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The Nankodai Bonsai Exhibition

by Wesley-Keppel Henry

· Events,Art,Flowers

Impressive biannual bonsai and wild plant show hosted by local enthusiasts

Every spring and autumn, the local Nankodai Engei Aikokai (南光台園芸愛好会) horticultural club hosts a bonsai show in Sendai’s Izumi Ward. The exhibitions showcase three horticultural arts: bonsai, shohin bonsai, and sanyaso (native plants and wildflowers). Over the long Golden Week, I attended their spring exhibition, the “Haru no Sanyaso to Bonsai-ten” (春の「山野草と盆栽展」). It featured classic bonsai, as well as some kawaii and interactive twists on this centuries-old art form.

I was impressed by the variety and quality of specimens on display. In addition to traditional bonsai, adorably diminutive shohin bonsai (miniature bonsai) were also being exhibited. At this point you may be thinking, “Wait… miniature bonsai? Aren’t bonsai already miniature trees?” And yes, of course you’d be correct! If traditional bonsai are elegant miniature trees, shohin bonsai are their kawaii, super-mini counterparts—a relatively new style of bonsai that emerged during the Heisei era.

Shohin bonsai

The exhibitions are an opportunity for club members to display the bonsai and sanyaso they’ve cultivated to the public. As such, the atmosphere is casual and very welcoming. Members mill about the exhibition mingling with visitors, happy to answer questions no matter how basic. Longtime member and sanyaso horticulturalist Keizo Obara was kind enough to take me under his wing, showing me around the exhibition and introducing me to club members, including club president Shigeo Kubota. Mr. Kubota joined me in strolling the exhibit and showed me his bonsai, relatively large cedars, maples, and pines that embody the aesthetic ideals of the art form.

Fine bonsai can sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Given the prices such esteemed pieces can command, is growing them an expensive hobby? I ask. “Not at all,” replies Mr. Obara, “The most expensive thing is the pots.” It’s the time and care invested, not the money, that create beautiful, valuable bonsai.

Though the majority of Nankodai Engei Aikokai members are elderly and retired, a few are younger. One of the youngest is Naoki, a PE teacher in his twenties whose hobby is cultivating sanyaso. His were some of the most unique pieces at the exhibition. Two were fascinating historical recreations so intriguing that they were featured on NHK’s television program, Shumi no Engei (趣味の園芸).

One was a recreation of an Edo period game. A water-filled basin filled with small live clams was set beside a vase of delicate cut flowers. The object was to wedge the stem of a flower into the slit of a clam’s shell before it snapped shut, lift the clam out of the water, and deposit it in another bowl—an elegant predecessor of the Let’s Go Fishin’ board game. Visitors were invited to play, and it was delightfully fun!

Charlene tries to catch a clam with a flower stem
Success!

Though many young Japanese people think of bonsai as being a hobby for the elderly, Naoki notes that recently the booming interest in bonsai overseas has shown signs of changing that. “If (young people’s) interest in bonsai spreads back to Japan because of its popularity overseas, that would be good, wouldn’t it? It would be like reverse importation,” says Naoki.

Two Australian JETs, Charleen and Paul, had also come to the show. Although Charleen lives in Miyagi and is a fan of bonsai, it was her first time actually seeing any in Japan. “In foreign countries, whenever you go to horticulture show, you see bonsai on display. It’s nice to finally see some in Japan,” she remarks.

Aikokai member Naoki shows guests around the exhibition

In addition to the pieces on display at the exhibition, there is also a sales corner where club members sell sanayaso and bonsai they’ve cultivated and propagated to the general public. Prices were incredibly affordable, with small bonsai and sanyaso starting at just 400 yen.

The Nakodai Engei Aikokai looks forward to seeing you at their next event! Exhibitions held biannually, once in May and again in early October. The seasonal highlight of the May event is flowering plants; in October, it’s fruit-bearing bonsai and autumn foliage. Admission is free, and complimentary tea and sweets are available.

 
A woodland peony sanyaso

Event Information

Event name: Sanyaso to Bonsai-ten (山野草と盆栽展)

Hosted by: Nankodai Engei Aikokai (南光台園芸愛好会)

Dates: Every May and October (2019 dates: May 4–5 & October 5–6)

Admission: Free

Location: Nankodai Community Center (南光台コミュニティセンター)

Access by rail: 20-minute walk from Kuromatsu Station

Access by bus: From Sendai Station, board bus bound for Kencho Shiyakusho-mae~Tsurugaya Nanachome~Asahigaoka Eki (県庁市役所前〜鶴ヶ谷七丁目〜旭ヶ丘駅), alight at Nankodai Shogakko-mae (南光台小学校前). Destination is a 3-min. walk from the bus stop.

Contact: For information about the Nankodai Engei Aikokai club or their upcoming events, please contact club president Mr. Kubota at 090-9743-9615 (Japanese language only).

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