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I’m soon approaching my 1 year mark of my apprenticeship in Japan. I recently took a brief visit to California last month for some work and to see family and friends. It’s given me some time to review my thoughts and feelings of my time invested so far. I wanted to be open and honest with both the excitement and growth I experience here, but equally the stress and difficulties I face.

spring work on a tosho

Bonsai undoubtedly is my greatest passion. It’s something I absolutely love and has served as a form of meditation and healing during stressful times in my past. While I have doubts of whether my decision was the right choice, I absolutely do not regret it as I made it myself. To that end I am grateful to members of the bonsai community who encouraged me and the family that supports me being here.

Being in an immersive environment, naturally, has allowed me to hone down and really accelerate my skill and knowledge in bonsai. Bonsai is union of art and horticulture, and can’t exist without both. On one end I am pursuing aesthetics, learning how to style trees to create aesthetically beautiful and balanced shapes. On the flip side we have horticulture, knowing how to keep the tree healthy and the techniques to sustain the design we created. I have been very open about the work I post as a means to document my progression in skill and to share it with others : https://bontsai.com/work/

My last shinpaku I’ve styled in my apprenticeship:

hand carved deadwood features

Last white pine styled:

Recent black pine work

Contrasting my most recent work with my first few projects, I can definitely feel that I am learning and improving my technique (but still with plenty to learn):

First tree and shinpaku styled as an apprentice
first white pine styled
very first black pine I ever wired

Working as an apprentice in Japan has had many positive and exciting aspects to it. I’m spending most of my time doing something I’m passionate about and engaging. I’m surrounded by amazing trees and more importantly, I get to work on them too. Oyakata believes in a very hands on approach to commit things to memory and to hone the inherent “sense” people have when it comes to working on and styling trees.

But equally as prevalent there’s the mundane daily grind of sustaining a living here. Here at Kouka-en we live offsite meaning we’re provided our own apartments. As full time apprentices we’re paid, but just enough to cover living expenses. But we still need to manage expenses to be able to cover bills, food cost, as well as cooking and eating within reason. コンビニ (“konbini”) is the Japanese name for convenience stores. And boy they are mighty convenient–you pay your bills there, mail packages there, and get quality full meals. But by easily making one too many lunch trips a week it’s easy to go over budget. So to stay out of the red each month but to also allow me to save a bit, I cook the majority of my meals. Typically I don’t eat breakfast (often from waking up too late), lunch is a 50/50 split between packed meals and purchased bentos, and I usually cook dinner.

Here are my expenses for typical month. Gas bills are higher in the winter from using more hot water when I’m cold and lower in the summer when I don’t need hot showers.

After phone and internet I’m usually around the 35,000 to 40,000 yen mark, or a bit under $400 USD. We get 60,000 yen a month meaning that on average I can save about $200 a month. It’s fairly bare bones, but enough to sustain life as an apprentice. The trade off is the significant time sink that goes into cooking, which is of course, outside of apprentice hours.

freezing my ass off at Kokufu

Life as an apprentice is very much working inside a bubble. This is of course my own biased opinion and experience, it may differ at other nurseries or for other apprentices. We’re not really integrated or exposed to much of the greater Japanese culture, limited both by the interactions we have in the nursery and the breadth of the Japanese language we are exposed to and use. I have become painfully aware of this in my mixed attempts to carry out conversations with Japanese people I meet. Without a strong sense of community or family at the nursery I do feel quite isolated sometimes and a little lonely.

Simple hiragana board I made for other deshi. I left a space to write random practice sentences but Japanese I wrote there is super messed up and doesn’t make any sense. Oyakata’s dog left a fat turd in the workshop and I was trying to figure out how to say it in Japanese 😂😂

To remedy this as well as to improve my interactions with Japanese customers, I have been intent in practicing and self teaching myself Japanese. From my efforts prior to coming to Japan and this past year, I’m happy to say I can at least get by or make small talk with my barber or a bartender, but it’s never enough. By elevating the skill of my language ability, I hope to make Japanese friends who can help integrate me into their community. But admittedly with a full time schedule and 2 days off a month I have days where there’s an immense mental barrier for me to find the motivation and energy to practice and study.

I guess collectively, these are things that can wear people down long term which has made me realize the long term difficulties pursuing an apprenticeship as an foreigner in Japan. Between sacrificing some of my interpersonal relationships, and garnering skepticism from some friends and family I feel a nagging pressure in the back of my mind. That I have to succeed out here no matter the cost. But at the core of it I am doing this for myself and I’m strongly motivated to see things through.

All in all I can say its been a successful first year and I’m ready to tackle on another. I believe the difficulties and new experiences I undergo here will shape me into the best possible version I can be.

Many thanks to those of the community who follow and support me, it really does mean a lot. And also a big thanks to the Golden State Bonsai Federation (GSBF) that awarded me the Harry Hirao scholarship which was a big help the past year.

For readers subscribed to my blog, I apologize for the lack of updates as I have been primarily posting on Facebook and Instagram. I actually enjoy writing a good bit, it’s just a time consuming endeavor. I’ll try to crack out more articles for interesting work or projects I get in the future.

8 comments on “A Year in Review

  1. Mickey O'Neill says:

    Thank you for this insightful view of life as a bonsai apprentice in Japan! Press on! When you are older, you will look back and smile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julian says:

      I appreciate the encouragement!

      Like

  2. Ted Matson says:

    Nice report, Julian. I’m hoping and looking forward to getting you over to The Huntington when you come back so you can apply your new skills to trees in our collections.

    TM

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julian says:

      Thanks Ted! Lots to learn still but doing my best here so I can apply my skills well when I return stateside.

      Like

  3. tonytomeo says:

    ‘Shinpau’ is a name I have not heard in a while. There happens to be one out in the landscape. It was grown as bonsai stock, but never used as such. My Pa grown bonsai stock in Poulsbo in Washington, west of Seattle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julian says:

      Just saw this comment! They can grow pretty fast in the landscape from what I’ve seen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. tonytomeo says:

        Oh, I just noticed I omitted the ‘k’.
        Anyway, my old ‘Shinpaku’ juniper has been almost too slow. I wanted something slower than a Hollywood juniper, but this one has not been happy there. Now you got me wondering. I will need to loo for them in nurseries. I do not think they are commonly available, but should investigate.

        Like

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