The Return Of The King

The Return Of The King

The beast“Zuiou” 1996 Kokufu prize winner, Japanese Black Pine

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to work on this large Japanese Black Pine.  The work wasn’t major and involved thinning and pulling needles; standard stuff for Black Pines in the Winter.  Just getting a chance to work on this tree was an amazing feeling for me because it tied my past bonsai career to my ending apprenticeship.  What surprised me when I learned the history of this tree is how it has been around so many people who has influenced my bonsai work in the past and present.  So close to me but unknown by me.  In This post, I’m going to share with you the history of this Japanese Black Pine and some close up photos of the tree that makes it world-class.

The Beginning

Bonsai started for me in 2004 when I signed up for Boon Manakitivipart’s Intensive program in California.  He was the person that really showed me that bonsai is so much more than a plant in a pot.  As I worked with Boon year after year, we would look at old Japanese books and he would tell me stories of his studies in Japan and about his teacher, Mr. Kamiya.  Boon showed me photos of Mr. Kamiya’s work and they would blow my mind.  One of the photos being the one shown above.  The photos stuck with me and setup a benchmark for me to strive towards.  No small task, but a goal worth working hard for.

Mr. Kamiya entered this Japanese Black Pine known as Zuiou into the 70th annual Kokufu Bonsai Show in Tokyo in 1996.  Kokufu-ten to this day is the biggest and most important show in Japan.  Trees that win the Kokufu prize are elevated to being one of the best Bonsais in Japan.  A prize so prestiges that a bonsai can only win it one time unless it undergoes such radical changes as to be unrecognizable.  Zuiou belonged to well know bonsai collector Mr. Moriyama, which was Mr. Kamiya’s customer.  In 1996, Zuiou won the Kokfu prize.  This is all I knew of this tree till I started my apprenticeship at Aichien.

The Name

The name Zuiou was given to the tree by owner Mr. Moriyama.  Zuiou translates to, “Rare King.” A sutable name for such a tree don’t you think?  Only the great trees in Japan are given names and normally they are given by the owners of the tree.  On rare occasions, the bonsai professional will name a tree.  But beware, naming a tree that is not of very high quality will result in puzzled facial expressions from the Japanese… and me. 😉


The first day of work at Aichien under the tutelage of Mr. Junichiro Tanaka was at Mr. Moriyama house.  How exciting!  First day and I’m going to see some great trees!  After the work was finished I started snapping pictures of trees in his collection.  5 of Mr. Moriyama’s trees have won Kokufu prizes.

Within a week of my arrival we visited Daijuen which is a famous Black Pine nursery headed by Mr. Tohru Suzuki.  That was the first time I saw Zuiou in person.  Daijuen was taking care of it for Mr. Moriyama for the past couple of years.  Since Mr. Kamiya’s passing, Daijuen and Aichien have both been helping Mr. Moriyama build and maintain his collection.  I pointed the tree out to Mr. Tanaka in excitement and said I know this tree!  He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, “Yes, famous tree, Aichien made it.”  Such confidence when he said it too!  I froze for a second coming to the realization that I was studying at a nursery that produced this tree!  Mr. Tanaka then started telling me the story of  Zuiou as I eagerly listened.

It turns out that this tree was collected back in the 1930s by a bonsai grower.  Mr. Tanaka’s great-grandfather saw the tree and later sent his son to purchase it.  At the time, it was only the trunk with wild branches everywhere.  The Tanaka family spent the next 60 years completely redeveloping the branch structure and creating the silhouette we see today.  The tree stayed at Aichien till 1995 when it was sold to Mr. Moriyama.

The beast-2The tree on display at the Aichien family show 1995.

The beast2Zuiou displayed at Taikan-ten 2011.  Next to the tree is Jonas Duprich from

The Return of Zuiou

At the end of 2012, Mr. Moriyama decided to sell Zuiou to one of our customer Mr. Tomomatsu.  All I can say is that the tree was not cheap.  Once the tree changed hands, it stayed at Mr. Tomomatsu’s house for a few weeks and then was moved to Aichien.  The day we went to pick up the tree was a cool day for me.  Since 1996, Zuiou has seen a lot of action since it’s days back home and it was a highlight of my apprenticeship to see it returning to Aichien.

