MC RC Japanese White Pine at the 33rd Taikan-ten show, Japan

As many of you will know, Ritta and I love Japan, and we have become regular visitors. This enables us to indulge our love of the country and its culture, as well as our passion for bonsai and nishikigoi. In November 2013 we were fortunate to be able exhibit a bonsai that we own in the 33rd Taikan-ten bonsai exhibition in Kyoto. Taikan-ten is the most famous exhibition in western Japan, and in our view is only surpassed by Kokufu.

This story actually began in November 2012 when we privately visited Fujikawa Kouka-en for the first time. Fujikawa-san’s nursery is located not far from the town of Ikeda, which is north of Osaka, and is usually home to several foreign students of bonsai. Fujikawa-san’s reputation was already well known to us, and Ritta and I had admired his trees for many years prior to our visit to his nursery. We had always been impressed by how well his trees were presented for sale in the sales area of Taikan-ten, a show which we had visited many times before. We had also spoken with two of his students from the USA, Bjorn Bjorholm and Owen Reich, at previous Taikan-ten exhibitions. So, we were excited at the thought of visiting Kouka-en for the first time during our trip in November 2012.

Our visit to the nursery had been scheduled for some time prior, with the help of Bjorn. The day of our visit was sunny with crystal clear blue skies…perfect. We travelled by train and then by taxi to the nursery. On arrival, we said our hellos to everyone and began to look at the trees. As in many bonsai nurseries in Japan, numerous clients’ trees were being cared for in a dedicated area. The number and variety of species of bonsai for sale was impressive, as was the range of sizes too. We were particularly impressed by several White Pines, and two were moved indoors for us to take a closer look at.

RC + Japanese White Pine Nov 2012

One tree in in particular, a Kokonoe, greatly appealed to us both

To cut a long story short, after a lot of careful inspection, much discussion, and several cups of green tea, we agreed the price. We also agreed that the tree would be left in Japan for the following year (2013) too, and then it could be exported in 2014 via a European Bonsai dealer.

Many bonsai hobbyists perhaps don’t appreciate that Japanese bonsai nurseries must have a license to export bonsai, and not all bonsai nurseries in Japan have this. So, although the process of buying and importing this tree sounds simple, it is far from it, and visiting a nursery in its self has to be arranged as one should not just arrive without an invitation. It was soon after this that Fujikawa-san suggested to us that we should consider submitting the tree for exhibit at Taikan-ten, and we discussed the details and cost of this. We thought that this would be a once in a lifetime experience for us, and we agreed to do this. We also thought it would be a good excuse to visit Kouka-en again! In Japan the exhibitor pays a fee to exhibit a bonsai at a show, and these fees can run into hundreds of pounds. We left Japan later that month after visiting the Taikan-ten show, with the thought of seeing our tree in the next Taikan-ten exhibition in 2013.

A few months past, and in January 2013 we visited Japan again, mainly to visit the Gafu-ten shohin bonsai exhibition in Kyoto (in fact at the same venue as Taikan-ten), and the Meifu-ten show in Nagoya too. So of course we scheduled in a visit to Kouka-en to see our tree and to see Fujikawa-san and his team.

On arrival, we were pleased to see that our tree was displayed in the Tokonoma in the reception area

On arrival, we were pleased to see that our tree was displayed in the Tokonoma in the reception area

Despite it being early January, it was a surprisingly sunny and pleasant day. During the coming months of 2013, Fujikawa-san kept us up to date via Bjorn, and Bjorn sent us a photo of the tree after repotting.

Later in 2013 we both thought it would be nice for us to have some input into the preparation of our tree for Taikan-ten. To be candid, we weren’t entirely sure how well this request would be received by Fujikawa-san, thinking that it may be considered slightly odd as in Japan is the norm for professionals to prepare trees for exhibitions, find suitable pots, arrange transport etc, and often to organise things like display tables and companion items. But we discussed this idea with Bjorn who then discussed this with Fujikawa-san; all was OK and we fixed a date for us to visit the nursery prior to Taikan-ten which was scheduled for the last weekend in November.

Applying moss to tree for show

Ritta preparing tree for show

About a week before Taikan-ten we spent a whole day on the nursery leisurely preparing our tree for the show. We first discussed a proposed display with Fujikawa-san, which involved the choice of table, layout, and companion planting. After a little experimentation and some discussion, a final display layout was agreed upon.

Trial display at Koukaen

Trial display for Taikan-ten

Next steps were cleaning and oiling the pot, mossing the whole of the soil surface with moss and some lichen, and of course giving the tree a few final tweaks. Owen Reich helped and advised us during the day, but we were always under the watchful and avuncular gaze of Fujikawa-san who politely guided and advised us.

A week later it was time for the show. We were staying in Kyoto, so it was only a short subway journey and a short walk to the venue, the Kyoto International Exhibition Hall, ‘Miyakomesse’.

Heian tori

The venue is close to the famous Heian Jingu Shrine

At the show entrance we showed our tickets and we made a beeline for our exhibit, number one hundred and twenty-eight. We were very pleased…it looked great!

Our exhibit label at Taikan-ten exhibition

Every exhibit there had an information label written in Katakana characters

Our exhibit labels informed viewers of our nationality, our names, and a description of the tree/pot and companion item. It surprised us how many complimentary comments we had from Japanese hobbyists, particularly as it is so unusual to see an exhibit owned by foreigners. In fact, we are amongst a very small handful of foreigners who have ever exhibited at Taikan-ten. The show ran for four days, which for us went very quickly. In the afternoon of the last day, we had to leave the show to travel back to Tokyo to catch our flight home to the UK the following day. So we said our goodbyes to everyone we knew, and of course our thanks and appreciation to Fujikawa-san, Bjorn, Owen, Maeoka San, Yuri san and Dario.

The next chapter of this story will concern the export of the tree from Japan and its journey to its new home in Europe.