Category Archives: My Apprenticeship

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 (BonsaiTonight.com) 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!

Loyalty

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.

Humility

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!

Inequality

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 BonsaiTonight.com.  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…..by eating one.  ;o)

Thanks for reading

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