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An Old Five Needle Pine goes to show

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

One of the things I look forward to during my apprenticeship is attending shows and getting a glimpse of the behind the scenes. Sakufu-ten (Saku = make, fu = wind, ten = exhibition) is a Bonsai show and competition held in December ever year.  The show is only open to professionals and is a showcase of the Bonsai talent in Japan.  Professionals can summit a customer’s tree or or their own trees for this show.  There are various categories in the competition with the top prize being the Prime Minister award.

The show goes on in December but the photos and judging of the trees are all done in October.  This gives them time to process all the pictures and have a book ready when the show opens.  In this post, I will show some pictures of the Five Needle Pine that Mr. Tanaka submitted this year and thoughts on how he likes to prepare a tree for show.

The tree is a Semi-cascading Five Needle Pine that has been a Bonsai for over 100 years.  It’s been worked on many times and the tree has changed many times from owner to owner.  This tree now belongs to a customer.

Interesting enough, Mr. Tanaka says that he would like to make this the front of the tree in the future.  He would do some big cuts and shorten the cascade and tilt the tree forward.  He says that at the top of the tree, there are some very interesting curves that are lost with the current front.  He believes that if he can show those curves, the tree will look even better.

Mr. Tanaka says that on high mountain pines such as this Five needle pine, having deadwood make the tree more interesting and valuable, whereas deadwood on a Coastal pine such as a Black Pine is not desirable at all and actually makes the tree less valuable though interesting to see.  I thought about it for awhile and it started to make sense.  The high mountain areas tend to have rough conditions such a snow, dry spells and lack of food.  Whereas in the coastal areas, the conditions are better so deadwood isn’t very normal.  Plus, it’s so humid and wet on the coast that any deadwood that does appear would quickly rot away anyways.

One of the things that Mr. Tanaka did after he put the small wire on the tree, he lightly painted them with lime sulfur.  This turned the red copper into a black color.  This made the wire blend to the wood of the tree and is less noticeable.

Mr. Tanaka’s thoughts on showing Bonsai

I talked to Mr. Tanaka about show styling for awhile and it got pretty complex.  He says that the current trend is that people do not like to see wire on the trees anymore.  He straight out told me that the overall shape of most evergreen bonsai are artificial.  He says that people like it because it tends to have very clean lines and is nice to look at.  On the other end, if we truly made a tree to look natural, it wouldn’t be as pleasing to look at during a show.  Mr. Tanaka’s approach is somewhere in the middle.  He likes the Bonsai shape of the tree, but styles them in a way where they look a bit more natural.  Notice that the foliage has a free feeling to them.  The foliage and branches aren’t rigid and ultra refined.

Mr. Tanaka says that when he preps a tree for show, he will normally wire most of the branches and set them where he wants them to be.  He will then let the tree grow for another year before it is shown.  Right before the show, he will remove most of the heavy wire on the tree and make some small adjustments.  He says that is the best to getting this refined/natural feel to the tree.

My thoughts on showing Bonsai

After seeing Mr. Tanaka prep this tree for Sakafu, my ideas of how to show a tree changed dramatically.  In the past, I’ve always tend to be very rigid in my show styling and wanted everything on the tree to look perfect.  To this day, I still tend to nitpick at the tree to get everything just right. It’s a habit I need to break because it consumes a lot time to get everything just right and the result is a rigid looking tree.  I will then show the tree soon after.

After working with Mr. Tanaka, it turns out that I needed to change my approach on how I adjust the tree and allow the tree to do some of the work too.  I now believe that the combination of my work and allowing the tree to grow before showing will lead to a more beautiful and natural feeling tree.

I’m still processing all of these new pieces of information so my thoughts are all over the place.  As I organize them and gain more experience working with show trees, I will post more information on the topic in the future.  It’s almost never ending it seems and did you really think this was going to be the only post I write about showing a tree?  ;o)

Mr. Tanaka finished up the discussion by saying that everybody’s technique for showing is different and they all have their reasons for doing it that particular way.  He understands that every one has their own likes and dislikes and to say that his method is the best and only method would go against the very concept of what people are.  Every one is different one way of the other and Bonsai is not immune to that fact.

Lots to think about and the training continues…

Oh yeah, we found out yesterday that the tree took second place.

Thanks for reading.

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