Photo/IllutrationThe Bonsai Museum in Omiya is the world’s first bonsai museum open to the public to promote the art of these miniature plants. (Photo by Lisa Vogt)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The art of bonsai, dwarfed trees and shrubs in pots, can be traced back more than a thousand years to China.

Initially, bonsai in Japan was enjoyed exclusively by the upper class. In the later stages of the Edo Period (1603-1867), it gradually reached the masses, who unlike those who resided in noble mansions, lived in small row houses without much greenery.

Plant fairs were often held in front of shrines and temples, and people bought potted plants that added color and a sense of seasonal changes to the lives of commoners, as can be seen depicted in many ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Come to think of it, a telltale sign even today that you’re in old town, or "shitamachi," is the presence of many potted plants in front of dwellings!

After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, many bonsai gardeners in search of clean water, air and open spaces moved from the current Bunkyo Ward area in Tokyo to Omiya in Saitama and established Bonsai Village, a self-governing community of bonsai professionals. In its heyday in the 1930s, the area boasted about 30 gardens. Today there are less than a third of this number.

A visit to Omiya’s Bonsai Museum is educational and inspirational. Do you know how to appreciate bonsai? First, look at the roots. A wide root flare relative to the overall composition symbolizes vitality, and bonsai with roots that are swelled with age are considered exquisite.

Then look at the whole bonsai and take note of its shape. Reverse taper is a negative attribute, so note that the bonsai’s trunk is the widest at the base. Enjoy the color--is it a red momiji? A green goyo-matsu? Notice the contrast between the leaves and bark. Is the bark stripped and white? Do the branches cascade as if the bonsai is a big tree growing on a cliff? Is the trunk curved or straight?

Even a novice like me left the museum with a tremendous amount of information and a newfound eye, love and appreciation for the art of bonsai.

After all the stimulation, I was happy to find a restaurant across the street from the museum where I could go and sit to digest everything. When I got close, I saw that it was named Bonsai Restaurant. What a snappy name!

While enjoying their tasty vegetable gozen, I reflected upon my day. Before, I had only an inkling of interest in bonsai. Now, I think I’m hooked. I’ll be visiting again.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.