Apprenticeship and a Japanese Maple

Apprenticeship and a Japanese Maple

Many people have approached me and asked, “what is the apprentice life really like?”  I would always refer them to this blog but then realized with the help of Mr. Tanaka and Jonas ( that I never really talked about what it’s like to be an apprentice in Japan. Yes I would post projects I’m working on or shows that I attended and helped with but nothing really about the actual day to day of an apprenticeship.  There are fun times and there are tough times.  I tend not to focus on the tough times so I end up writing about the fun things I do.  In this post I’m going to talk about a few aspects of the apprenticeship in general that I’ve learned.  In the future, I will start posting short post about the day to day so you all can get a better feel of what I do here. I don’t plan to write about any bad experiences that I’ve had or will have but more of an explanation of what I’m required to do as an apprentice.  Everyday can be very different so I’m going to have my camera and note pad ready at all times so that I can bring more of my experiences to you.  Also, at the end of the post I threw in a couple of shots of a big beautiful Japanese Maple just to round it all out.

My apprenticeship situation

An apprenticeship can be different depending on the professional.  Some apprentice will live off site and show up at the nursery like it was a typical job.  Other will live on site with the family.  Both styles have their ups and downs and I’m sure the grass is always greener on the other side.  Though this may be true, it hasn’t stopped apprentices from complaining about it for sure.  ;o)  In my apprenticeship, I live with the family on site.  Not only do I have responsibilities to the nursery but a responsibility to the household.

The first month I stayed at Aichi-en, Mr. Tanaka said, “five years is a long time.  There will be times where I’m annoyed with you and you will be annoyed with me.  Stress is an important part of an apprenticeship and it will only make you stronger in the future.”  So in a way when I started my apprenticeship I joined a family.  There is a special bond that develops when you’re part of a family and I feel it growing everyday.  Of course on the other hand, when was the last time anybody lived with their family for five years and not get into some sort of conflict?

It’s not just about Bonsai!


As an apprentice I’m bound to always support my Oyakata, Mr. Tanaka and do what he says.  Loyalty and being a team player is very important in Japan.  As tough as life might get as an apprenticeship I always have to keep in mind that he is taking care of me and teaching me what I love to do.  Mr. Tanaka once said to me, “I should complain more to other apprentices so that they feel you’re having a difficult life too.”  I couldn’t help but laugh because it sounded so strange when he said it.  He then added, “Just don’t complain to me.”  I laughed even harder after he said that.  Mr. Tanaka says that it’s good to get your stresses out and it makes other apprentices feel that they’re not alone is their hardships.  Ever since that talk, if I remotely look like I dislike something, Mr. Tanaka will look at me straight in the face and ask, “are you complaining to me?” and I’d always smile and say, “oh no I’m not complaining.”  He’d grin and I’d continue what was told to do.


Being an apprentice is understanding humility.  Not thinking overly high of yourself and being more reserved.  I should be proud of my work but not too proud to where I’m showing off.  Not talking down to people and acting like you’re better then them (though this is done to teach humility).  The teaching of humility I believe is to counteract arrogance that can develop when one learns a skill.  I believe the Japanese knows this well so they really hammer that into an apprentice.  I’ve noticed that knowing when to keep my mouth shut helps in being humble.  Hahaha!


There is a ranking system here and when you’re new, you’re the low man on the pole.  I am the low man on the pole.  I don’t have to just take orders from Mr. Tanaka but from all my senior professionals and apprentices above me.  I talked to Mr. Tanaka about all my seniors and we made a list of them.  It turns out that I have 16 people within the Bonsai family that is my senior.  So every time I see them or work with them, I have to treat them accordingly.  I believe this plays into keeping me humble.

My outlook and what I make of it

So loyalty, humility and inequality are some of the things I’ve noticed so far about the apprentice life.  I’m sure as I continue, the list will get longer.  Noticed I haven’t said anything about Bonsai yet?  So yes, it’s not just about Bonsai.  It’s about being a better person and preparing someone to take on and overcome the stresses of life.  I can already tell I’ve changed a bit and that I feel stronger and more able to overcome situations that arise in the future.  Right now, I’m focused on learning as much as I can and staying positive through the whole experience.