Zuiou Now

Zuiou was moved to Aichien in the Fall of 2012 and I was instructed to thin the branches and pull the needles.  I was excited and yet comfortable working on the tree.  I felt like I knew this tree all my life and it was just another days work at the nursery.

Lets take a look at the four sides of Zuiou and its dimensions.  It was de-candled in July of 2012.  I don’t believe the tree has seen much wire since 1996.  The tree has been maintained by cutting all this time.

The beast-3Zuiou is nice and bushy after the de-candling.  The tree overall has gotten slightly wider through the years.  I suppose that happens to all of us too.  😉

Height is 34in (87cm) Width is 38in (97cm) Root Spread is 20in (51cm) Trunk Width is 12in (30cm)

The beast-5Zuiou’s right

The beast-6Zuiou’s back

The beast-7Zuiou’s left

Getting To Work!

I worked on the tree for about 12 hours cutting and removing needles.  Pulling needles is pretty simple but what am I cutting?  As I went through the tree, I removed branches from overcrowded areas and branches that were too strong or too long.  The point of cutting and pulling needles is to help maintain a balanced tree.  Different areas of the tree will try to over take other parts so its our job to keep the strong areas under control and get the weaker areas stronger.  The ability of the individual needle bundles to get enough sunlight is very important.

The beast-11Here’s an example of a weak area relative to the rest of the tree.  The end of the branch is dense because it’s getting enough light whereas the interior foliage of the same branch became weak because of the lack of sunlight (Note how the needles are not point up but down and out.  This area wasn’t de-candle like the rest of the tree because it was weak.  In this photo, I had already thinned out the apex to allow more light into this section.  Hopefully we can get this area stronger and bring it up to speed with the rest of the branches.  If we had not addressed this problem, the branch would get weaker year after year and eventually die off.

The beast-12Here’s an example of a very strong area on the tree.  Notice how it’s dense and full.  This is an area that needs to be controlled before it gets too strong and weakens the lower branches.

The beast-8Here’s another example of a branch getting too strong and long and weaken the branches below.  The branch below should be the one filling this area instead of a strong branch from the top.  It’s time to cut!

The beast-9That’s much better!  I think that branch cost about 500 dollars.  😉  Now sunlight can get into the foliage below.

The beast-10Note how the now exposed foliage is sparse and thin.  This area should get stronger in the coming years and fill in the newly created hole.

The beast-13Here’s an example of the results of de-candling in the previous Summer.  In this case, we got two new growth bundles.  I had already pulled the old needles and some of the new needles.  Sometimes we get one or more than two.  Normally we’ll reduce the bundles down to 1 or 2.

After The Work

Now that the tree is thinned out, there is room for new foliage to grow and sunlight to reach all parts.  One nice characteristic of this particular pine is that it had back buds everywhere!  Some of them deep inside the tree too!  This tree is not going to have problems growing new branches anytime soon. Here’s the four sides after the work.

The beast-14Front

The beast-15Right

The beast-16Back

The beast-17Left

Lets get a good look at the trunk from all sides!

The beast-18The front.  Some or all of you are wondering at this moment, “what happened to the trunk?”  What use to be a solid trunk has now got a big hollow in it.  It turns out that this part of the trunk had been dead all along.  I’ll into the details further along in the post.

The beast-19Pretty big hollow!

The beast-21Here’s a little perspective of how thick some of the bark is on this tree.  The bark is about 2.5in (6.3cm) thick!

The beast-22Here’s the front of the trunk as we look up into the tree.  No shortage or bark!  Amazingly old-looking!

The beast-23The trunk from the tree’s left.

The beast-24Tree’s left looking up at the tree.

The beast-25The back of the tree (or perhaps the future front?)  Lots of nice bark on this side especially long vertical strips.  This bark character is highly valuable and sought after in Japan.

