An Old Five Needle Pine goes to show

One of the things I look forward to during my apprenticeship is attending shows and getting a glimpse of the behind the scenes. Sakufu-ten (Saku = make, fu = wind, ten = exhibition) is a Bonsai show and competition held in December ever year.  The show is only open to professionals and is a showcase of the Bonsai talent in Japan.  Professionals can summit a customer’s tree or or their own trees for this show.  There are various categories in the competition with the top prize being the Prime Minister award.

The show goes on in December but the photos and judging of the trees are all done in October.  This gives them time to process all the pictures and have a book ready when the show opens.  In this post, I will show some pictures of the Five Needle Pine that Mr. Tanaka submitted this year and thoughts on how he likes to prepare a tree for show.

Here is what the tree looked like after Mr. Tanak fine tuned it for the show.  This was shot in the workshop

The tree is a Semi-cascading Five Needle Pine that has been a Bonsai for over 100 years.  It’s been worked on many times and the tree has changed many times from owner to owner.  This tree now belongs to a customer.

Picture of the back of the tree

Interesting enough, Mr. Tanaka says that he would like to make this the front of the tree in the future.  He would do some big cuts and shorten the cascade and tilt the tree forward.  He says that at the top of the tree, there are some very interesting curves that are lost with the current front.  He believes that if he can show those curves, the tree will look even better.

This twisted area at the top is what Mr. Tanaka would like to show in the future

Here is the twisted area from the current front.  As you can see from the picture, you can’t really see the curves.

I thought this hole in the current front of the tree was very interesting.

Mr. Tanaka says that on high mountain pines such as this Five needle pine, having deadwood make the tree more interesting and valuable, whereas deadwood on a Coastal pine such as a Black Pine is not desirable at all and actually makes the tree less valuable though interesting to see.  I thought about it for awhile and it started to make sense.  The high mountain areas tend to have rough conditions such a snow, dry spells and lack of food.  Whereas in the coastal areas, the conditions are better so deadwood isn’t very normal.  Plus, it’s so humid and wet on the coast that any deadwood that does appear would quickly rot away anyways.

Note that most of the branches don’t have wire on them.  Mr. Tanaka will put small wire to make little adjustments only.

One of the things that Mr. Tanaka did after he put the small wire on the tree, he lightly painted them with lime sulfur.  This turned the red copper into a black color.  This made the wire blend to the wood of the tree and is less noticeable.

Mr. Tanaka’s thoughts on showing Bonsai

I talked to Mr. Tanaka about show styling for awhile and it got pretty complex.  He says that the current trend is that people do not like to see wire on the trees anymore.  He straight out told me that the overall shape of most evergreen bonsai are artificial.  He says that people like it because it tends to have very clean lines and is nice to look at.  On the other end, if we truly made a tree to look natural, it wouldn’t be as pleasing to look at during a show.  Mr. Tanaka’s approach is somewhere in the middle.  He likes the Bonsai shape of the tree, but styles them in a way where they look a bit more natural.  Notice that the foliage has a free feeling to them.  The foliage and branches aren’t rigid and ultra refined.

Mr. Tanaka says that when he preps a tree for show, he will normally wire most of the branches and set them where he wants them to be.  He will then let the tree grow for another year before it is shown.  Right before the show, he will remove most of the heavy wire on the tree and make some small adjustments.  He says that is the best to getting this refined/natural feel to the tree.

My thoughts on showing Bonsai

After seeing Mr. Tanaka prep this tree for Sakafu, my ideas of how to show a tree changed dramatically.  In the past, I’ve always tend to be very rigid in my show styling and wanted everything on the tree to look perfect.  To this day, I still tend to nitpick at the tree to get everything just right. It’s a habit I need to break because it consumes a lot time to get everything just right and the result is a rigid looking tree.  I will then show the tree soon after.

After working with Mr. Tanaka, it turns out that I needed to change my approach on how I adjust the tree and allow the tree to do some of the work too.  I now believe that the combination of my work and allowing the tree to grow before showing will lead to a more beautiful and natural feeling tree.

I’m still processing all of these new pieces of information so my thoughts are all over the place.  As I organize them and gain more experience working with show trees, I will post more information on the topic in the future.  It’s almost never ending it seems and did you really think this was going to be the only post I write about showing a tree?  ;o)

Mr. Tanaka finished up the discussion by saying that everybody’s technique for showing is different and they all have their reasons for doing it that particular way.  He understands that every one has their own likes and dislikes and to say that his method is the best and only method would go against the very concept of what people are.  Every one is different one way of the other and Bonsai is not immune to that fact.

Lots to think about and the training continues…

Oh yeah, we found out yesterday that the tree took second place.

Thanks for reading.

