility of professionals and if that means putting in a marathon shift behind the wheel of a refrigerated truck then so be it.

for those of you growing up in the 80's in the uk...


To bed...we have set up tomorrow mornng.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Road trip...

The road trip continues apace...sunday saw us pack the truck. When i say truck I mean truck, this is no small van...a 26,000 lb beast of a machine. Refrigerated unit and all...sweet.


Packing was intense, plans destroyed and remade, but eventually through a combination of Anglo-American ingenuity and Japanese training we managed to ge a phenomenal amount of trees in there and nothing damaged so far.

Starting off from Internatinal Bonsai Mirai is St. Helens OR, we (Ryan, Zac Shimon and myself) began the drive in high spirits. Driving the truck n the small roads was sketchy but once nto the highway smooth driving ntil we hit the mountains. To be fair to him, Ryan did the majority of the driving on a legendary 9pm until 2pm the next day stretch. He just kept on trucking. the job of the passengers is to for one of us to rest and the other to talk rubbish, operate the ipod and keep the driver from sleeping. It has worked so far.

It has been interesting seeing the different landscapes across the US from the cab of a truck...here is a video i took....


It sure is pretty.

When ryan was spent I took over driving duties...now there is some debatable legality in sme states about me driving so Imperial entanglements are to be avoided at all costs...and bearng in mind we have a to speed of 65 mph, i doubt i will get a speeding ticket...still, it was an interesting drive, the weight of the truck means that the slightest gust of wind catches the massive kite like panels and pushes us all over the road. Unfortunately for me I had the drive across the wilderness of Wyoming...vast stretches of land which were flat and windy. Still ot wasnt to bad and we arrived in Cheyenne exactly on schedule. 1,130 miles in 23 hours.

We now have the full compliment of trees, after having picked some up last night. Rested in a hotel, we are ready for day 2, Cheyenne to Chicago, slghtly less today, about 16 hours probably. Aiming to arrive in Rochester wednesday night...

spirits and energy levels were drained last night but we are all still friends...And most importantly, the trees are all in one piece, watered and not too hot.

See you on the other side


Saturday, 2 June 2012

Purity...blessed purity

There are some aspects of my training and the techniques I learnt under the Chief that because they are inappropriate in the west, I have thrown away with great ease. There are some however, which no matter how hard I try, cannot be over ridden despite their apparent lack of importance in the western bonsai community.

Working on satsuki as i have been recently, one of these points came to be the bane of my week...namely the purity of flowers on kinsai. There are thousands of different varieties of azalea and over 800 recognised by the authorities, one of the most popular is Kinsai...the red firecracker type flower which also has a lovely narrow leaf and a growth habit that lends itself to a superb deciduous image ( see many trees made by Tsukada, one of which made it to Europe via Gingko and then into Italy ). Sadly the problem that Kinsai have, other than their slightly unique growth habit which can be difficult to maintain, is that they, like many of us, have overpowering parents...particularly the mother.

Whilst the offspring is a lovely, exciting multi petaled flower, a red firework; the mother is a large boring fat red thing known as Lapa, same shape as an osakazuki and frankly a little undesirable. Due to the genetics of the trees, there is always a dominant flower gene and left unchecked, this will come to the fore. Don't ask me how and why because all I know is that it happens. Multi coloured trees left unchecked will eventually turn red, Kinsai left untouched will turn to Lapa and it is an irreversible process. The leaf shape and colour will not be affected so appreciation throughout the year is the same but when it comes time to flower...


Another pet project, a half dead azalea saved and now seen for the first time in flower... You can see the different flower types...must...remove...those....

Now for the majority of sane people in the bonsai community lets say 99.9%, the difference is not that important, but as much as I try, I cannot sleep at night knowing that such contamintion is occuring. It was always drilled into me and at times I revert back to type, like a sleeper agent suddenly activated to carry out a mission after 20 years of deep cover. I just cannot let it lie. Some of the trees owned by the customer were too far gone to be saved but there were some where it was possible to save them.

This tree for example was still fairly pure, at first glance, you can only see a few Lapa flowers in there but they must be eradicated, if not the influence will spread and more flowers around it will begin to turn and you will notice that where the flowers once had 11 or 13 petals, thye have five thick but separate ones, then next year they ar fully converted. The only solution is to remove the entire branch back to where we have desirable flowers.

You can see that the branch has a big flower at the end of it and also had some bulging flower buds. It is impossible to tell what type of flower will pop out of a bud, so I checked by physically unwrapping the bud and checking petals. This was done because I was operating on a tight schedule rather than best practice. The whole branch was turning to the dark side and so the only and final solution was applied. Removal.

Genetic purity re-esablished, the other single branches with bad flowers throughout the tree were removed. On this tree, the flowers were left for further appreciation, they had a good week or two left in them, but it was important (to me) to get those bad ones removed whilst I could still see them. The client was very understandably not bothered at all, he is after all a sane man, and his appreciation is 365 days a year. Thankfully we found a middle ground where I could appease my OCD on trees that it was worthwhile being saved and I had to let it pass on those that were nicely styled but confused in the flower department.

I no sure how many people will appreciate things such as this but it was something that was drilled into me and was important for a certain group of people judging things by a different set of criteria. Whereas I have come to be flexible on certain aspects and criteria, there are things I cannot let go, despite knowing their relative lack of importance. I am not claiming that they should become important but people should be made aware of them and come to decisions themselves. After all, majority rules...sadly in some situations.

As I regularly say, anybody who does Bonsai has control issues and should seek therapy. I have just had a breakdown moment and now i feel guilty and ashamed, but the pleasure was intense...I had been holding back on styling the kinsai as I didnt want to use branches to style the tree without knowing what they were...now all the kinsai are tagged with percentages of purity, bad branches removed and the trees lost to the darkside are forgotten and appreciated simply for their appearance. I felt a flush of relief as I cut those last branches off before dashing to the airport. Like picking away at a scab that will never heal.

I need help.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Some pictures from the BSF convention....

As promised some pictures from the Florida convention from last weekend.  Thanks to President Charles and Mike "Hammerfist" Lebanik

As I mentioned there was a Horror Show on at the same time...

Thats right...A Chicken, with a decapitated head...both checking out the trees...

Who said the average ago of Bonsai enthusiasts was rising...sadly there was no sign of Evil-Lyn anywhere...

The horror show continues...me doing a bougie.

The finished tree.  A solution to the weak base needs to be found, I suggested either a rock or a deeper planting.  Also some carving needs to be done on the lumpy trunk/top right side, but seeing as I shared the stage with Ryan, it would have been bad form to whip out the Makita.

More to follow.

Our saturday night entertainment....


Stay frosty...