Monday, September 23

Bonsai bonanza


Gardening was the focus of our final day in Japan. Nobody does horticulture as meticulously as the Japanese. We spent a morning visiting the satellite city of Omiya (not that you can tell where one urban district ends and another begins in Tokyo). The area is renowned for its bonsai culture. It origins can be traced back to the 1920s when a collection of nurseries  relocated from central Tokyo. 

We began our day at the Bonsai Art Museum. It's relatively new attraction, opening in 2010. The museum hosts exhibits on the art of Bonsai and displays some of the finest bonsai specimens you'll ever see in a large external courtyard. Perhaps the most surprising exhibit is the Zashiki Kazari room display. The Japanese have three unique room designs created for the sole purpose of displaying bonsai trees indoors. Who knew?

Unfortunately, the main courtyard was closed during our visit. We'd neglected to consider the impact of a typhoon forecast to sweep through Tokyo the following day. As result, when we arrived, staff were working feverishly to get the museum’s priceless specimens safely indoors. It was frustrating to find the museum’s main attraction off-limits.  We left the venue somewhat disappointed.

However, we need not have worried. Almost a dozen privately-owned bonsai nurseries are located within a few short blocks. Most open their doors to the public giving visitors an opportunity to view hundreds of outstanding trees up close.  The museum gave us a walking map of the neighbourhood.  We raised our umbrellas and set out to explore it.

By chance the first nursery we stopped at is the best in the district. The trees on display were simply breath-taking. Row after row of priceless specimens were available for us to wander by at leisure. We then stumbled upon a young American apprentice at work in a small shed. He was using a tiny pair of scissors to patiently trim last season's pine needles from a small, perfectly formed tree.

We peppered him with questions and he patiently explained everything he was doing.  It was fascinating to learn the intricacies of the bonsai art form and its traditions. We were shocked to learn that a typical apprenticeship lasted four years - and it's all unpaid.

After lunch we returned to our hotel. I’d intentionally booked our final night in Tokyo at the New Otani Hotel. It's built in the grounds of a former feudal palace. While the imperial buildings are long gone, the stunning palace gardens continue to be maintained.

The scale and elegance of the garden is truly breath-taking. Despite the passage of more than hundred years you can still cross carefully formed, carp-filled, ponds via a postcard-perfect vermillion bridge. Guests are then free to wander along wooded slopes, soak in the spray of a giant waterfall and ponder the meaning of elegantly pruned shrubs.  It was the perfect end to an incredible vacation

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