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16 thoughts on “An Old Five Needle Pine goes to show

  1. Jose Luis Rodriguez Macias says:

    Beatiful tree and very informative posts, as usual. As a student of the Taiwanese school of bonsai, i do not agree with the perspective of coastal dead wood on trees. In our tropical belts, Pemphis acidula (Hama Shitan in Japanese), Hibiscus tiliaceus (Ohamabo in Japanese), Premna serratifolia or Premna japonica (Nioi Kaede in Japanese) and even Juniperus procumbens (Sonare in Japanese) exhibit quality and durable dead wood. Salt spray and slow growth over the years in coastal lime stone contribute to very hard and durable driftwood.

    High mountain conifers also exhibit great Jin and Shari, which are also highly prized. Anyhow, just offering a different perspective on an otherwise fantastic post. Keep up the beautiful work!!!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Jose,

      Thanks for your insight to deadwood on trees. I’d like to explore that more and perhaps I too will come to the conclusion that coastal trees can and even should have deadwood features. Take care and thanks for reading the blog! :o)

  2. japanesepots says:

    Eliot, in my hope and prayer, I think Mr Tanaka’s humility and other’s comments about allowing the trees voice to be heard above the voice of the artist…Politics plays a minimal role. It’s all about the tree. Unknown artists often take prizes at major shows.
    I think it may be said that this white pine won a second place prize at Sakufu…Tanaka San accepted it.
    I hope Peter confirms this from the inside. Politiucs is seemingly everywhere these days, I’d love it if it were kept out out of top Bonsai(else returning apprentices must have PR agents…blah…let’s not go there!?)

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Japanesepots,

      As always, thanks for reading. I would love to say that there is no politics in bonsai here in Japan, but that would just be wishful thinking. I don’t know the extent of it yet but there has certainly been some talk.

      Of course Mr. Tanaka accepted the second place and is pleased. He’s always reminded me that a good Bonsai artist shouldn’t be arrogant and perhaps he’s leading by example.

      It’s funny, when you said,”PR,” I was like, why wouldn’t I want a prime rib when I get back to the states. LOL I must have been hungry when I read your comment. Take care!

  3. Elliott Farkas says:

    My day always gets a little bit better when my phone alerts me that there is a entry on your blog. I agree with Mr. Tanaka about changing the front. The nebari on the current back seems to go better with that style.
    Im just wondering, are there alot of politics involved with show trees? Like for example, would someone more well known like Kimura be more likely to win a competition over someone with an equaly good tree (and if your making equaly good trees as Kimura, You are probaly well known), but is not as well known or is a relative new-comer? Or maybe the Judge (s) own trees from someone’s nursery that is in a show they are judging and there by making their own tree more valuable because the artist has more trophies?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Elliott,

      Thanks for reading the blog. A quote comes to mind. “If there is more then one person, there’s going to be politics.”

      I’ve heard stories, good and bad and politics does have it’s place here. Especially when there is a lot of money involved. I won’t say too much about it because it’s all been gossip and hearsay. Perhaps in the future I’ll write something about it but then I would have to play politics because I don’t want to get anybody here mad at me. LOL!

  4. Peter Tea says:

    Thanks for the comments everybody! We’re going to be throwing a small party for Mr. Tanaka soon so that will be fun! It’s funny because Mr. Tanaka was so nonchalant about the whole thing. I think he’s very happy inside but also very modest about it.

  5. Jay Conor says:

    Nice post Peter. Important points you’ve expressed. I always think ideally we want to work with the tree in every step. A partnership. This can continue including exhibiting. Giving the tree time to put in its part to really bring out it’s own beauty. Although perhaps slightly different but I love when I see Tokonoma displays with a “looser” feel for conifers. Of corse all this is even better with old bonsai that have been given care for a long time like the great White pine you wrote about. Thanks for sharing Mr. Tanaka’s thoughts as well as your own. J.C.

  6. jeremiah lee says:

    Great Post Peter, thank you I know we all really appreciate it!

  7. londogbonsai says:

    Thanks for sharing Peter. The tree is stunning! I really like the perspective on deadwood, I think that applies to the junipers we see here in California, they great one’s always have amazing twists and dead areas, just as they do in the mountains. A new use for lime sulfur!

    Congratulations to Mr. Tanaka for a great placing!

  8. Thank you Peter. I have read your entire blog so far and am looking forward to see and hearing more as the upcoming years pass.

  9. George Haas says:

    Wonderful post. I like the insight provided on judging and competition and approach taken to ready a tree. Thank you and Mr. Tanaka for sharing your thoughts on the matter.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi George,

      Once Kokufu-ten comes around, I’ll try and write a more detailed post about the overall show set up and competition itself. Thanks for reading the blog and take care

  10. Thanks again for this wonderful article Peter!

  11. Peter thank you. As always fascinating. I like the idea that each tree should have, I guess, sort of a personality rather than looking like they were made with a cookie cutter.

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