Legacy Bonsai of Aichien, part 1

It’s Danny, back again with another article from Aichien Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan.  In case you’re new to this blog, let me take a moment to get you up to speed.  On January 1st 2013 I came to Japan to dive as deep as possible into bonsai.  Living, working, eating, sleeping, dreaming bonsai all day everyday; as an apprentice to Mr. Junichiro Tanaka, 4th generation owner of Aichien Bonsai Nursery.  The history of Aichien runs deep and I’ve managed to gather a few of the who’s,what’s,when’s,where’s and why’s.  I find it all to be incredibly fascinating and inspirational.  In this article I’ll share some of the highlights and talk about two “legacy trees” of Aichien.

The name Aichien comes in part from the location of the nursery, Nagoya being in the Aichi prefecture of Japan.  The literal translation of this name from Japanese to English is “Know Love Garden/nursery” very fitting for a bonsai nursery.  Aichien’s humble beginnings took place in the late 1890’s.  At the age of 17 Mr. Sukijiro Tanaka locked his sights on becoming a professional bonsai grower and got started by setting up a field of Ume trees (flowering apricot) to be used exclusively as bonsai material.

-Mr. Sukijiro Tanaka (man in the mid-ground). 1st Generation Aichien owner.

-Mr. Sukijiro Tanaka (man in the mid-ground). 1st Generation Aichien owner.

The initial crop of Aichien Ume was about 1000 in total.  Of those trees, only one remains at Aichien.  It is by far the most sentimentally valuable tree in the Tanaka collection.  The photo below clearly displays the elegant beauty of Aichien’s Legacy Ume.  Finding a bonsai in Japan with a confirmed age such as this one is not an easy task.  Mostly due to the nature of trade in the bonsai industry, the vague history of many trees that have been collected from the mountains and a mind-boggling lack of record keeping.  Being able to say for sure that this tree is 120 years old to date is truly remarkable.  Additionally, this tree has no dead area or scars on the trunk.  Something that is really hard to come by in ume bonsai, especially at this age.  Take a look through any Kokufu book and you’ll notice it’s almost impossible to find a solid trunk ume.  I’ve been told this is likely due to most ume bonsai in Japan living a long life as trees grown for the purpose of harvesting their fruit, decades before they ever became bonsai.  Each year being cut back aggressively, with the main focus on fruit harvest rather than tree appearance.  That’s a tough life for a tree and caused most of them to have large dead portions.  While the dead wood looks great on old ume, there is something to be said for a tree that has survived this many years with its trunk still 100% in tact.  It is safe to assume that being grown exclusively for bonsai and receiving a high level of care is the main reason for the un-blemished trunk.

-The Aichein Legacy Ume as it appeared in March 2014.

-The Aichein Legacy Ume as it appeared in March 2014.

-Close up of the Ume flowers

-Close up of the Ume flowers

One thing that is very important to keep in mind when we are viewing any living Japanese bonsai of this age (not just Aichien trees) is the fact that they are all survivors of World War II.  Nagoya was bombed heavily during the war and for a period of about 6 years the focus of bonsai growing was forced into a hold at Aichien.  To give the trees a fighting chance they where all taken out of their bonsai pots and planted in the ground.  All in preparation for the possibility that no one would be available to water them. They needed to be somewhat self sufficient.  This proved to be a good plan as Aichien suffered a bombing.  The Aichien home was destroyed completely, however the trees where miraculously un-effected and no lives where lost.

After the war, Aichien continued to grow bonsai and at this point was not only focusing on producing field grown stock, but  had begun to build it’s reputation as a high end bonsai development and refinement nursery.   By this time Aichien ownership was already passed from Mr. Sukijiro Tanaka on to his first born son Mr.Koushiro Tanaka.

-Mr.Koushiro Tanaka.  2nd generation Aichien owner.

-Mr.Koushiro Tanaka. 2nd generation Aichien owner.

