Learn the art and craft of bonsai in a Japanese neighborhood dedicated to them

This 500-year-old pine tree is the pride of the courtyard of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama Prefecture, Japan. (Joseph Ditzler/Stars and Stripes)

Bonsai are a wonder of nature bent by the hand of man.

But before your love for these living works of art prompts you to shell out a few yen and take one or three home, take note. This small living being looks more like a pet than a plant; cared for properly, it will grow into a great living thing and outlive you. By a long shot.

For a crash course in the history, nomenclature, and sheer beauty of bonsai, a trip to Omiya Bonsai Village in Saitama Prefecture, just north of central Tokyo, should be first on the bucket list.

The village is the historic remnant of what were once around 30 bonsai gardeners who moved their nurseries from overcrowded Tokyo to a neighborhood in Omiya after the 1923 earthquake leveled much of the capital.

Today, only six of the many original gardens remain, along with the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in the same neighborhood. The museum is a convenient starting point for a walk through the remaining gardens and nurseries.

Admission is only $2.40 and includes explanatory brochures in English. The exhibits are also signed in English. The tour begins with a short walk through a gallery that explains the two basic types and many styles of bonsai and the terminology that goes with their creation.

At the end of your visit, you will know a shohaku from a zoki and a moyo-gi from a yose-ue.

Row upon row of various shapes and varieties of bonsai trees wait to be inspected at a nursery just outside the bonsai district in Omiya, Japan.

Row upon row of various shapes and varieties of bonsai trees wait to be inspected at a nursery just outside the bonsai district in Omiya, Japan. (Joseph Ditzler/Stars and Stripes)

Next, a short hallway deconstructs the specific way bonsai trees are properly displayed, according to Japanese custom. A third gallery features exhibits on the history of bonsai trees and how their styles and displays have changed since their origins centuries ago.

This all leads to the courtyard, where around 70 pots are on display. Some of Japan’s best and most impressive examples of bonsai can be found here.

The display changes according to the seasons. A visit in April found an 800-year-old juniper; another elder, the Blue Dragon, a giant evergreen whose twisting trunk and mane-like needles suggest its namesake; and the 500-year-old pride of the garden, a glorious pine that epitomizes the craft. Plants are available from the nursery located on the grounds behind the museum.

The serpentine trunk, gaping branches and bristling needles of a century-old bonsai tree in the Omiya Bonsai <a class=Art Museum suggest a mythical beast.”/>

The serpentine trunk, gaping branches and bristling needles of a century-old bonsai tree in the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum suggest a mythical beast. (Joseph Ditzler/Stars and Stripes)

The trip is not complete without a walking tour of the remaining private gardens nearby. Placarded maps are erected along the street in the village area and guides are available at the museum. Most of them charge entry and have their own stalls, as well as a nursery with plants for sale. One of the sites is an old Japanese-style house converted into a place to rest and drink.

I ended my visit at Fuyoen, a nursery near Omiya-koen Station, where row after row of plants are lined up for inspection. Many were mature trees, but one section was filled with “starter kits,” smaller trees that sold for as little as 20,000 yen, cash only, the keeper said. It’s not a small investment and I’m not talking about the yen.

Young bonsai are for sale at a large nursery in Omiya, Japan.

Young bonsai are for sale at a large nursery in Omiya, Japan. (Joseph Ditzler/Stars and Stripes)

Bonsai must be repotted because their roots protrude beyond their pots. Cutting roots and branches neatly but aesthetically is part of the responsibility. A host of accessories are also needed, from secateurs to specially designed watering cans.

Also keep in mind that the bonsai you buy in Japan probably won’t come back with you to the United States. United States Department of Agriculture regulations generally prohibit the importation of bonsai trees due to the risk of undesirable organisms in their soil.

So go to Omiya, enjoy the visit and take lots of pictures.

This anthropomorphic bonsai cherry tree stands in the courtyard of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

This anthropomorphic bonsai cherry tree stands in the courtyard of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama Prefecture, Japan. (Joseph Ditzler/Stars and Stripes)

ON THE QT

Location: Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, 2−24−3 Saitama, Kita Ward, Torocho 331-0804

Directions: By train on the Shonan-Shinjuku Line from Shinjuku to Toro Station and a 10-minute walk from there. Bonsai Village Nurseries start less than 10 minutes from the museum. For motorists, set your directional devices to the Independent Human Resource Development Center, Saitama City, Kita Ward, Toro-chou, 2-24-1, which will guide you to the building next to the museum. Parking is available behind the museum.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., March to October; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., November to February. Last admission is 30 minutes before closing. Closed on Thursday.

Costs: admission 310 yen; receptionists can speak english

Food: Many restaurants to choose from along the street near Omiya-koen station, where the walk will take you.

Information: 048-780-2091; www.bonsai-art-museum.jp/en/access/

About Margaret L. Portillo

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