Bonsai: The Delicate Art of Japanese Miniature Trees

by Nana Young

Curious about bonsai? Here’s your chance to learn the basics of this artistic hobby and traditional Japanese art. This post covers everything related to bonsai, including its history, types, and cultural impact.


Japanese bonsai tree in Saitama, Japan

The term “bonsai” refers to both the Japanese art of growing miniature trees and the trees themselves. Bonsai, as a revered art form, is more spiritual than physical because it looks beyond the plant into the world surrounding it. Every meticulous detail about growing and caring for the dwarf trees is a significant part of the entire art form.

Bonsai tree sizes range from six inches to three feet. Shohin bonsai are the smallest type of bonsai and don’t grow more than 8 inches. Hence, you can hold them in one hand.

The concept of bonsai did not originate in Japan, like many believe. Rather, its historical roots come from ancient China. The act of cultivating ornamental plants to imitate actual gardens was already a big deal in China before the 7th century. It was called penjing and is the main inspiration for Japanese bonsai.

In terms of both the art form and the Japanese tree, bonsai first appeared in the 12th century. It was the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and Japan was actively adopting a variety of Chinese customs and traditions. The practice coincided with the growth of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and both concepts became intertwined to this day. However, “bonsai” wouldn't be used to describe miniature tree art until the 19th century.

After World War II, Bonsai became more accessible to a global audience. Books and magazines detailing procedures and plant species became rampant, making the art easier to practice irrespective of location. Today, bonsai is common in many households and at conventions and exhibitions around the world.  

What is Bonsai? Understanding the Japanese Tradition

Making of bonsai trees, Handmade accessories wire and scissor bonsai tools, stand of bonsai, Concept Bonsai tree.

Bonsai or "bon-sai,” is a Japanese term that literally translates to “planted in a container.” By definition, bonsai is the Japanese art of growing ornamental and artificially dwarfed trees in a container. These miniature trees are called bonsai trees. The art originated from penjing, the Chinese art of developing miniature trees.

Both penjing and bonsai involve similar concepts. However, there are significant differences between the two art forms. For one, the natural scenes created using penjing are much wilder than those of bonsai. Also, penjing has a wider range of designs and styles and may include elements such as rocks, figurines, miniature landscapes, and water elements. Bonsai’s main focus is on creating the trees, not the entire landscape. In the past, only societal elites owned bonsai trees. These trees were associated with Zen Buddhist principles of meditation, contemplation, and reflection.

According to those principles, the miniature trees should be grown to showcase balance, simplicity, and harmony. The artist must also connect with their natural environment while working on the bonsai tree. Hence, bonsai is arguably one of Japan’s most spiritual art forms.

History of Bonsai in Japan

Mini Bonsai In raining soft focus

Japan adopted their own version of Chinese miniature plant art in the 12th century, during the Kamakura period. Many believe it spread alongside Buddhism. However, the first ever record of bonsai in Japan is a picture scroll created in 1195. The scroll is known as “Saigyō Monogatari Emaki” and contains an illustration of a potted plant.

During the Edo period (1603–1867), bonsai cultivation and training were popular hobbies among the elite. There was an annual show at the end of this period that showcased pine dwarf-potted trees. This show proved to be a catalyst for the growth of the concept in Japan.

Bonsai would not truly spread to the Western region until the start of the 20th century. Expositions, woodblock prints, and traveller accounts all contributed to this increase in popularity on a global scale. In 1909, the first bonsai to appear in the West was displayed in London during a plant exhibition. In the late 20th century, bonsai’s popularity around the world continued to grow rapidly. Today, it’s considered a healthy hobby and a symbol of Japanese culture. The world bonsai convention receives over 100,000 visitors each year, thanks to the global popularity of the art form.

Types of Japanese Bonsai Trees

Bonsai trees with flowers white isolated panorama

The species of trees used for bonsai is responsible for its characteristics and the seasonal changes to expect. Below is a list of different types of bonsai trees commonly found in Japan:

  1. Pine: The pine tree is arguably the most common plant used for bonsai. It remains evergreen throughout the seasons and is easy to manage. The pine is a conifer tree or shrub with a cluster of two to five needles. The five-needle pine is called the Japanese White Pine.

  2. Japanese Maple: Despite its name, this species of maple originates from multiple countries, namely Japan, China, and Korea. The plant thrives in sunny and airy environments. Place it away from direct sunlight when temperatures are high and in a cold frame when temperatures are low.

  3. Cherry: This plant fairs better in temperate locations. Their flowers turn a brilliant pink or white in spring, and they produce sweet fruit in summer. Avoid placing cherry trees in freezing temperatures.

  4. Ficus: This is the go-to plant for bonsai beginners who prefer to keep their pot indoors. It loves sunlight and a constant temperature. The ficus bonsai is super easy to maintain.

  5. Juniper: This type of bonsai has a wide range of species. However, they’re all coniferous trees or shrubs with evergreen leaves. Their foliage can be either scale-like or needle-like.

Bonsai Techniques and Styles

Bonsai Techniques and Styles

The art of bonsai consists of a group of techniques for training and maintaining the plants and styles for showcasing them. Understanding these techniques and styles will put your knowledge level ahead of that of most beginners. Enjoy!

Bonsai Techniques

Ever wondered why bonsai trees don’t grow past a certain size or why they maintain the appearance of full-size trees? All of the answers and more lie in the following list of bonsai techniques:

  1. Pruning: This is the use of scissors or other sharp tools to manage the shape of the bonsai. The first pruning of a young bonsai will determine its basic shape. Pruning also helps to control the size of the plant without stunting its growth. 

  2. Wiring: This technique uses strategic wire attachments to cause branches and trunks to turn in any desired direction. The wires, which are typically made from aluminum or copper, are attached to bonsai trunks and branches. They help to customize turns and fix wrong curves.

