JAPAN LITE: Work full-time and raise a bonsai? No thanks – By AMY CHAVEZ

Root over rock larch, by Nick  Lenz
Root over rock larch, by Nick Lenz

The other day I mentioned to my husband that I might like to take a class in growing bonsai trees. I don’t even know why I mentioned it. I had been growing some pretty good mold in the bathroom and refrigerator so perhaps it seemed like a good time to move on to something more challenging. That evening I received a call from a woman, Toyoko Kitamura, a friend of my husband, asking me if I’d be free the following day to go meet a friend of a friend of a friend who had a friend who is a bonsai expert. She had even arranged for her friends to drive us to the bonsai expert’s house. The only thoughts in my head were: Why are Japanese people so efficient? Don’t they know how to procrastinate? Where I come from, the art of procrastination is cultivated at a young age and indulged in until death. So, if I think I might like to take a class in growing bonsai trees, first I would spend a few months considering it, then another few weeks planning on doing it, then a couple of weeks promising myself I’d do it, after which I would spend several weeks wishing I had done it. Only then would I get around to actually doing it. Maybe. So there I was, in a car with three people I didn’t know, on my way to see a bonsai expert that nobody knew, before I had even had the time to consider if I really wanted to take bonsai lessons or not. When we arrived at the bonsai expert’s house, we spent the first half-hour looking at pictures of bonsai trees in books. It was very much like going to a beauty salon and looking through hair styling books before choosing a haircut. From the pictures, I learned that bonsai is not a species of tree. It’s not even a pine tree. It’s anything that can be pruned and trimmed, pinched and wired, coaxed or bribed into a bonsai shape. The idea is to use as much human interference as possible to create a “natural looking” tree. “Bonsai are very delicate creatures,” the bonsai expert said, talking about them as if they were human. “Where do you plan on growing your bonsai, Amy?” “At my house on Shiraishi Island,” I said. “Oh, that will be very difficult,” he said. “The strong sea wind is bad for bonsai.” The trunk must grow straight up, with no leaning to the left or right, which might indicate an easterly or westerly wind. He said that to prevent this, I would need to constantly change the position of the bonsai tree. I knew better, however, and pictured my typhoon-swept bonsai growing sideways at a 90 degree angle, branches inlaid in the soil. “Where exactly do you plan on putting your bonsai?” he asked. “At the foot of the mountain behind my house there is a big stone that I thought would be a very natural and beautiful background,” I said. “Oh, that will be very difficult,” he said. “Bonsai prefer sunlight. You will have to move the pot around several times during the day out of the shade so it will get optimum sunlight.” I pictured myself taking my bonsai for long walks in the wheelbarrow. “Do you know how to water a bonsai?” he asked. “You can’t just water the bonsai from the top like you do other plants. Bonsai prefer their water to be the same temperature as the air. If it’s colder or warmer, it may shock the roots. The bonsai roots should be not too dry and not too wet. The best thing is to remember where the roots are and water only the soil above each root.” “Remember where the roots are?” I asked. “Yes, every spring you must trim the roots and repot the plant with new soil. After several years of this, you’ll remember where the roots are.” I was beginning to understand why he talked about bonsai as if they were human — I could see myself several years later, my teenage bonsai included in our family picture hanging on the wall. He said the next lesson would cover the more intricate details of growing bonsai. But I had already figured out what those details were: Bonsai prefer to be addressed in polite Japanese, they need umbrellas when it rains and every morning they should be given private English lessons. I decided I didn’t really want to take bonsai classes. Boy, am I glad I didn’t waste six months procrastinating about it.


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