Tosho & Tell: Needle junipers of Aichien

In this months article we’ll take a look at some of the high quality tosho (needle juniper) bonsai at Aichien.  Before I start going on and on I’ll let you know that the jib jab to photos ratio is severely out of proportion this time around.  So if you’re like me, and just scan the pictures and click out, this one will be a fast read.

Last month in mid May we dedicated about a week and a half  to doing tosho maintenance work.  Mid May is a good time to do this work, however it is not such a time sensitive job.  At Aichien we try to get it done before June.  Once June hits we are all hands on deck, cutting candles on the black and red pines; a task that is very time sensitive.  If you don’t have many pines, or very few bonsai, you can cut the needle junipers later in the growing season.  We like to cut them twice during the growing season.  So cutting early allows plenty of time for new growth after the first round of maintenance.  You can experiment and find what timing produces the best gains for your trees and climate.

The work being performed at this time consists of a few different things.  Primarily, we are cutting the new spring growth back to an available bud nearest to the overall silhouette of the foliage.  In cases where the foliage silhouette needs to be change; for example, a foliage pad that needs to be wider or longer. We will allow the specific area to continue growing and cut the other areas.  In addition to cutting there are a few other things that can be done while the tree is on the work stand.  Maintenance wiring, deadwood cleaning (if necessary), contemplating the bonsai (one of my favorite ways to waste a little time) and of course pulling the weeds.  In this post I will be showing some photos of the trees I had the pleasure of working on and give you as much of the who’s,what’s, and when’s to the best of my knowledge.

I’ll start this off with one of my favorite bonsai here at Aichien.  This tosho is one of Aichien’s legacy trees and has been here for a really long time.  Mr. Tanaka’s grandfather purchased it as raw material during his reign as King of Aichien.  Collected from the mountains and currently in the 200-250 years old range, this bonsai is one of the oldest trees at Aichien.  In terms of style, it is exactly what I think of when imagining traditional Aichien style, classic.  Informal upright, deep main branch moving in the same direction as the tree, large pads that naturally flow into one another, strong, healthy, elegant, simple, tasteful and timeless.  This tree will always look good, no matter what style trend manages to gain popularity.  Growing the main branch was a long-term task taken on by not only Mr. Tanaka’s grandfather, but his father as well.  Mr.Tanaka himself has also (and will continue to) put the length of his career into the progress of this tree.  Having the chance to dedicate some work hours to deeply exploring the structure and learn it’s history has been one of the most memorable moments for me as an apprentice so far.





The pot is rather nice as well.  Built in Japan by the maker Seizan during the 1970’s



Before moving on to the next tree I thought I’d throw in a gratuitous, “selfie” you know…umm, just to give a sense of how large this bonsai is.  I often like to wait until everyone quits for the night and then come out to the workshop for late night bonsai work.  It’s a really nice feeling to work on these trees free from distractions.

Up next is another one of Aichien’s legacy trees.  I learned the history of this tree in a rather abrasive manner.  When I was given my orders “cut tosho!” there was no specific tree or project attached to the order.  So, I simply walked the yard and waited for one of them to reach out and grab my attention.  My choice was this tree.


After photo. Sorry, no before photo for this one.


I pulled it into the workshop and began working.  Maybe 30 minutes later Mr. Tanaka came in and (using a very serious voice) told me about his intentions to work on this tree himself, followed by administering “the look”.  Then he was silent for a moment, smiled and said “Sho ga nai, keep working!” and left the workshop.  Leaving me trapped in a position where I had the rest of the day to work on this tree and think about what I’d done.  He seems to really appreciate when I regret my behavior.  Ironically, he also seems to appreciate my confidence and independent work style.  That’s apprentice life, un-necessarily mind mangling.

Anyhow, about this tree.  This one is also in the 200 years old range and was also purchased as raw material by Mr.Tanaka’s grandfather.  So it has been developed entirely at Aichien.  It’s a great example of the definitive tosho look, in my opinion.  Old dead wood with a lot of sharp edges, multiple live veins, big main branch and plenty of foliage pads.  The pot is very high quality Japanese, made by Gyo-zan in the 1970’s.

Working on this bonsai really gave me a deeper appreciation for trees like this and tosho in general.  Compared with a shimpaku or any other soft foliage juniper, tosho such as this seem less willing to conform.  Maybe I’m out in left field here, but when viewing really old shimpaku I get a sense of their willingness to be wrapped up, bent, turned and twisted by their environment.  Growing with the flow of their surroundings.  A very admirable quality indeed and an incredible survival strategy. However, when viewing old tosho in this style, I get the exact opposite feeling. This tree’s environment was harsh and abusive, but it never changed its course.  In defiance it bravely took the abuse, the punishment, everything it’s environment could dish out and as a result it accumulated it’s character and age by holding firm to it’s desired course and refusing to be pushed around.  This tree is rock solid.  Pure strength.