Picture is courtesy of Jonas Duprich from  What an awesome pot!

A good apprentice attitude

There is a quote I remember that a few people have told me.  It goes,

“finishing a Bonsai apprenticeship in Japan just means you ate rice for five years.”

Mr. Tanaka always tells me, “it’s not about how much I teach you, but about how much you want to learn.”  There is a reason why after five years of apprenticeship, the certificate you get from the Nippon Bonsai Association says that you are a professional.  Nowhere on it says that you are a Master of Bonsai.  It’s important to understand that just being here doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically become good at Bonsai.  It will depend on my attitude and how much I want to learn.  If I push myself to learn more and more, I will become a better professional in the future.  It’s not Mr. Tanaka’s job to make me learn, it’s my own responsibility.  From the very beginning, I told myself that no matter what I am doing, I will always try to learn something new every time.  So far it’s worked out pretty good for me.

What? I get paid?

Many people don’t talk about this but I do get payed during my apprenticeship.  It surprised me because I wasn’t expecting money at all.  It turns out that there is a pay system and it’s different depending on where a person apprentices at.  Here is my pay scale:

Year One- 15,000 yen per month
Year Two- 20,000 yen per month
Year Three- 25,000 yen per month
Year Four- 30,000 yen per month
Year Five- 35,000 yen per month.

You do the math and find out how much that is in your home currency.  If I did it, I might start crying again…  hahaha

I can’t complain though because I wasn’t expecting anything in the first place so it was a pleasant surprise.  Now I have some money to feed my ridiculous pot addiction (the ceramic kind).

Okay, enough of that, let’s get on to some Bonsai!

I posted this Japanese Maple in my last article.  It has since had it’s leaves removed and Mr. Tanaka went through the tree and did some light pruning.  The pruning at this time of year should not be over done.  Too much pruning can cause the tree to become weak.  Japanese Maple can be very sensitive to over pruning.  Keep the heavy pruning to the beginning of Spring or Summer.

Here is a shot of the tree after the leaves were removed and lightly trimmed back.  Mr. Tanaka told me that this tree was bought about 40 years ago by his father and that it was just a trunk at that point.  The structure and the density has been developed since then.  The tree stands about about 36 in (91.5 cm).

The trunk of a Japanese Maple can tell you a lot about the age of the tree.  A young trunk will normally be green in color.  As it ages, the trunk will start to turn grey.  When the tree is really old, the trunk will start to form vertical fissures.  This tree has got to be about 70-80 years old.  That root spread (nebari) is not too shabby either!

For the last week, I’be been working on many Japanese and Trident Maples.  Soon I will post some articles about what I’ve been doing, information about the trees in general and some things you at home can do with your Maples.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

This will be my first Christmas in Japan!  Apparently they have Christmas cakes here so I’m going to find out what that’s all about… eating one.  ;o)

Thanks for reading

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60 thoughts on “Apprenticeship and a Japanese Maple

  1. Phil Richardson says:

    Dear Peter,

    First of all, Happy New Year!

    I stumbled onto your blog this morning and have enjoyed your posts and insights as you go through arduous apprenticeship. (And your book is in your posts!) We choose our life paths when we are young and hopefully it is our passion. Mine was the music and the french horn. I was also fortunate enough to have remarkable teachers and experiences reinforced by many hours in the practice room, even on holidays. As Mr. Tanaka stated, it is your responsibility to learn, something I also say to my students. The other part of it that I so like that we have trouble with our young kids, is the character building that goes along with the educational part. Bravo!

    I discovered bonsai nearly 20 years ago with East Bay Bonsai Club and have lived in Grass Valley, CA for the last 11 years. Last week, at the Gold Country Bonsai Club Christmas Party, Scott Chadd invited us to join Kathy Shaner the next day as they worked on Japanese White Pines. While I lived in SF, I had some time with Kathy at meetings and workshops. It was great to have the opportunity to spend a whole day with her and Scott. It’s funny how when we are in the presence of masters that we become humbled and can lose confidence in our skills when asked to do even the simplest of tasks. I didn’t do much but certainly learned a lot. Kathy also does a great job teaching and passing on information. A great day!

