Despite all my efforts meticulously planning for my visit to Japan, a few things slipped through the cracks. Among them my plug converters rendering my laptop a fancy paper weight to slow me down at airport security checks. As such I hand wrote this article 2 nights ago and now, in my delirious jet-lagged state, I am transcribing it to share with others.
I have been accepted as an apprentice at Fujikawa Kouka-en. (en means garden or nursery) It’s been a pretty insane path getting to this point and I would have never anticipated moving to Japan 4 years ago.
Bonsai for me has been an outlet. I absolutely love working with my hands. The unique combination of a living tree with arguably, art pulled me in with no other comparison. I get an immense gratification doing bonsai and right off the bat, I knew I had to get involved.
Within the best of my mental capacity and time I’d try to go to all the local shows, join clubs, and to reach out to both hobbyists and professionals in the bonsai community. People who know me well, know that I don’t have a very outgoing and sociable personality. From problems I had at home and during high school my confidence was completely shattered. The past 4 years in college has been a slow process of rebuilding it and I’m fortunate to have met some great people.
The irony of it was that my pursuit is akin to a hyper social lifestyle where the bonsai community is comprised of a very mixed ethnic and age demographic. Many professionals in this trade often travel in access of 200 days per year. Insanity. Talking with my peers is one thing, but a bunch of old farts in a club room? (not all old 😉 ) It was interesting to say the least.
Maybe if I had good a cushy 9-5 waiting for me after graduation I would not have put so much effort in my bonsai ventures. But at the end of the day, I was driven and I would do anything that had to be done to realize my goal.
Getting involved in the club scene and talking to thousands of people seemed impossible, especially with my commitments and time constraints from a moderately difficult academic pursuit. But you know what they say–“work smarter, not harder.” So a little over a year ago I built my website and spent countless of hours and long nights to produce quality articles. Slowly but surely I gained traffic and more exposure than I could have achieved purely from talking to people in person.
Through my site I was contacted by Mr. Chuah, also the winner of finest tropical tree at the 5th US National Bonsai show and a patron of the art out of the Houston area. He offered to introduce me to Owen Reich, a bonsai professional, so I could learn about the apprentice and professional lifestyle. Mr. Chuah has been very supportive of my ambitions and without his introduction, I may have never reached out to meet Owen when I found out I would be moving to and working near Chicago last summer. Many thanks to Jeff Schultz, the owner of the Hidden Gardens as well who enabled me to get involved and meet many people in the Midwest bonsai scene.
Following that summer I was convinced that I wanted to go for bonsai professionally and if I could find an opportunity I’d seize it. I was knocking on any doors I could find, domestically and abroad and frankly, not having any success. It made my day when Owen told me that they were looking for apprentices at Kouka-en and he could help me get my foot in the door.
Traveling by myself to a foreign country for the first time, let alone one I had never been to nor knew the language terrified me. Maybe my parents more than me. In the 2-3 month time span I was preparing to visit Japan I would study 4-5 hours a day at least 3-4 days a week between my coursework at college. My intention was to start at ground zero and enroll in Japanese 1 at my University, but it was not available for the next quarter. I ended up self studying and passed the placement test to take the course a level above.
This gave me a baseline for rudimentary communication, asking directions, ordering food, and a very mixed vocabulary. Naoki Maeoka, the senior most apprentice at Kouka-en, speaks excellent English and I’m very grateful for his help translating. I also received a lot of help advice from Tom Ulecki, the other apprentice at Kouka-en. They’re both very nice and hardworking people and I’m glad to have their acquaintance.
Maybe I just worry too much but things worked out this time around. Nothing too crazy, I just talked to Mr. Fujikawa, now my Oyakata, and he said he would accept me as an apprentice. The week spent in Japan has been a mad dash of exploring the city, and rushing back to the nursery to sort out details and work a little. I move to Osaka in August and who knows how long I’ll end up staying.
Maybe my career choice is not the most lucrative but its a passion I have the opportunity and ability to pursue. Insane? Plenty. Irresponsible? No.
I’m thankful for everyone who has supported me or given me advice, but also to my parents. Despite our problems, without their support pursuing my dream would be much harder. I am very excited for my new pursuit and it will only get more crazy from here.
I’ve taken many photos both in the nursery and in the city. Please take a look:
Famous tree, maybe some of you recognize. There was not enough space to stand back and get the entire tree in the frame.
Important bonsai tag.
Amazing arakawa maple. Oyakata allowed me to work on this tree, just pinching of new growth to reduce to 2 leaves per branch.
Below I have pictures from Osaka Castle Park, Nara Park, and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine. These are all free to see aside from some special exhibits inside which cost only around 500 yen.
Amazing old growth forest with lots of old camphor and cypress trees.
Maybe my favorite photo of the trip below, very hard to shoot. I maybe only had 45 seconds to walk through the permissible area of the shrine’s interior. Going from bright outdoors means my eyes had no time to adjust and it was extremely dark inside. I had to hold the camera extremely steady while walking continuously in a line with other people. The dust exposed by the ambient light makes this photograph and gives it a lot of atmosphere my other pictures do not have. I was also very lucky it did not turn out blurry as I was stingy on my ISO setting and tried to keep it as low as possible.
Pack of deer cookies cost 150 yen. It was impossible to take a photo while feeding the deer at the same and capturing it bowing. This is the best I have. The moment they think you have food they’ll start bowing and then chew through your clothes if you don’t feed them anything.
On route to the shrine.
Exterior of shrine. I also prayed here wishing for a healthy and successful bonsai career 😀
Amazing old camphor tree.