An 800-year old Bonsai in Kunio Kobayashi’s collection.
A Bonsai is inspired by nature. Chinese monks and scholars who revered old trees and mountains frequented forests to meditate. There they found naturally miniaturized, aged trees growing on rocks, crevices and tree- hollows. The growing needs of these trees were highly reduced, yet they were healthy and exhibited all the features of an old tree. The monks and scholars collected such trees and nurtured them in valuable metal and ceramic pots in their monasteries. These trees were maintained and cared for with love and reverence through generations. When Buddhism reached China, the Buddhist monks carried with them Bonsai trees and spread this culture along with their religion.
Buddhist monks from China brought with them this technique of growing trees in pots, to Japan through Korea about 700 years ago. The Japanese adopted this culture and collected such naturally miniaturized trees and used it for decorating their altars and home ( Takonama ). The Japanese, with their innate aesthetic sense soon developed several methods to make it more appealing and techniques to maintain the trees in good health. They raised it to the level of an art form and created Bonsai in accordance to their own traditional artistic creations such as ikebana.
In fact, the Japanese are considered the originators of today’s beautiful art of Bonsai. They designed tools, wiring methods for shaping the plants and artistic bonsai pots. They formed Bonsai associations, conducted exhibitions and held competitions. They developed Bonsai gardens and even a whole village dedicated to Bonsai ( Omiya ). Mid-19th century saw the popularization of this art outside Japan, and today, Bonsai is one of Japan’s major international businesses. They have established schools where the art is taught by renowned Bonsai masters and conduct workshops and demonstrations throughout the world, thus building goodwill and friendship globally.
Testimony to this fact is the gift of a nearly 400-year old masterpiece (along with 52 other Bonsais) by the Japanese as a mark of friendship and peace to the US, commemorating the latter’s bicentennial year in 1976. These are exhibited at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington DC.