Masahiko Kimura’s bonsai garden is a short taxi ride from Hasuda station in Omiya ward, an hour by train north of Tokyo. After Japan’s great 1923 earthquake, which killed 130,000 people and destroyed much of the capital, the surviving bonsai nurseries moved to Omiya where the climate is cooler and the soil ideal for the cultivation of miniature trees. The taxi driver doesn’t need an address. “Kimura san, the magician of bonsai,” is enough to have him adjusting his white gloves and turning the key in the ignition.
We pull up about 15 minutes later in a small lane. There’s no one at the gate, so I make my way down a narrow gravel path along the left-hand side of the garden in which I can make out rows of bonsai and an area of fish ponds. Kimura’s house, a small redbrick bungalow, looks like an afterthought in a garden devoted almost entirely to his creations.
Kimura is at the back, dressed in grey slacks, a striped blue shirt and a casual white jacket. At 72, he is one of Japan’s most famous practitioners of bonsai, a traditional art that involves growing miniature trees, many of which are handed down the generations to be tended by successive bonsai masters. In the wrong hands, they can quickly lose their aesthetic quality or even die. When I ask Kimura whether you need instructions to look after a bonsai, he fires back: “Do you need instructions to look after a baby?”
Kimura has a solid, pugnacious look about him, not at all how you would imagine a septuagenarian bonsai master. Two of his apprentices have placed a small tree – a black pine – on its side. Kimura is scraping away the roots from the compacted soil. In its natural state, this tree would grow to around 30 metres in height, he says. This one has been kept at less than a metre for some 250 to 300 years.
Bonsai, like many Japanese artistic traditions, originated in China, though Kimura says pots similar to the ones used in bonsai have been found in Egyptian tombs. Bon means tray, the shallow vessel in which the plants (sai) are kept. In China, artists tend to cultivate several plants in the same pot, creating a miniature landscape of plants and rocks. In Japan, the norm is to grow a single tree.
Kimura set out to learn the art of bonsai at the age of 15. His father had died and his mother thought he should learn a trade. She persuaded a local bonsai master, Motosuke Hamano, to take the boy on as a deshi, a pupil or disciple. Kimura studied with Hamano for 11 years. For the first three he was not allowed to touch a tree. Eventually he learnt the full repertoire of bonsai techniques; how to take care of an old bonsai made by a long-dead master and how to create new bonsai from a cutting, a commercial nursery or a tree taken direct from the mountainside.
In his mid-twenties, Kimura struck out on his own, honing the techniques that would eventually see him become one of the best-known and most pioneering bonsai artists in Japan. He picks up his cigarettes and lighter, which I take to mean the tour of his garden is about to begin. We start next to the entranceway where dozens of trees are lined up on little wooden tables. I stop in front of a bare, starkly beautiful tree shaped like a wooden broccoli. It is a karin, or quince tree, which, in its natural state, would have abundant leaves and grow up to eight metres. This one stands, bare-branched, a few feet tall and produces a yellow fruit.
The next tree that grabs my attention is a juniper, or shimpaku. The trunk is as white as bone, called shari after the bones in a Buddhist cremation. It looks like a dancing dragon under a canopy of green foliage. Kimura got the tree from the mountain in 1985. Three years later he entered it in Japan’s most prestigious competition. It won first prize. The audacity of such pieces – Kimura often uses power tools to sculpt his (living) trees – and the contrast between the dead and live wood made these creations controversial. Some refused to accept it as bonsai at all. “It was,” he says, “the first time anyone had seen anything like it.”
We move to a covered area, home to more recent creations. The trunks of these trees, also juniper, are knobby like volcanic rock, unrecognisable from the smooth, bone-white of the dancing dragon. They put me in mind of Chinese paintings of limestone scenery. Kimura confirms that the inspiration indeed came from Chinese landscape. He has produced a whole series of such trees, some trained to grow up pillars of rock or to resemble miniature forests clinging to a mountainside. “I am trying to take tradition and contemporise it,” he says. “This is new bonsai.”
But first there is tradition to master. Several of his apprentices are working to one side of the house in a small greenhouse. Each has a plant placed on what looks like a potter’s wheel. On one wheel sits a zuisho tree, a specially cultivated five-needle pine. The apprentice spins it around, a quarter turn at a time, allowing him to bind the branches with wire, pulling and pushing them into shape as if they were pipe-cleaners. On the walls are hung coils of copper wire. Dozens of clippers, pincers and pliers are laid out.
Kimura has wandered off, so I ask an apprentice to explain what he is doing. His tree is bent over drastically to one side as if flattened by the wind. It is called fukinagashi, or windblown, a particular bonsai form. He brings out a book with several other classic bonsai designs: chokkan, straight trunk; sokan, twin trunk; sankan, triple trunk; neagari, exposed root, bunjin, a narrow trunk with tufts of leaves at the top; kengai, overhanging cliff, in which the plant grows below the pot; and ishizuki, in which the plant is attached to a rock.
I rejoin Kimura in his office at the side of the house. The walls are decorated with prime minister’s prizes and a special award from the emperor for spreading Japanese culture abroad. Kimura has attended competitions worldwide, showing off his techniques in the US, Korea, Italy, Luxembourg, China, the Philippines, Venezuela and Australia. He has also trained disciples from the US and Europe.
I ask what it is about bonsai that is so appealing. Japanese people, he says, appreciate having nature by their side – an intimation of nature, a stripped-down, understated version. “If you go to Kyoto, to one of those temples with a rock garden, some people who don’t know any better may think it’s boring,” he says. “But if you sit and contemplate the rock, you’ll see that, while it appears to be nothing, it contains everything in it. You can imagine there’s a river and maybe something else – say a mountain – behind it. In western gardens,” he continues, with the sweeping generalisation with which the Japanese sometimes talk about the world outside, “it’s all about how it looks. The Japanese have stripped this away and reduced it to your imagination.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor