BGP: Welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast, where the object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.
BPG: Owen Reich has a bachelor’s degree in Ornamental Horticulture from the University of Georgia. He recently spent two years in Japan studying bonsai as an apprentice under Keiichi Fujikawa. Today he teaches numerous bonsai workshops and gives bonsai demonstrations. So, Owen, welcome to The Bonsai Garden Podcast.
Thanks for having me.
BGP: Tell us about your bonsai apprenticeship in Japan. How were you able to make this connection with this bonsai master in Japan?
Well Bjorn Bjorholm was the first apprentice at Kouka-en and he lives in Knoxville. I am from Nashville Tennessee, and I didn’t know Bjorn well but I found out that he was an apprentice and started talking to him about Japan and his experiences there. So I ended up going to Japan in 2009 for two weeks as more of a tourist to see the Taikan-ten, and I ended up meeting Mr. Fujikawa and took three days of my trip to work for him and get to know him and the nursery and all that. So, basically Bjorn put in a good word for me and put his reputation on the line to vouch for me. And that’s how I was able to get an apprenticeship. Normally you have to through a respected teacher in America and then build up some time before you go. But Bjorn was able to pave the way for me quite easily.
BGP: How were you able to afford to just pick up and move to Japan for two years?
That’s a good question. Basically what I did was I sold my car, I quit my job and I had saved up quite a bit of money for the year ahead of time and I also sold most of my bonsai collection. It was kind of a leap of faith in that respect. I knew that it was going to be expensive but I felt like it was well worth the sacrifice and effort to go.
BGP: Did you have any bonsai in that collection that you had a hard time letting go of?
Sure, well my previous career as an ornamental horticultural nursery manager allowed me to acquire a great deal of plants and I also collected a lot of wild trees. So, I had about 300 or 400 plants before I left and I donated, gave away or sold all but about 15 of them and then my friend took care of those. So, it was tough, however, after my visit in 2009 to Japan….and anybody for that matter who goes to Japan…they come home and look at their bonsai collection in a different way. You realize what’s possible and where you’re at, and it’s a very humbling experience because once you have that bench mark of knowing what’s ultimately possible, you can evaluate your own collection much more objectively.
BGP: Were there any difficulties as far as the cultural transition? You moving over there and having to work with this person…I’m assuming he spoke Japanese and you’re speaking English. So, what kind of difficulties did you have?
Well, I read quite a few books about Japanese culture before I went and I asked a lot of people who had already been apprentices and I built up a bit of knowledge about Japanese culture before I went to understand what I shouldn’t do because apprenticeship is really about respect and humility and work, hard work. So, I like to think that I had a pretty good work ethic before hand given my previous experience. The Japanese cultural change is difficult because there’s rules for everything and you have to know them. And you have to know when it’s ok to break them and so on. It was a pretty big adjustment.
Learning Japanese was like taking the SAT while running backwards. It’s pretty tuff. The problem is, is that the language barrier inhibits your ability to be trusted. So you have to learn Japanese very quickly in order to get to do some of the tasks that you would obviously want to do while at high end bonsai gardens. I’m fluent in Spanish and I had a crash course in Japanese with bonsai terminology and things like that, so I was able to understand most of what was being said after about six months but speaking it is still difficult. It’s a whole different flip from American culture. Bonsai apprenticeship is old-school even by Japanese standards, so it’s a pretty big adjustment.
BGP: What is it like learning bonsai from a Japanese master?
Well it’s not as overt as it is in a workshop where they say, “Cut this brand”, “do this.” My teacher is far more progressive than most, I would say, in that he’s a reasonable guy. He treated us like humans and, it’s interesting actually, the apprenticeship hierarchy is often very competitive and cut throat, However, at Kouka-en, Bjorn Bjorholm, Naoki Maeoka, and I got along quit well and our teacher did not pit us against each other like some bonsai masters do. Basically we all knew what our roles were and we accepted it. So, working for Mr. Fujikawa was a challenge in that I had to learn a lot very quickly and not screw up, however, Mr. Fujikawa and I understood each other on a level where I could figure out what he was trying to get me to do and he understood that I wanted to learn and that was all that really mattered for the first couple of months. Naoki Maeoka spoke some English, my sempai. So, the guy above me at the nursery spoke some English and he was able to help me as was Bjorn. It’s really a challenge to work on trees over there because quality standards are so much higher. I spent ten times as long wiring a tree as I would have here.
BGP: Yeah, I can image that he probably wants you to have the wires exactly perfect with the perfect spacing to make the wires as much a piece of the art as the tree itself is, is that correct?
Oh that’s correct. You know, I wired my fist tree there and he said, “Not bad”. Well, that translates in Japanese to “Not completely hopeless. There might be a spark of hope. There’s something there, but it’s not very good.” The standards in Japan are just completely different than they are here. You work hard and you do these things to the best of your ability and sometimes even that’s not good enough. But Mr. Fujikawa was always conscience of where I was at in terms of my understanding and abilities. He never gave me anything that was far to outside of my ability range at the time.
My wiring ability, in terms of the neatness and the way that I wired was pretty good in terms of how organized it was before I went there, however, I still had problems with heavy wire wrapping as well as the length of wire and wasting it. There’s nothing worse than having a wire applied to a branch and then it not holding. That’s like the ultimate slap across the face to your teacher because it mean you didn’t care.
BGP: What are the five or ten greatest lessons that you learned about bonsai while living in Japan?
Well, as I said earlier, an important lesson is that once you see high-end trees in person, in three dimensions instead of just two dimensions, you understand why they’re so good and just studying the trees there rubs off on you.
I guess another one would be, when you’re exposed to thousands of at auctions and other gardens, client’s homes and at the actual nursery you’re working for, you develop an eye for bonsai. It’s kinda like when you learn botanical names for plants and one day you know almost all the ones around you. You look up and you just get it. “Ok, this is that and this is why this is good.” So, being an apprentice in Japan…one of the reasons it’s so beneficial is you see so many good trees.
I think another really important one would be that the rules that are often promoted in books are really not rules at all. They are esthetic principals that we have to follow that are universal for all art. And this is really important…if it looks good or it feels right, you do that, and if it doesn’t you don’t. But once you have that understanding of what good bonsai is, you understand where you can, quote-unquote, break a rule and where you can do something that pushes the limits. So, that’s really, really important.
I think container selection is big deal, and that’s something that my teacher pushed from the minute I got there. My apprenticeship at Kouka-en was not necessarily the norm. I have to shift soil or clean bathrooms and make meals for three years. I wired my first tree after I was there for two weeks. So, that was important that Fujikawa-san pushed us to style trees because one of the things that Kouka-en does is does professional styling for other nurseries as well as clients. So, we were pushed to understand container selection and esthetics as soon as possible so that we could be a benefit to the other workers there. Container selection in particular we would take a tree that had a cracked pot, we would do a slight angle change, refine the tree a little, put it into a better pot and it would ultimately increase the esthetic value and monetary value of the tree immediately.
Some people call it flipping trees and trying to profit fast but we were improving these trees. So, whether we sold them for less or not we were improving them, above and beyond where they were before. Many of the trees that you see in the industry in Japan are client owned trees that were owned for a very long time and some of them need to be reworked. That’s something that we don’t fully understand here in America yet as a whole. Speaking about America as a whole is difficult because it’s such a large place but restyles are a major part of bonsai in Japan. Trees that have a history are always better.
