Bonsai master Kaori Yamada

On the day Kaori Yamada was born, a centuries-old ume bonsai in her father’s garden flowered for the first time in over a century. It has blossomed every spring since then. “It seems a little strange, but it came alive when I did, so I guess this tree and I are soul mates,” she said during a recent interview at Seikou-en, her bonsai nursery in Omiya, Saitama prefecture.

Her empathy for trees has served her well in her work as bonsai artist, teacher, television host, writer and face of a new generation of bonsai masters. Her weekly spot on NHK attracts a healthy viewership, and the school she runs out of her home and via correspondence is a quiet success, with a total of about 500 students.

Yamada seems a bit bemused at the way her life is going – she certainly didn’t expect it to turn out this way. She grew up surrounded by bonsai and steeped in the bonsai world in Omiya’s famous “bonsai town,” the only child of Tomio Yamada, a fourth-generation bonsai master. He was a serious artist and a strict disciplinarian, and their relationship was somewhat strained. Kaori turned her back on the bonsai world and left to study economics and marketing at Rikkyo University.

While on a sightseeing trip to France, she visited a flower garden in Nice and was struck not only by its beauty, but also by how different it was from the Japanese gardens she had grown up in. “The flowers were so beautiful and lush, and the beauty was so different from the simple and spare bonsai aesthetic,” she recalled.

The experience sparked a renewed interest in bonsai and motivated her to re-examine the family tradition. After one of her fellow students in a marketing class did an analysis of his family’s business, a funeral home, Yamada decided to do the same for her father’s bonsai nursery. She concluded that she could make a go of it. “Doing the market study made me realize the potential of the business.”

She decided to return to Omiya and carry on the family tradition. “I decided to see if I could develop the market and start a bonsai school. I would respect tradition but find my own space, develop my own way.”

In the thousand or so years that people have been cultivating bonsai in Japan, the techniques and aesthetics of the art have changed very little. Bonsai arrived from China in the Kamakura period and flourished through the Edo period until the present day. It found favor with the gentry, rich merchants and others with the time, the inclination and the space to pursue the demanding art. Maintaining a proper bonsai garden was – and still is – a form of conspicuous consumption. The Yamadas have been bonsai masters for five generations (including Kaori), and have maintained their nursery since 1853.

The original bonsai village was in the Hongo area of Tokyo, but the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the fires that devastated the city afterward, as well as the growing urbanization of the area, convinced the community that it was time to transplant themselves out of the city. So in 1925 the bonsai masters moved out, picking Omiya for its good soil and air and healthy distance from Tokyo.

Kaori is something of a pioneer in the bonsai world. For one thing, she is a woman, pursuing an art form that has been predominantly male for centuries, and her art is a departure from the older styles, though she tries to stay true to the traditional forms and techniques. Her works have soft, distinctly feminine lines, and she eschews the traditional one-pot-one-tree aesthetic. She incorporates non-traditional species such as bamboo in her works. She especially favors a picturesque style called yosu ue (gathering, or forest), in which two or more species of tree live together in the same pot and form a tiny world, almost like a diorama.

“With my style, I’m trying to develop a new genre, with a woman’s sensibility,” she said. “In the traditional style, the shape is high and the energy is gacchiri, strong. In my work the focus is lower, down in the grass, and it can have elements of namakimichi (tree-lined boulevard) and bokke (mountains receding into the distance). The old style has one tree; my style can have many.”

Her works have received a mixed reception in the bonsai world. “Most old-school artists don’t even consider my style bonsai,” she said.

But the criticism doesn’t diminish her appeal, or the popularity of her school or her television show. Most of her students and the viewers of the show are younger women – today 90 percent of people taking up the art are women, Yamada said. And by developing this new cohort of bonsai aficionados, she is helping to boost the popularity of the art.

Anyone can do it, though it takes commitment and time to master – an old adage goes, “The art of watering takes three years to learn.” Yamada’s bonsai course takes five years.

“You need ei kokoro, artistic sense and a certain amount of creative imagination; you have to imagine the tree years down the road. You also have to have a love of natural things and a lot of patience,” she said. “If you feel it’s a bother, you can’t do bonsai.”

For her own art, she finds inspiration in beautiful places (Nikko, Karuizawa and Oze are personal favorites) and in the work of those who have gone before her.

She took us on a tour of her nursery and it occurred to us that the nursery over which she presides is like a living museum of bonsai art. Asked about how the trees have changed over the years, Yamada did something probably not many people can do – she pulled an encyclopedia of classic bonsai off a shelf in her office and walked through her backyard, pointing out various trees and matching them to 50-year-old photos in the book. The trees had changed to varying degrees, but all were recognizable and distinctive.

Some of her trees are hundreds of years old, and some are world-famous. One tree, a gnarled and distorted shinpaku juniper, is 800 years old and dates (as a bonsai) from the early Meiji period. The finest of the lot, her “family tree,” as she calls it, is a magnificent 300-year-old matsu (white pine) started by her great-grandfather.

Graceful and serene, Yamada moved among the potted trees with practiced ease, plucking a stray bud here, a fallen leaf there. “The trees talk to me,” she said, only partly metaphorically. “These are my sempai (elders). We grew up together. They talk to me, tell me how to live. Their ki, their life force, affects me, I can feel it.”

One bonsai she showed us, one of her own yosu ue that she said was her favorite, was tiny, and only about seven years old. She mused that she’d have to monitor it over the next few decades to see how it develops.

“Like all bonsai, you have to look at the long term with yosu ue,” she said. “You have to be selective and pick species that will live together. You have to understand the trees.”

268 Bonsai-cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel. 048-663-3991, e-mail:, web:

Fuyo-en, 96 Bonsai-cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-666-2400. This bonsai estate owns a collection based on deciduous trees.

Shouto-en, 90 Bonsai-cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-652-1033. Specializes in selling bonsai tools (scissors, pots etc).

Mansei-en, 285 Bonsai-cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-663-3991. A garden in which you can find wild mountain plants and artistic bonsai pieces.

Kyuka-en, 131 Bonsai-cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-663-0423. The owner of this garden is good at nurturing creative bonsai pieces. Original tools are also sold here.

Tojyu-en, 247 Bonsai- cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-663-3899. Specializes in making middle-class but elegant bonsai trees.

Ryuho-en, 236 Bonsai- cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-663-2267. Specializes in natural bonsai with minimum human interference.

Fukushima-en, 1515 Toro-cho, Omiya, Saitama, tel: 048-663-2400. Features bonsai, mainly on azalea, which can easily be grown at home.

Story by Robert Cameron
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2006