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Formal Black Pine and Kihachikai Show

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

Last week I was tasked to work on this large formal upright (Chokkan) Black Pine. The timing worked out great because I was planning on asking Mr. Tanaka if I could wire one big tree before my vacation back to California (more about that later). Before I got a chance to ask, I was told to pull the needles and wire this tree. Perfect! This tree is the second formal upright I’ve wired at Aichien and I was itching to apply what I learned on the last one.

What is the ideal formal upright?1. Has a straight trunk that gradually tapers from the base to the top.2. The lowest branch is the thickest branch and every branch above it gets smaller all the way to the top.3. The spaces between the branches coming off the trunk progressively gets shorter as you move up the tree.4. The apex of the tree is in perfect alignment with the center line of the trunk.

These are some of the key rules to what a formal upright is, though I’m sure there are many other small rules as well. So why all the rules? First off, the style is formal. Usually things that have the word formal attach to them tends to have many rules, which is why it’s so formal. Note that rule 3 is not set in stone. Slight deviations and the tree can still be considered a formal upright. I would say that if the tree at least tried to follow it, it’s a pass. If rule 3 is completely disregarded, then we have a problem.

Many times I hear people talking about formal upright trees and it’s never good. Phrases such as, “cookie cutter, boring, and straight,” comes to mind. Before we resort to name calling, I will set the record straight right now. There has yet to be a single Bonsai I have ever seen that looks exactly like another one. Silhouettes may looks similar but when you look deep into the tree (the important part) it’s a whole different perspective. When I see a good formal upright tree, they are always different and always amazing. Formal upright trees are the most difficult trees to create in Bonsai. I always take the time to look at the details and formalities of the tree. Not to mention a little respect for the time and effort put into the tree. For me, it’s like meeting a very respectable person. I want to stop and say hello.

Back to the tree and what I did

Haha, real funny Juan! This does give you an idea of the size of the tree though. Here is the tree after I pulled the old needles and cut new candle growth from last year to 1 or 2 buds. It’s a little difficult to see in this picture but the trunk is slightly leaning to the left. Since formal uprights are straight, that’s something I needed to address. Where’s the rebar?

Just kidding! No rebar this time. All I did was put a small wood block under the left side of the pot and straighten the tree out. For some reason, I didn’t get the wood block in this picture, but trust me, it’s there. :o) The trunk does look straighter thought doesn’t it?

Kihachikai Show

Back in the days when Mr. Kihachiro Kamiya was alive, he was the sensei of a local Bonsai club that he created called Kihachi-kai. Many of you may know Mr. Kamiya as Mr. Boon Manikitivipart’s teacher in Japan. Mr. Kamiya won many awards including the Kokufuten prize for his customers. Since Mr. Kamiya passed away, the club with left without a teacher and almost dissolved. One of the members a couple of years ago approached Mr. Tanaka and ask if he could be their new sensei and have been working with the club members once a month ever since. This last week was their annual two day show. The current direction of the club isn’t about strict bonsai rules and super high quality bonsai. It’s more of a fun environment for hobbyist and novices to get together and work on their trees. There is a broad range in the quality of trees and participating in the show is open to all members. Let’s see what a local show in Japan looks like!

Now back to the tree I’m working on

What did I do?

I wired most of the branches an bent almost every branch coming out of the trunk down. Since all the branches had really nice thick bark on them, I didn’t want to put heavy wire and risk breaking them off, so I guy wired them down and wired the smaller branches. This seems to be the going trend now in Japan and the use of heavy heavy wire is going away. Though formal uprights are straight trees, they still have a subtle direction to them. This tree’s flow is to the right or the tree’s left. I achieved this by making the tree’s thickest lower left branch a bit bigger, longer and lower then the second branch on the opposite side. This is the first time this tree has gotten a wire job of the small branches. The main branches were wired years ago and the structure of the branches were achieved by pruning all these years. Since the small branches weren’t wired before, I had to figure how to arrange them into pads and cut out the excess branches that were either too long or too thick to use. I essentially had to clean up the branch structure. I removed about 20 percent of the small branches on this tree.

Words on Bar Branches

The first thing I noticed on this tree before I started work was the bar branching that the first and second braches form. Ideally, bar branches don’t look very good on a tree and should be avoid. Having said that, do you really want to cut one of these branches off? The branches are older then I am! After closer examination, I found that the branches are actually growing at different levels but the bark formation makes them look like a bar branch. So what to do? I guarantee that every single professional in Japan would keep both branches and leave the tree as is. In this case, the branches are just too old to cut so they are both kept. This reminds me of a comment Mr. Tanaka made when I asked him about bar branches. He said, “the truth is that trees sometimes have bar branches. If it looks good, keep it. When it doesn’t look good, fix it.” Sure, this tree would look even better without the bar branch, but it doesn’t mean this tree is bad either.

What was changed

Overall, the shape of the tree didn’t change much. Mr. Tanaka pulled the tree’s lowest left branch down a bit more. He said that the directional flow was too subtle and needed a bit more. He also broke up the branch into three closely positioned pads. This kept the main branch as the biggest pad but with some more character. When natural trees form large pads, they are always made up of multiple small pads. This is still a technique I need to practice more.

Mr. Tanaka also cut off a long leggy branch off the middle of the right side of the tree (I have no idea why I kept it) and made it a bit less cluttered. At the top of the tree he cut off a couple of more cluttered branches. Other then that, a few branches tweaks here and there and we were finished.

After the adjustment, Mr. Tanaka turned to me and said, “next time don’t use 18 gauge on Black Pines. 16 gauge should be the smallest wire used.” He says that since Black Pines are strong trees, when it grows, the 18 gauge wire will not hold the branches down. The funny thing is that I know this, but didn’t apply it to this tree. Perhaps I was so excited in wanting to make this tree look good that I started wiring for show instead of for development. I feel that my focus on developing the tree’s structure has increased greatly in the last year here but every now and then I forget and make the tree pretty instead. I’m sure more training in the coming years will help fix that problem of mine.

The Future

This tree will either be repotted this year or the following year. We’ll continue to develop the branches and make the tree fuller. The overall shape is about where we want it and it’s all about maintaining that shape but with more branches. For now, the tree is inside the workshop resting until the nights no longer freeze here.

This was a long one but I hope you all enjoyed both the work I did on this tree and the visit to the Kihachi-kai show.

Thanks you all for taking the time to read!

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