Another thing that I said earlier was about hard work and commitment. The lesson there is that that hard work and that type of work ethic is expected. You can be sent home at any time if the teacher wants you to leave. Generally there’s a three month grace period where there’s no guarantees. After that point you can feel a little safer but it’s what you do above and beyond what happens in the day to day grind that is what makes or breaks you when your in Japan because it’s a really valuable opportunity to be exposed not only to the good bonsai but to the Japanese culture which ultimately to me is a huge part of why living in Japan is so good because your exposed to the museums, the plays, the art. Also to small aspects of Japanese culture that kind of gets you inside the mind of the Japanese mentality. And that’s really good because you can understand some of the aesthetic tweaks and cues in displays. If they have a stone that’s a certain shape it might be a famous mountain or a tree has a certain branch structure and it’s an illusion to a famous poem, or something like that.
Another thing that’s very important about apprenticeship is not working on the trees but the code of conduct and that respect for the tools you’re using, the amount of wire you use, the way you conduct yourself when you’re interacting with clients, all this stuff adds up to being a better person and back in the day apprentices use to be quite young, coming in right after high school and sometimes the bonsai master would finish raising the kid. So, my teacher would remind me to eat my vegetables and I’m 30, now 31. It’s a humbling experience especially if you have any kind of…I was a manager at the nursery called Samara Farms in Nashville and so I had a large crew and a lot of responsibility, and I had to go from that to being a bottom of the barrel, border line slave worker. And then, now, the really interesting part is that now I have to switch complete roles again and now I have to be an authority figure to teach people about bonsai. So that’s a real challenge right there. It’s difficult to push back and forth because I’m going back November 5th for a few months this year.
BGP: Having been there for that period of time, and now your back, what are you doing now with the knowledge that you gained there?
That’s a good question. The main thing that I do now is I teach workshops, study groups and style trees for customers; those three things. I do give some presentations to horticultural societies and at conventions and things like that and for non-bonsai related things as well, but I mainly do the workshops, the private stylings and the presentations. With the knowledge that I have now from studying in Japan and all of the different presentations, workshops and demonstrations that I do, I’m able to bridge the gap between what is commonly help up as the thing to do for a given species or technique, and I’m able to add another layer to that. Maybe there was something lost in translation or there was a commonly held belief in a given region and when I can bring a couple of other options for the same species, sometimes it works better for people.
So, one of the reasons that Bjorn Bjorholm created the Bonsai Art of Japan series was for exactly that reason. So, when he interviewed me and Fujikawa-san and Naoki-san for the first episode, I immediately saw the final cut of the first episode and wanted to do as much as I could to help him with that series. That series helped the nursery that I worked for to reach so many more people, so I felt like that was a very important project to assist with. And of course, Bjorn was a really good editor and producer of those videos, so that was a really great project that also took the edge off of the normal grind. And we filmed most of those during our lunch breaks. When you’re working twelve hours a day as an apprentice, there tends to be a lack of free time.
But to get back to the answer for the question that you asked, I think that supplying middle level and advanced knowledge at the right time to the right people is one of the best things that I’ve been able to do. Also, I enjoy teaching people and I enjoy interacting with the bonsai community. So, traveling to teach was really my goal all along. I will say that I don’t think that everybody is really built for teaching on the road all the time. You really have to want it. I think that people who have poor interpersonal skills struggle with teaching on the road. I think that if people are wanting to be a bonsai professional, there’s a lot of specialization that could occur in America. We have the market. So, somebody that grows strictly princess persimmons or strictly styles trees, or strictly teaches beginner classes, I think those niches could be filled by specific people. The problem is getting there. I think we’re on the way.
BGP: I think that’s all we have time for today, but I really want to thank you for coming on to the Bonsai Garden Podcast.
Sure. Happy to do it. It’s a good idea. I like the focus.
BGP: Thanks, it was a real pleasure talking to you and it’s a really exciting story. There’s probably not one in a million people who have had that opportunity. I think it’s really outstanding.
Yes, I take it extremely seriously. I do crack jokes a lot, especially on the series, and I do a lot of things to make light, but that’s mainly to take the pretense out of bonsai. A lot of people get a little uptight about it but I think it’s important to keep things fun. So yeah, I definitely appreciate the opportunity that I have.
BGP: Yeah definitely. And thanks again for taking the time to give me a call.
No problem Gary, thanks.