    Thanks again Peter for your posts and pardon my ramblings. You are allowing us old farts tied to jobs, mortgages, kids and responsibilites (no I’m not complaining, I love my life!) to experience your remarkable journey in bonsai apprenticeship. It takes a lot of courage and strenght to give up the easy and familiar to go old school!
    Keep up the great work!


    Phil Richardson
    Moonshine Ranch
    Grass Valley, CA

  2. Elizabeth Monson says:

    you site was email to me and while I have had some training, still a novice
    excellant coverage of a peaceful skill

  3. John Kirby says:

    Happy Holidays Peter. Had dinner with Jonas and Boon Monday night (Korean BBQ, lots of meat). I have known Jonas for only about 6 years (met him about the same time you and I did that first Intensive), I have never seen him so intense and energetic. I think the time at Aichi-en with you, the Tankas and the Daiju-en Family has got him fired up. There could be no better “advertisement” for spending time in Japan, and with Aichi-en in particular. Just an FYI, making Beef Wellington for Christmas, will set a place for you in spirit. Be happy.


    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks for cheering me up John! I suppose I can always dream of eating a steak. Thanks for saving me a spot at your table! Jonas had a great time here and it was fun having him here. He really worked hard and did more then we ever expected him to do! Happy New Years John and if we happen to run into each other when I’m back in March, we’ll go have a steak together! Take care my friend.

  4. Stacey Messina says:

    Hi Peter,
    My dad’s name is Ray . He travled to Japan with you. He has told me so much about you and your apprenticeship while in Japan. I just received a link to your blog thru Stone Lantern! Unbelievable small world. Keep it up. Mr. Tanaka’s bonsai trees are amazing! Happy holidays!

    Stacey Messina

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Stacey! It is a small world! Ray is a great guy and a great friend! Did you know that he was the person that got me started in Bonsai? I have him to blame for this huge change in my life! ;o)

      Take care and have a Happy New Years! Thanks!

  5. Michael Markoff says:

    Having survived a 4 yr residency in Philadelphia, under often oppressive, demeaning, and arduous conditions, I can relate to the hours, sweat, and tears that you may put into realize your goals. Firstly, bravo! for your dedication to developing your skills and talents; You are the “new blood” that this art needs to thrive. Secondly, thank you for sharing your experiences and dedicating your life to bonsai; we’ll all benefit from your contributions to the art.

  6. Good stuff Peter. It takes guts to make this sort of move and “live the dream” and you should be applauded for having done so. It’s also great that we enthusiasts get to (partly) take part in the experience.

    Happy Everything! from Amsterdam.
    Jerry Norbury

  7. Mike Arakaki says:


    Thanks for all the posts and great pictures! I’ve always wondered about apprenticeship life outside of bonsai and now we’ll get a chance to find out. Look foward to reading about it in future. Have a Happy “japanese” Holiday Seaason! Omedeto Gozaimasu!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks Mike and Happy Holidays to you in Hawaii! Again it was really nice meeting you at Takamatsu and I hope to see you in person again in the future. Take care Mike!

  8. Jim says:

    Good post, Peter. I am curious about what degree of fluency in Japanese is necessary for a successful apprenticeship. Kudasai.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Jim,

      Understanding Japanese would be very beneficial to most apprentices here in Japan. I am fortunate enough that Mr. Tanaka speaks pretty good English. It’s helped me learn a lot about Bonsai because I don’t speak Japanese. I am slowly learning Japanese though and hope to speak it well in the next couple of years. Sometimes people just get tired to trying to explain something to you in broken English. Soooo…. the answer to your questions is, no you don’t have to know Japanese to make it as an apprentice, but I would try and learn it as fast as you can because it’s only to your own advantage to do so. Good question Jim and thanks for reading the blog. Take care and Happy Holidays!