During Mr.Koushiro Tanaka’s time, Aichien was not only growing ume but had several fields set up in the Nagoya area with crops of trident maple and black pine.  Many of the Aichien trees that began in this generation are now fairly well known in the Japanese bonsai world.  Notably some of the root on rock style trident maples.  In addition to field grown trees, several of the trees that were being refined as Mr Koushiro Tanaka’s personal bonsai collection during this time are still here at Aichien.  One red pine bonsai in particular really stands out as an amazing tree. Though the origins of Mr.Koushiro Tanaka’s red pine are not entirely known we do know that at some point the tree was collected from the mountains near Aichien and likely spent a few years growing in the field before being moved to a bonsai pot.  The exact age is un-known although it shows evidence of being in the 160-180 years old range.  The following photo is from the 1976 Meifu bonsai exhibition book.  I took this photo sometime last year while Mr.Tanaka and I had a long discussion about Aichien history and flipped through some old books in the tea room.

-The Aichien Legacy Red Pine of Mr.Koushiro Tanaka,  2nd generation Aichien owner.  As it appeared in 1976.


-The Aichien Legacy Red Pine of Mr.Koushiro Tanaka, 2nd generation Aichien owner. As it appeared in 1976.

The Red Pine and Aichien as a nursery, continued to be refined through the decades and was later passed on to Mr.Koushiro Tanaka’s, son Mr.Kiyomitsu Tanaka (3rd Generation Aichien owner).  In more recent years, when Mr.Junichiro Tanaka (4th generation/current Aichien owner) took ownership of Aichien he made the difficult decision to drastically re-design his grandfather’s red pine.  In the late 90’s the tree was completely transformed by Mr.Junichro Tanaka, turning it 180 degrees and tilting it forward.  Making the previous back of the tree the new front and creating a completely new image that shows almost no signs of the trees previous form.  By making this move the tree was positioned to have a promising future as a more visually dynamic tree.  The change allowed one of the strong branches (previously in the back) to become the new main branch, descending down the left side of the tree and flowing in the same direction as the tree’s natural movement.  The following photo is of the tree in its current form as of March 2014.

-The Aichien Legacy Red Pine as it appeared in March 2014.  Almost 20 years after complete re-styling.

-The Aichien Legacy Red Pine as it appeared in March 2014. Almost 20 years after complete re-styling.

Sometime back in 2014 a Japanese television show came to do a segment on Aichien.  The two trees in this article where set up for the show.  I was charged with the task of prepping the legacy red pine, the evening before the show.  I captured the moment with an Iphone snap shot.

 

-This is me at about 1:00 am preparing the Aichien Legacy Red Pine for display.

-This is me at about 1:00 am preparing the Aichien Legacy Red Pine for display.

As I continue to learn more about Aichien’s history and get more familiar with the trees here, I find myself feeling such a strong connection to this place. Although in the grand scheme of Aichien’s long history, the work I’m doing here is insignificant, it is still a great honor to be here working on these trees and learning from one of the oldest and best bonsai families still alive and growing.  Every tree in this nursery is treated with a loving and nurturing approach.  Being an Aichien apprentice is about so much more than just learning how to make money with bonsai.  It’s about learning to live a rewarding life of bonsai and putting faith in the practice.  Knowing without a doubt that many good days and bad days will pass and caring for the trees will be the stability to keep us on track.  Constantly growing and developing in all aspects, through every phase of life.

So that’s a little snap history of Aichien.  Not the entire story, just a slice of the pie.  Sometime in the future I will expand on this article and cover some of the work of Oyakata and his father.  For now I’ll close this out with a couple of fish eye shots of the two tokonoma rooms at Aichien with the legacy trees set up on display.

-The Aichien Legacy Ume in full bloom displayed in a Tokonoma room in the Tanaka home at Aichien. March 2014

-The Aichien Legacy Ume in full bloom displayed in a Tokonoma room in the Tanaka home at Aichien. March 2014

-The Aichien Legacy Red Pine set up in a Tokonoma room in the Tanaka home at Aichien.  March 2014.  The painting on the right side of the room is of Mr.Kiyomitsu Tanaka.  3rd Generation Aichien owner and father of Mr. Junichiro Tanaka.

-The Aichien Legacy Red Pine set up in a Tokonoma room in the Tanaka home at Aichien. March 2014. The painting on the right side of the room is of Mr.Kiyomitsu Tanaka. 3rd Generation Aichien owner and father of Mr. Junichiro Tanaka.

Thats it for this one,  Thanks for reading!

until next time…

-Danny