The beast-26Here’s the back as we move up the trunk.  Again, nice thick vertical strips of bark.

I didn’t include photos of the tree’s right side because the tree is leaning in that direction and it’s difficult to see anything.

Age Makes The Difference

One of key phrases we hear in the Bonsai community is, “make the tree look old.”  But what does that really mean?  The reason why we try to make our bonsai look old is to show its history and establishment.  There’s plenty of young trees growing out in nature so seeing  young tree doesn’t excite us as much.  Very old trees are rare and when we can get that same feeling in our Bonsai, it makes it that much better.  So in bonsai there are all sorts of techniques and tricks to make a tree look older but they all have their limits.  At some point we need to let time take over and mature the tree.  All great trees in Bonsai conveys age to the viewer.  It’s not just the trunk that shows it, but everything else that’s attached to the trunk.  The branches need to look old too.  Lets look at some photos to see what I’m talking about.

The beast-20Zuiou’s main branch.  Note that it’s no only thick, but very old.  This transition from trunk to branch make sense.  This is a concept that is not discussed a lot among bonsai enthusiast.  We know how to get branches thicker (allow it to grow) but how do we produce the associated bark or characteristics of age?  Just plain old TIME.  This quality is present in all high quality bonsai of any species.

branchHere’s an example of a main branch that is still in development.  Note how the trunk has nice thick bark and the main branch has little bark.  The transition at this point is not very good and is going to take some time to develop.  This tree is quite large so it’s going to take well over 50 years to develop that transition.  Hence why the Aichien family developed the branches of Zuiou for such a long time.  I would say that Japanese Black Pines take the longest to develop into great bonsai than most other species.  I’m sure there’s a few exceptions out there somewhere.

branch2Another example of a young branch attached to an old trunk.  This is another large Black Pine in development. That that great to look at huh?   Two trees that won’t be ready to even compete in Kokufu till Mr. Tanaka’s grandson is an adult.  His oldest son is currently 8 years old.

Now I’m not trying to discourage any of you from developing Japanese Black pines, but want to challenge those that want to take their bonsai to the next level.  Also remember that this concept applies to every tree species and is useful to all of us.  I believe this will also helps you see bonsai in a different way and appreciate the time and effort it takes to create great bonsai.

Lets Talk New Front!

The beast-27So what happened to the front?  This flat cut is see in the back of the tree.  I’m not sure if Mr. Tanaka’s grandfather cut it off or the person who collected it did.  If you follow this cut…

The beast-28… it comes around to the front  and into the dead section in the middle of the trunk.

The beast-18Hence, hollow trunk.  It just took about 70 years for the dead section to finally rot away.

So here is the issue.  This once very powerful feeling tree has lost some of that feeling because of the hollow in the center of the trunk.  Should be accept it for what it is or perhaps try to bring it back to its previous glory?

Now this is not an argument on if I think deadwood is a good feature or bad feature for Japanese Black Pine.  My argument is that for this particular tree and style, a thick bark intact trunk looks much grander and older than an old trunk that is hollowed.  There are plenty of other Black Pines out there with deadwood features that look great too.

The beast-25The back side could be a new alternative front.  It has great bark features and is intact.  Of course, the blunt cut branch on the right would be removed.  Also, the main branch is much more visible on this side than the front.  I talked to Mr. Tanaka and he agrees with the change but said it was up to the customer.

The beast-16So what entails if the customer does decide to remake the tree?  The good news is that most of the lower branches are usable and only a few will be eliminated.  The major changes comes in tilting the trunk forward and completely removing the current apex and redeveloping what is now a high back branch into the new apex.  Estimated time to complete this change with aged branches according to Mr. Tanaka, “20 years.”  Looks like the customer may have to sleep on this decision. 😉

So we’ll see what the customer thinks and see what happens to the tree.  Hopefully I’ll be there to take photos if the tree does get changed.  For the mean time, we’ll keep it growing well and healthy.  I hope you enjoyed this post!

Thanks for reading.

If you’re interested in learning more about Japanese Black Pines or relevant things we’re doing this time of year, please visit some of my earlier post for helpful tips and information.

I Love the Smell of Pesticdes in the Morning! – In this post I talk about how we combat bad bugs at Aichien.
De-candling and Stuff – In this post I talk about process of de-candling and thinning Japanese Black Pine.
Mikawa Black Pines? – In this post I talk about the different types of Japanese Black Pines.
 Tanaka, Junichiro – In this post, we follow Mr. Tanaka in his steps to styling an old Japanese Black Pine.
The Trident Maple Project and Summer Maple Work – In this post I talk about basic Trident Maple work during the Summer on one of my project trees.

Please visit the Post Index tab for a list of post I’ve written in the past by category.


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30 thoughts on “The Return Of The King

  1. Mike A says:


    I remember seeing this tree at Taikan Ten two years old and it was one of the most impressive trees there. The tree is so massive and powerful looking, not to mention all the deep fissures and flaky bark.

  2. John Cavey says:

    Hi Peter
    Thanks for the email.

  3. Ed Curlee says:

    Lots of valuable and useful information here as usual. I just wish I had more luck with pines (and California junipers) Oh well, thanks for the info

  4. Mac says:

    Peter, When you are thinning out branches on this tree do you cut them off flush with where they originate or do you leave a stub of the branch to be removed when it dies back to the source?

    You have outdone yourself with this post, please keep it up.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Mac,

      Normally when I cut Pines, I don’t leave a stub behind. I normally just cut the branch off flush (small branches) or concave (large branches). Only on the larger cuts do I put cut paste. Small cuts normally have the ability to callus over themselves.

      Sometimes I’ll leave stubs is if I felt the tree overall wasn’t doing very well or sick. Even in that case, I’d still put cut paste on the stub. Later, when the tree is healthy, I’ll cut the stub off and reseal it. Unless too many branches are removed, normal healthy trees shouldn’t die back when cut. Of course, that depends on the species as well since I can cut off every branch on a trident and not expect anything to die back.

      Another time I’d leave a stub is if I cut a branch back to a small back bud. If I make the cut too close to the bud, I run the risk of loosing it, so I tend to leave a 1/4inch stub or so. Once the bud grows stronger, then I will cut closer.

      Thanks for the question Mac! Take care.

  5. JT says:

    Excellent analysis and understanding of this old, old tree. I learned a lot and hope to pass this lesson along. Amazing Zen – Give the tree time to get old- Simple and true. How exciting it must be for you to work on this caliper of tree and to know you you have the skills to make it better. Bravo, Peter!! I see Steak in your Future.


  6. NguyenNguyen says:

    Thank you Peter this morning while driving to Potomac Bonsai Association Spring Festival I got your post I trying to read while driving but the post so interestings so I have to tell my wife can you driving I not felling well lol . it been long time seen you post but thanks you you sharing the knowledge hope see you some day when you back USA and work with you .

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Nguyen,

      Sorry you got car sick trying to read the post. Hahaha. I appreciate your commitment to reading the blog! I look forward to meeting you some day back in the US as well. Hope you had a great time at the festival.

      Take care!

  7. Joeri says:

    Hi Peter,

    Great post once again! Don’t mean te be a smart-ass, but if the costumer agrees with the new front, aren’t you worried that the cut branch will rot even further and create the same hollow trunk on the new front? It seems like the rotting is following that branch.

    I really wouldn’t know how to fix this problem, but you might want to reconsider choosing the back as a new front.

    Kind regards,

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Joeri,

      Thanks for reading the blog! A very valid question and I should have said something about that in the post. Thanks for bringing it up.

      Normally, removing branches off of a Black Pine doesn’t cause parts of the trunk to die. We just have to make sure that there is still enough foliage left demanding enough water to keep the whole trunk alive. If I went through the tree and cut every branch off except for one (very stressful) then most of the trunk would probably die off.

      I don’t know what the circumstances are when that big branch was cut at the beginning so I can’t say why such a big section of the trunk died. Perhaps the branch was already dead or dying when collected? Perhaps it was cut when the tree wasn’t very strong? Perhaps a major root was removed and it ended killing parts of the trunk and caused that big branch to die with it?

      If the customer does decided to go for the change, we can cut the apex clean off and seal it so that it will start to callus over. We will be cutting back to a strong demanding branch so we know that the trunk won’t die back.

      If you were to do this at home and unsure, you can always remove the unwanted branch in sections to slowly weaken the area so that the trunk can start feeding other branches. Cut maybe half off first, then 6 months later, cut the other half off. This would be a much safer way to do it.

      Thanks for the question and comments. Take care Joeri.

  8. It’s been a long agonizing wait between your post but after this one it was well worth the wait. It would be amazing if every bonsai lover could have moments like this. Cherish it, and I’ll be waiting for your next post! Hopefully not as long though 😉

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Erick,

      Thanks for reading the blog! Sorry to keep you waiting so long. I finally had time to write it and was surprised that my last post was over a month ago! Time is zipping by here for me. I promise that the next post won’t be as long. Today I’m defoliating a big Japanese maple and plan to write something about that process soon.

      Thanks again Erick. Take care!

      • Thanks for the response Peter! I will look forward to the post on the Japanese maple you are working on. I have a large Japanese Maple myself that needs worked so I anticipate your post so I can get much needed info before I attempt any work on my tree.

  9. Penny Pawl says:

    Peter, I thought the King was coming home next month! Looking forward to you being back in the Bay area Penny

  10. For some detailed background on the Kokufuten, please see .

  11. Reblogged this on Fleeting Architecture and commented:
    One of the most popular search terms for my blog is bonsai. Here is from a master!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Thanks for sharing this post with your viewers Shenandoah and the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Take care!

  12. There is no better way to learn than to see up close from a master — thank you!

  13. princhipi says:

    I hope you are not mad at me: I reblogged your article! I love when someone investe so much time in research and than post such amazing story. Really well done. Thank you for sharing.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Princhipi,

      No worries on the reblog. I actually appreciate the fact that you want to share it with other readers! Thanks for the kind words!

      Yes, it does come down to two options does it? Money or time.
      Turns out that the money is much cheaper than the time. 😉
      At least, that’s how I feel as I get older. Hahaha

      Thanks and take care!

  14. princhipi says:

    Reblogged this on Melanie's dream of a house with lots of bonsai and commented:
    It’s this kind of storys that make the difference between Japanese and Western Bonsai in my personal opinion.
    So, ther’s tow options to archive this storys: you have enoght money to purchase one of this really old trees, or you start now and give the tree to the next generations… wicht will be in fifty years!!!

  15. phil says:

    Really nice old tree

  16. Bruce says:

    When I saw the surface roots my heart melted!
    Thanks for the inspiration, Peter.

  17. lackhand says:

    Thanks for sharing this amazing pine, and for reminding us that the best way to make a tree look old is to let it . . . Well, BE old.

    As you said, I think this is often overlooked, or we get caught up in techniques that simulate age, but there really is no substitute. Good thing I’m still fairly young, so I can grow some old trees and still be around to appreciate them!

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Lackhand,

      Thanks for the comments. Who would have thought that the Beatle’s song, Let it be, was in reference to bonsai! Hahahaha.

      Take care!

  18. David says:

    Your articles read better than a novel 🙂
    tx for sharing this incredible, impressive tree.
    Doesn’t the tree look like it’s falling to the left? Or is that just me…

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi David,

      You are too kind in your comments! 🙂

      Yes, you are correct, the tree does looking like it’s falling over. Though the trunk is leaning to one side, I think the foliage is what makes it look like its’ falling over. Since the tree is free growing now, the branches are not very tidy and they’re making the tree look strange. If we were to wire the tree and clean things up, it shouldn’t look like its falling anymore just like when it was pictures in Kokufu back in 1996.

      Good observation on your part David. Thanks and take care.

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