  9. […] Nice maple, even though the color in the photo is way too white. From Peter Tea’s post ‘Apprenticeship and a Japanese Maple.’ […]

  10. WE LIKE OUR TEA STRONG! (and humble and thoughtful and insightful and unassuming and loyal and…)
    Thanks, Peter. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  11. Jeff Lahr says:

    Five years is a long time and a huge commitment but it sounds as if you’ve made up your mind to make the most of it! If we read every one of your blogs and make insightful comments do we get “Junior Apprentice badges”? What happens if we don’t like rice?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Junior Apprentice Badges can be yours for the low low prices of 4.99! LOL! But really, I’m so glad that you and others are reading the blog. The comments I get makes me feel like you’re all with me here and I’m not so alone. Funny thing you ask about the rice. I actually had to get adjusted to eating so much rice here. I ate rice before but in Japan, we eat either rice or noodles at every sitting and sometimes both at the same time! I’ve adjusted already but it was tough at one point and all I wanted to was steak! LOL One day, I’d like to do a post purely on the etiquette of eating here in Japan and some of the types of food as well. Thanks again Jeff and Happy Holidays!

  12. rittacooper says:

    Peter, that was a fascinating insight.
    We visited Aichi-en a few years ago and we were immensely impressed by what we saw there. One day we hope to visit again.
    You are very fortunate to be a “deshi” of Tanaka san I think, although I guess that sometimes you don’t always feel that way? 😉
    We visited Taikan–ten recently and loved the trees from Aichi-en 
    Best regards, Mark & Ritta Cooper (UK)

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks Mark and Rita! There are highs and lows as an apprentice but I never loose sight that Mr. Tanaka is my teacher and I will always be grateful. Happy Holidays to you both! Take care

  13. Patrick46 says:

    TY Peter for another great post! I like your blog so much!
    Merry Christmas!!!

  14. Greg Brenden says:

    Great stuff here Peter as usual! Best wishes for your holiday, however brief (or non existent 😉

    • Peter Tea says:

      Happy Holidays to you as well Greg! I’m sure I’ll be working during the Holiday Season but I’ll figure out a way to make it more Christmasy. LOL Did someone say Christmas cake?? Take care!

  15. Philip;-)> says:

    Peter another good post, sure be humble but this should be balanced with the knowledge and inner confidence to be personally content that you have done you best, today. Which is better that you could have done yesterday but not as good as you will achieve tomorrow.
    Looking forward to reading more about you achievements over the next couple of years.

  16. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. The apprentice experience has always been a vaguely interesting, albeit long process til now. Your writing has helped me to see the bones of the experience and to generate in me more respect for the process and for the individuals who sacrifice so much of their lives to gain this professionalism. Merry Christmas.

  17. Don Quixote says:

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for sharing with us your “whole” apprenticeship. I think we all realize that there are highs and lows but please be asured of our support.

  18. Jeremiah Lee says:

    Peter I am very grateful and happy that you are representing the U.S. over there! Keep up the good work.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Jeremiah, Thank you as always! Your comment here inspired me to write the last two paragraphs of my next post (Kadomatsu at Shinpukuji Temple). Take care my friend and I’ll see you when I get back home in March. Happy Holidays!

  19. john w says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of your postings. I worked in Japan for almost ten years. I really enjoyed my time there. I know you willl enjoy your 5 years there 🙂

  20. Jose Luis. says:

    Hola Peter, gracias otra vez por las explicaciones que das.Desde que conozco tu blog lo leo todos los dias.Escribo en español por que se poco ingles pero si no entiendes intento traducirlo.
    Aprovecho para desearte felices fiestas.
    Un saludo desde Madrid.
    José Luis.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Gracias por leer el blog de José! Traduje sus palabras y entender lo que usted dijo. Espero que mi traducción está bien así. Felices fiestas y ¡cuidado!

  21. Judy Barto says:

    Hope your holidays are happy ones with your new Japanese family! It sounds to me like the things they revere and teach you, are things that Americans used to revere and teach to their children not so many years ago. Perhaps we as a culture can learn a thing or two again. Cheers!

