Brief Overview of Bonsai

Woman Painting

Fine Art made by Small Trees in a Container
Bonsai is an inclusive term referring to plants planted in a pot, their foliage, shape of leaves, bark on the trunk, roots and the pot, and also to the hobby of enjoying all of this form. Furthermore, it seeks to recreate in these plants the shape of large trees that can be seen outdoors on a smaller scale in a pot. Therefore the branches are pruned and fixed with wire to imitate the aesthetic of nature and sometimes the roots are bent or made to creep over rocks and taking up the challenge of using a variety of techniques is part of the fun. Time and effort is exerted with fertilizing, pruning, wiring and watering. One of the attractions is that as the plants are living, there is no moment of 'completion,' but rather it is always changing.

Mini Bonsai

Over Thousand Years History of Bonsai
It began when the 'Bonkei' (miniature landscaping) practiced in China in the Tang Dynasty was brought to Japan in the Heian period. In the Edo period, cultivation of bonsai was popular as a sideline of the samurai, and bonsai and gardening boomed. Even after the Meiji period, bonsai was a stylish hobby, however as time and effort were required for managing cultivation and watering, due to the changes in lifestyles, it gradually became a hobby of older generations who had the spare time. Therefore, from after the war until about the 1980's, it was considered a hobby for old people. However, from the 1990's, bonsai gathered attention overseas and there has been a trend towards seeing it in a new light, and as a new awareness of bonsai has grown as it has become a stylish hobby among young people.

Bonsai art of Japan
Example of Bonsai Art
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Documentary of Bonsai (27:17)

Aesthetics of Bonsai

Autumn Bonsai red Color

Japanese Distinctive Aesthetics has Produced Bonsai
The fundamental of aesthetics of Bonsai is to grow full-size tree compactly by using specific Bonsai techniques to reproduce full-size nature in a small container. Many Japanese cultural characteristics, such as Zen Buddhism, and the expression of “Wabi-sabi” and “Mono no Aware” influenced a lot the Bonsai art in Japan. A number of other cultures around the world have adopted the Japanese aesthetic approach to Bonsai, and, even some variations have begun to appear, they follow the rules and design philosophies of the Japanese tradition.

Over thousand years of Bonsai practice in Japan, the Japanese Bonsai aesthetic has schematised some important techniques and design guidelines. As Western common practice period music, Bonsai's guidelines help practitioners work within an established tradition with some assurance of success. Followings are some key principles of Bonsar aesthetics.

Make the appearance of tree same as full-size tree
This is to grow a natural full-size tree to have a mature appearance while keep the tree small in a container.

Make the elements proportion of tree same as full-size one
It is to keep the proportion of the tree elements such as leaves and needles to have a same proportion that full-size tree has. Small trees with large leaves or needles are out of proportion and are avoided, as is a thin trunk with thick branches.

Not to make tree symmetry
This is to discourage strict radial or bilateral symmetry in branch and root placement. This is one of the biggest differences with western gardening, which encourages the symmetry a lot.

Not to show the trace of human intervention
The designer's touch must not be apparent to the viewer. If a branch is removed in shaping the tree, the scar will be concealed. Likewise, wiring should be removed or at least concealed when the bonsai is shown, and must leave no permanent marks on the branch or bark.

Expression of “Wabi-sabi" and “Mono no Aware”
Many of the formal rules of bonsai help the grower create a tree that expresses Wabi-sabi, or portrays an aspect of mono no aware.

