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The Return Of The King

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

The beast

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to work on this large Japanese Black Pine.  The work wasn’t major and involved thinning and pulling needles; standard stuff for Black Pines in the Winter.  Just getting a chance to work on this tree was an amazing feeling for me because it tied my past bonsai career to my ending apprenticeship.  What surprised me when I learned the history of this tree is how it has been around so many people who has influenced my bonsai work in the past and present.  So close to me but unknown by me.  In This post, I’m going to share with you the history of this Japanese Black Pine and some close up photos of the tree that makes it world-class.

The Beginning

Bonsai started for me in 2004 when I signed up for Boon Manakitivipart’s Intensive program in California.  He was the person that really showed me that bonsai is so much more than a plant in a pot.  As I worked with Boon year after year, we would look at old Japanese books and he would tell me stories of his studies in Japan and about his teacher, Mr. Kamiya.  Boon showed me photos of Mr. Kamiya’s work and they would blow my mind.  One of the photos being the one shown above.  The photos stuck with me and setup a benchmark for me to strive towards.  No small task, but a goal worth working hard for.

Mr. Kamiya entered this Japanese Black Pine known as Zuiou into the 70th annual Kokufu Bonsai Show in Tokyo in 1996.  Kokufu-ten to this day is the biggest and most important show in Japan.  Trees that win the Kokufu prize are elevated to being one of the best Bonsais in Japan.  A prize so prestiges that a bonsai can only win it one time unless it undergoes such radical changes as to be unrecognizable.  Zuiou belonged to well know bonsai collector Mr. Moriyama, which was Mr. Kamiya’s customer.  In 1996, Zuiou won the Kokfu prize.  This is all I knew of this tree till I started my apprenticeship at Aichien.

The Name

The name Zuiou was given to the tree by owner Mr. Moriyama.  Zuiou translates to, “Rare King.” A sutable name for such a tree don’t you think?  Only the great trees in Japan are given names and normally they are given by the owners of the tree.  On rare occasions, the bonsai professional will name a tree.  But beware, naming a tree that is not of very high quality will result in puzzled facial expressions from the Japanese… and me. 😉


The first day of work at Aichien under the tutelage of Mr. Junichiro Tanaka was at Mr. Moriyama house.  How exciting!  First day and I’m going to see some great trees!  After the work was finished I started snapping pictures of trees in his collection.  5 of Mr. Moriyama’s trees have won Kokufu prizes.

Within a week of my arrival we visited Daijuen which is a famous Black Pine nursery headed by Mr. Tohru Suzuki.  That was the first time I saw Zuiou in person.  Daijuen was taking care of it for Mr. Moriyama for the past couple of years.  Since Mr. Kamiya’s passing, Daijuen and Aichien have both been helping Mr. Moriyama build and maintain his collection.  I pointed the tree out to Mr. Tanaka in excitement and said I know this tree!  He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, “Yes, famous tree, Aichien made it.”  Such confidence when he said it too!  I froze for a second coming to the realization that I was studying at a nursery that produced this tree!  Mr. Tanaka then started telling me the story of  Zuiou as I eagerly listened.

It turns out that this tree was collected back in the 1930s by a bonsai grower.  Mr. Tanaka’s great-grandfather saw the tree and later sent his son to purchase it.  At the time, it was only the trunk with wild branches everywhere.  The Tanaka family spent the next 60 years completely redeveloping the branch structure and creating the silhouette we see today.  The tree stayed at Aichien till 1995 when it was sold to Mr. Moriyama.

The beast-2

The beast2

The Return of Zuiou

At the end of 2012, Mr. Moriyama decided to sell Zuiou to one of our customer Mr. Tomomatsu.  All I can say is that the tree was not cheap.  Once the tree changed hands, it stayed at Mr. Tomomatsu’s house for a few weeks and then was moved to Aichien.  The day we went to pick up the tree was a cool day for me.  Since 1996, Zuiou has seen a lot of action since it’s days back home and it was a highlight of my apprenticeship to see it returning to Aichien.

Zuiou Now

Zuiou was moved to Aichien in the Fall of 2012 and I was instructed to thin the branches and pull the needles.  I was excited and yet comfortable working on the tree.  I felt like I knew this tree all my life and it was just another days work at the nursery.

Lets take a look at the four sides of Zuiou and its dimensions.  It was de-candled in July of 2012.  I don’t believe the tree has seen much wire since 1996.  The tree has been maintained by cutting all this time.

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Height is 34in (87cm) Width is 38in (97cm) Root Spread is 20in (51cm) Trunk Width is 12in (30cm)

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Getting To Work!

I worked on the tree for about 12 hours cutting and removing needles.  Pulling needles is pretty simple but what am I cutting?  As I went through the tree, I removed branches from overcrowded areas and branches that were too strong or too long.  The point of cutting and pulling needles is to help maintain a balanced tree.  Different areas of the tree will try to over take other parts so its our job to keep the strong areas under control and get the weaker areas stronger.  The ability of the individual needle bundles to get enough sunlight is very important.

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After The Work

Now that the tree is thinned out, there is room for new foliage to grow and sunlight to reach all parts.  One nice characteristic of this particular pine is that it had back buds everywhere!  Some of them deep inside the tree too!  This tree is not going to have problems growing new branches anytime soon. Here’s the four sides after the work.

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Lets get a good look at the trunk from all sides!

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I didn’t include photos of the tree’s right side because the tree is leaning in that direction and it’s difficult to see anything.

Age Makes The Difference

One of key phrases we hear in the Bonsai community is, “make the tree look old.”  But what does that really mean?  The reason why we try to make our bonsai look old is to show its history and establishment.  There’s plenty of young trees growing out in nature so seeing  young tree doesn’t excite us as much.  Very old trees are rare and when we can get that same feeling in our Bonsai, it makes it that much better.  So in bonsai there are all sorts of techniques and tricks to make a tree look older but they all have their limits.  At some point we need to let time take over and mature the tree.  All great trees in Bonsai conveys age to the viewer.  It’s not just the trunk that shows it, but everything else that’s attached to the trunk.  The branches need to look old too.  Lets look at some photos to see what I’m talking about.

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Now I’m not trying to discourage any of you from developing Japanese Black pines, but want to challenge those that want to take their bonsai to the next level.  Also remember that this concept applies to every tree species and is useful to all of us.  I believe this will also helps you see bonsai in a different way and appreciate the time and effort it takes to create great bonsai.

Lets Talk New Front!

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So here is the issue.  This once very powerful feeling tree has lost some of that feeling because of the hollow in the center of the trunk.  Should be accept it for what it is or perhaps try to bring it back to its previous glory?

Now this is not an argument on if I think deadwood is a good feature or bad feature for Japanese Black Pine.  My argument is that for this particular tree and style, a thick bark intact trunk looks much grander and older than an old trunk that is hollowed.  There are plenty of other Black Pines out there with deadwood features that look great too.

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So we’ll see what the customer thinks and see what happens to the tree.  Hopefully I’ll be there to take photos if the tree does get changed.  For the mean time, we’ll keep it growing well and healthy.  I hope you enjoyed this post!

Thanks for reading.

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