    • Peter Tea says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more Judy!

      “Nobody ever failed by working hard.”

      My parents didn’t just tell me this when I was younger, they lead by example and showed me this.

      Thanks for reading the blog Judy and have a wonderful Holiday Season! Take care.

  22. cherylas2009 says:

    Merry Christmas, Peter!
    Very insiteful on the responsibilities of education. The US school system could learn from the Japanese apprenticeship program. Here it is all about the responsibility of the teacher, never about the student.
    I enjoy your posts very much. You should think about writing a book when you are done. A combination of bonsai info and apprenticeship experience would be interesting.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Merry Christmas to you too Cheryl! I believe that when it comes to education and just about everything else in life, everybody has to do their fair share. We don’t get credit for just showing up.

      I’ll keep the book idea in mind. It might be easy because I can just cut and paste all of my blog post together. $$$ LOL But seriously, with all the support I’m getting about making a book, I might just do it! Take care!

  23. Jay Conor says:

    Once again great post as usual. We’ve learned so much from you about bonsai this year and thanks to your honesty we’ve learned a lot about you as well. Bonsai are a reflection of ourselves so we’re getting something very special from your posts. Thank you so very much again and have a very Marry Christmas…Jay Conor…

    • Peter Tea says:

      Merry Christmas Jay! I’m glad you are getting a lot out of the blog. I love that I can share my experiences and my personality with people. Take care!

  24. Morten Albek says:

    I really enjoy your well written blog postings. Great work, and valuable informations passed on. Thanks, and happy holidays (if you get any) 🙂
    Morten Albek

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks for reading Morten! I might not get much time off but I’m sure we’ll slow down a bit for the Holiday Season. Happy Holidays to you as well. Take care

  25. duane kalua says:

    Thanks Peter, its so interesting to be able to peek into your apprentiship life. I envy you & will enjoy & have enjoyed all your post.
    Happy holidays to you!
    PS, thanks for the help yesterday.

  26. xwires says:

    Thanks Peter – the Christmas cake is right around the corner!

  27. Peter,
    Wonderful article on apprentice life. ” It’s not Mr. Tanaka’s job to make me learn, it’s my own responsibility.” True that! Just like any venture in life, you get what you put into it (which explains my meager trees). Now I feel more inspired, nice work.
    Have a great first Christmas and New Year in Japan, and keep up the good work!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks for reading Scott! We all approach Bonsai at different speeds and at different levels. I believe the important part is that we’re always trying to improve, either a little bit everyday or every year.

      How was the chili harvest this year? Take care and Happy Holidays my friend!

  28. Tim burke says:

    Thanks Peter, your words of wisdom as an apprentice come at the perfect time, I’ll be doing mini 8 day run at a nursery next month here on the west coast, my 4 year old son has been reading the post with me and thinks you shod eat more rice because you look smaller..:-/ inspiring journey and please keep it coming

    • Peter Tea says:

      That’s great Tim! I hope you get a lot out working at the nursery. Please tell your son that Yes I have been loosing weight but my will power has gotten stronger! Take care and Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  29. Penny Pawl says:

    Peter, you must keep a diary and maybe do a book when you return, You write very well.
    We had a class with John today – you taught him well. I was in Iwanuma just before Christmas afew years ago and the Japanese love Christmas. I am sure you will enjoy yourself.

    Penny Pawl

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks for reading Penny! Many people have told me to make a book when I get back. I’m still thinking about it but do have a little over four more years to go! hahaha. I’m glad things are working out with John in Napa. I can’t take the credit for teaching him, it was all Boon. I just thought he would be a good replacement for me. Merry Christmas!

  30. cary sullivan says:

    Peter, reading all of your post, I see not only have you learned so much, but you have matured & have gown into a wonderful man. I am so proud of you, never lose what you have.learned, or lose sight of all you have done. Merry Christmas.

  31. Robert Fujimoto says:

    Peter, very nice article you wrote on what it’s like to be an apprentice in Japan!

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