  3. Grafting: This is the act of joining two plants together to create a new bonsai. It allows you to add branches and roots to the tree or replace foliage.

  4. Repotting: When the roots of a bonsai tree are overgrown, they can be replanted in new soil using the repotting technique. People do repotting for various reasons, especially to accommodate big trees or to switch to a more beautiful bonsai pot. 

Bonsai Styles

While bonsai encourages creativity, understanding the different styles helps guide beginners on how to train their trees. The following is a list of the major styles of bonsai:

  1. Formal upright (Chokkan): The formal upright style is common in both nature and bonsai. The tree trunk is thick at the bottom and becomes increasingly thin towards the top.

  2. Informal upright (Moyogi): This is similar to Chokkan, but the trunk grows in the shape of the letter “S.”

  3. Cascade (Kengai): This style has the tree grow downward, against its nature. In a natural setting, external forces like falling rocks are what cause trees to grow downward.

  4. Forest (Yose-ue): This is a composition of several trees planted in one pot. The biggest one is typically at the center and the smaller trees are planted around it.

Omiya Bonsai Village: A Bonsai Haven

:Bonsai tree in Japanese Omiya bonsai museum at bonsai village Saitama,Japan

If you’re looking for where to go in Japan to find different species and styles of bonsai, look no further than Omiya Bonsai Village. It’s a small neighborhood in Saitama City that many consider to be the most famous center for bonsai culture in Japan.

Omiya Bonsai Village was founded in 1925 because workers in the bonsai industry needed new homes after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Many of them relocated from central Tokyo to the new village. The district boasts several bonsai nurseries, a bonsai museum, and private houses with bonsai gardens. Visit the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum to learn about various styles of bonsai in the English language. The nurseries are the perfect place to view and buy bonsai. Don’t miss out on this bonsai paradise during your next visit to Japan.

Famous Bonsai Gardens in Japan

Bonsai tree in Japanese garden

Besides the Omiya Bonsai Village, bonsai gardens are fantastic places to see the art in its full glory. Below is a list of the best bonsai gardens in Japan.

  1. Shunkaen Bonsai Garden: Located in Tokyo, the Shunkaen Bonsai Garden is the private property of master Kunio Kobayashi. The garden houses one of the oldest pine trees in the country (1,000 years old). It also functions like a museum, as you’ll have a guide explain histories of the trees to you.

  2. Taikan Bonsai Garden: Owned by a top-tier bonsai master, Mr. Shinji Suzuki, the garden is home to some of the highest-quality bonsai trees in the world. Many of the bonsai trees are over a century old. The garden also contains two 200-year-old pine trees.

  3. Kimura’s Bonsai Garden: This garden is located in Saitama, close to the wonders of the Omiya Bonsai Village. Some of Kimura’s bonsai trees have won several awards and brought global acclaim to Japan’s bonsai industry. The two most successful trees are Toryu-no-Mai and Hinoki Ishizuki.

Caring for a Bonsai: Basic Guidelines

Bonsai tree Japanese nature art in beautiful garden background.

Here’s a beginner’s guide to bonsai basics and care requirements:

  1. Position your bonsai away from direct heat. It should be placed where it gets humidity and plenty of sunlight.

  2. Water your bonsai when the soil appears dry at the top.

  3. Carry out structural pruning when the tree is dormant.

  4. Include stones and volcanic rocks in your soil to improve drainage.

  5. Depending on growth rate, repot your tree once every 2 to 5 years.

  6. Juniper bonsai trees are perfect for beginners because they are easy to maintain.

Bonsai as a Cultural Symbol in Japan

Bonsai pine tree potted with white wall as background.

Bonsai art is a reflection of broader Japanese cultural themes like minimalism, harmony with nature, and mindfulness. Its connection to spirituality and Zen Buddhist ideals gives the practice some religious appeal. Natural beauty, balance, discipline, and respect for nature are also common themes associated with bonsai. The trees are used as decorations during Japanese tea ceremonies. However, they also symbolize the values of these ceremonies, especially peace, patience, and sacrifice.

Bonsai also features in popular media and literature, particularly anime, manga, and movies. For example, there are several references to bonsai trees in the Karate Kid and Cobra Kai movies and TV franchises. 

Bonsai Workshops and Learning Experiences

Health and wellness benefit from houseplants. A little boy gently trim to shape a small trees - bonsai.

Many of the gardens in Omiya Bonsai Village provide workshops and learning programs for tourists and bonsai enthusiasts. The program at the Omiya Bonsai Museum offers insights into the history and evolution of bonsai art in Japan. Many popular bonsai gardens, including Kimura’s Bonsai Garden, offer apprenticeship programs. They also provide classes for more refined enthusiasts and are responsible for training the best bonsai artists in the world.

Bonsai in Japanese Art and Exhibitions

beautiful bonsai tree, with some smoke effect.

Both outdoor and indoor bonsai are integrated into other forms of Japanese art. This makes sense, as they share the same principles as bonsai. For instance, minimalism is a core principle in both the approaches of ikebana (Japanese floral art) and bonsai. Also, the art of growing koi fish in Japanese gardens is based on the principle of natural beauty, and we can say the same for bonsai. 

Preserving the Tradition: Bonsai Today and Tomorrow

Japanese Juniper Bonsai Tree on Hand, Background in the garden.

By passing down their skills, techniques, and knowledge, bonsai masters hope to preserve the art for future generations. The trees are also lasting longer than ever, thanks to innovative techniques and organic chemicals that prevent ageing. Everybody can get access to bonsai plants these days, which has led to the enduring growth of the bonsai community. 


Bonsai plants that look beautiful from close range

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