Art of Bonsai
Art of Bonsai work

Tree Forms of Bonsai

Chokkan Style (Straight Trunk)Chokkan Style (Straight Trunk)
Bonsai with a straight trunk growing vertically upwards are called Chokkan style bonsai. The ideal is for the trunk to gradually become thinner from the roots to the tree core. This is called a 'good taper.' If the branches branch off in a balanced way around the trunk, left to right, front to back, and the space between branches becomes smaller further up the tree, this is called a good branch balance. Also it is ideal to have the roots spreading on all sides.
Moyogi Style (Curved Tree)Moyogi Style (Curved Tree)
Moyogi style bonsai is one in which the trunk is twisted into a curved line from left to right. It is important that the taper is good and the tree curves with a form which is well-balanced all around. It is necessary to take care with the branch formation and leave the outward curving branches as in nature, while pruning the inward branches. If the tree core is directly above the base, this gives the viewer a sense of stability.
Shakan Style (Angled trunk)Shakan Style (Angled trunk)
If the trunk grows up at an angle, due to being exposed to a wind coming from one direction or other obstacle, and the tree is growing in one direction on an angle from the base to the core, this is called Shakan style bonsai. The characteristic of this bonsai is that the branches do not all point in one direction but extend in all directions.
Fukinagashi Style (Windswept tree)Fukinagashi Style (Windswept tree)
Fukinagashi style face even more extreme environments than Shakan style, and both the trunks and branches point in one direction, with the branch length being longer than the height of the tree. These look similar to the semi-cascade, except for the position of the ends of the branches.
Kengai Style (Cascade)Kengai Style (Cascade)
Bonsai which form a cascade imitating the shape of trees growing out from sheer cliffs by the sea or ravines with the trunk growing straight down are called Kengai style bonsai. Incidentally, bonsai with trunks and branches growing downwards below the rim of the pot are called Kengai style bonsai and those with the trunks and branches at about the level of the rim of the pot are called Han Kengai (semi-cascade) style bonsai.
Bankan Style (Coiled trunks)Bankan Style (Coiled trunks)
Bonsai with remarkably twisted trunks are called Nejikan (twisted trunks) while those that are even more twisted or coiled like a snake are called Bankan style.
Hokidachi Style (Broom style)Hokidachi Style (Broom style)
Bonsai with the branches spraying out from half way up the trunk such that the main branch cannot be distinguished are called Hokidachi style bonsai because they look just like bamboo brooms. The aesthetic points are the graceful divergence of the branches and the balance of the diverging point and height of the tree.
Neagari Style (Bonsai with exposed roots)Neagari Style (Bonsai with exposed roots)
Neagari style bonsai are those which have been grown in a harsh environment and the roots branching off under the earth have become exposed on the surface of the topsoil due to the effects of wind and rain.
Takan Style (Multiple trunks)Takan Style (Multiple trunks)
Bonsai with more than one trunk growing up from the base. Bonsai with two trunks are called Sokan (twin trunks), those with three trunks are called Sankan (triple trunks) and those with five or more trunks are called Kabudachi (clumps). Bonsai with an odd number of trunks are preferred, while those with an even number of trunks are unpopular and avoided, except for twin trunk bonsai.
Netsuranari Style (Connected roots)Netsuranari Style (Connected roots)
These are bonsai which have the roots of more than three of the same plant connected, or in which the tree has fallen down and been buried in the earth, and what was once a branch is grown as the trunk, and the base of that branch sends out roots which are connected with the other roots. There is also a similar bonsai called Ikada Style bonsai (raft bonsai). They also have the tree lying on the ground and what were originally branches are grown as trunks, with the difference from Netsuranari style being that in Ikada style bonsai there is only one root. As with the multiple tree forms, an even number of trunks is avoided.
Yoseue Style (Group planting)Yoseue Style (Group planting)
Bonsai with a number of different variety of trees grown in one pot or rock are called Yoseue style bonsai. There are also many highly creative combinations of bonsai with a group of the same plants, groups of different plants or combinations of plants with sculptures.
Jin and Shari Deadwood on BonsaiJin and Shari Deadwood on Bonsai
On some trees part of the branch or trunk may die off, and the bark peel off causing the white core of the tree to be exposed. If this happens on a branch, this part is called Jin, and if it happens on the trunk it is called Shari. This happens in nature, however in bonsai there is a technique of creating this effect artificially by peeling with a chisel or other such tool. It is usually done on pine or oak varieties such as junipers, however it is also done on plum and other trees.

Art Gallery of Bonsai

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See Also
Encyclopedia of Japan