Next up is another fairly large tosho with a very similar feeling as the previous tree.  It’s obvious these tree’s are cut from the same cloth and its a style that works well with Aichien’s standards.  This bonsai is a little bit younger but still really impressive being in the 100-150 years old range.  It’s paired with a very nice Chinese antique pot in the Naka-watari age range (100-150 year old Chinese antique).  Really nice tree, Mr. Tanaka has been working on this one for quite some time.



Sorry for the bad iphone photo and no before shot.  I’ll get my act together one of these days.

Moving right along, this next one was the last of the big tosho I worked on this time around.  Though there are a few other large tosho at Aichien.



This one has been at Aichien for a couple of decades now, being developed by Mr.Tanaka.  Though it is in the 150-180 years old range, the development as a bonsai does not have as long of a history as the previous trees in this article.  It is easy to see that the main branch still needs a lot of time to develop.  Also, the tree is really sharp near the top.  If you use your thumb to cover up the very top of the apex you can get a sense of just how much older this tree would look with a broader, rounder apex.  Unfortunately, there is nowhere to go.  We cant just cut the apex off because there is nothing to cut back to.  Mr.Tanaka says he has wanted to change it several times.  The problem is that removing the current apex would in turn cause a structural flaw that would be less desirable than the current apex.  So, I asked what we could do to help balance it a bit better.  The solution is to take the time to grow the tree wider and over time the apex will round out naturally and loose its sharpness.  Though it is a slow process, Mr. Tanaka always chooses to take the scenic route with old trees like this.  He has no interest in instant bonsai, preferring to use traditional techniques and taking the necessary time to build great structure versus bending poorly placed branches into place to create a nice silhouette.  The difference is a higher quality bonsai in the long run.



In an effort to help fatten this tree up I was very selective when cutting.  The back of the tree and the front are in very good proportion.  So those areas received normal maintenance, everything cut evenly.  The sides however where a little different.  I cut the tops of the pads really closely, the middle of the pads with a little more slack and the ends of the pads received almost no cuts.  At this rate, in another few decades things will really start coming together here.  Luckily, trees don’t worry about petty things like time and appearance. This guy is healthy, happy and in no hurry.

Up next is an awesome medium-sized tosho.  A few months back I wrote an entire article just about this tree.  Check it out to learn more.



Before getting started with this one I asked Mr. Tanaka if I could try starting the process of changing the appearance of the foliage pads a little bit.  If you look at some of the older photos of this tree in the above mentioned article, you’ll notice there is a lack of depth in the foliage pads.  They are literally like a wall or a shell surrounding the inner structure.  My thought was that more depth would really improve the look of this bonsai.  He gave me the go ahead and I cut the tree accordingly.  The work performed here was very much the same as the work mentioned on the previous tree.  The tops of the pads got cut close and the bottoms of the pads get to grow a little.  It will take several years to see the results, but its a start.


In the after shot, we can already get a sense of how the tree may look with a little bit more depth and layers in the foliage.

The next tree is in the same style, and was possibly influenced somewhat by the previous tree.  Just a guess…



This bonsai was styled by Peter Tea during his last few months as an apprentice at Aichien.  He put on the bonsai apprentice show for Kinbon magazine as they documented his work on this tree.  The article was featured a few months later in Kinbon Magazine issue 8, 2013.  Great article and really nice work.  Big changes made, creating a tree with an entirely different and much better look than its original set up.


Article Clip


Final shot from 2013

This year in early spring when things started to grow I noticed that the apex of this tree was not putting on any new growth, but the rest of the tree was healthy.  Further inspection revealed that the plastic tape used as an alternative to raffia, to protect the big bend was ready to come off. Maybe even a little over-due.  I removed the tape and the tree had a few more weeks to grow before getting any maintenance.  By that time the apex had started growing, but not strong enough to cut anything.  So this time around I only cut the lower and stronger growing branches.  The photo below shows the final shot after the work was done.  At the time of writing this article,  about 4 weeks has passed since I performed the work and the tree is now growing much more evenly.  So things should be back on track by the next round of work.



Additionally, I asked Mr. Tanaka if I could remove the lowest branch.  It had become very weak and was likely to die.  He gave me the green light.  I think the tree looks a little better with out it anyhow.  I’m looking forward to watching this tree develop further during my time at Aichien.

Last up was this small but powerful shohin tosho.  I love this little bonsai.  Though I don’t have a clear idea of it’s age, it shows signs of being in the 40-50 years old range.  Maybe a bit more, and since I’m just guessing here we might as well call it 1,000 years old.  That sounds more impressive.  Mr. Tanaka has been developing it here at Aichien for about 15 years now.  One of my favorite shohin trees at the nursery.





That’s it!  Finished.

Since I’ve only got time to put out 1 of these articles a month, I’m trying my best to do several quick posts on Instagram each week.  If you’re not already keeping up with me there, search for @treethepeople and get on board.

Thanks for reading!

until next time…