The second life of Mr.Kawabe

Takeo Kawabe was an automotive engineer whose life took a new direction after seeing, for the first time, the trees in Masahiko Kimura’s garden. Kawabe soon left behind his automotive career and began a bonsai apprenticeship with Kimura at the relatively late age (for Japanese apprentices) of nearly 30 years old. You can see him at work on page 6 of The Bonsai Art of Kimura (upper left-hand corner).

Kawabe’s carving and grafting work is impressive. Together, these skills make him an outstanding creator of bonsai from collected material. His garden reflects this. Although a small number of the trees in his garden are ready for show, the vast majority are in various stages of development. He spoke at length about bonsai development, constantly emphasizing the incremental nature of the work. Maybe one year for carving the deadwood on a tree, another for grafting or repotting, and so on. While it’s possible to do all of this work at the same time, the health of the tree should determine how much work is done at any one time and when the work should be done.

Kawabe with 15 year old pine seedling

Kawabe with a 15yr. old pine bonsai he’s raised from seed.

On the topic of wiring, Kawabe told us there are three reasons for adding wire to a tree: to modify its shape, to cause swelling, and to let light in where it is needed. We are used to wiring trees to get them into shape. We’re typically careful not to let the wires cut into the branches and we remove and replace wire when it gets tight.

This isn’t always the best approach, he told us, when developing trees from scratch. To get a branch to hold its shape, letting the wire cut in and cause swelling can help set a branch more quickly than replacing the wire before it cuts in. The trick is in knowing which branches can benefit from this technique and how much scarring is appropriate for a particular branch.

When existing branches don’t fit into the final design and new buds or grafts are required to improve a tree, wiring can be useful for opening a tree up and letting light into interior spaces where new growth is required.

Itoigawa juniper

Recently repotted Itioigawa shimpaku

On the topic of carving Kawabe encouraged us to not be too hasty or zealous with our work. While it can be fun and dramatic to do heavy carving with power tools, it’s not always the best approach. Nature, he said, is the best when it comes to carving. Our work is to accelerate the effect nature has on a tree’s deadwood. The best way for us to do this is to work slowly and carefully, and above all, to work with the grain of the wood.

Deadwood, sandblasted

Detail of shimpaku deadwood after initial carving and sandblasting

Walking around Kawabe’s garden is great because it is like getting a preview to a Kokufu Exhibit that will be held 20 years in the future. It’s an opportunity to see where great trees come from and how it is that they come to get there. It’s the kind of garden that motivates one to find as much good material as possible and start working on it.


Itoigawa juniper

Itiogawa shimpaku




Shimpaku deadwood


White pine

White pine



Toho shimpaku. This large flame-like tree is another long term project. All of the tree’s foliage will grow from a single grafted branch protruding about midway up from the rear left of the tree.




Toho shimpaku


Kawabe also has a sizable collection of Japanese yew bonsai (Taxus cuspidata) that he is hoping to exhibit at an upcoming local event to be held several years from now. Although most will require significant development before they can be shown, there is great potential.


Deadwood detail, Japanese yew



Deadwood detail, Japanese yew



Deadwood detail, Japanese yew



Japanese yew


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