As happens with many hobbyists new to bonsai, I began with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy, quickly entering a “plant acquisition” phase. I purchased plants left and right more concerned with quantity rather than quality. And while I had amassed a sizable collection of plants, I did little to improve them. Another factor fueling this plant acquisition was my misplaced belief that having more plants in my collection somehow translated to an advanced practice of bonsai. Fundamentally my hesitation to work on the plants arose from not knowing where and how to begin. To solve this I purchased numerous books on bonsai and scoured the internet for any guidance or tips. Paradoxically, I found that most of the information available was incomplete, inconsistent or contradictory. At some point I came to grips with the reality that my approach was not only unfocused, but I simply did not possess sufficient knowledge to maintain and style the plants as bonsai.
With this newfound realization in mind, I joined a local bonsai club as a way to interact within the bonsai community and hopefully learn more about the plants I had collected. What I didn’t expect were inter-club politics and the lack of organized, useful information helpful to me as a new bonsai hobbyist. Worse still, the environment I encountered not only lacked useful information but also seemed to discourage questions or opinions from people new to the club or new to bonsai. Fortunately for me, out of this unpleasant experience arose a chance encounter with an incredibly generous person who belonged to another bonsai club. As it turned out that other bonsai club focused solely on satsuki azaleas. I had an azalea. Heck, why not join that club as well?
In joining Bay Area Satsuki Aikokai, I found the club’s environment to be much friendlier and more open-minded with information presented being directly relevant to an azalea's needs. Now that’s what I’m talking about! As a member of BASA I also experienced my first show consisting purely of satsuki azaleas. It was un-bee-lievable! As with many photographic subjects, pictures of satsuki in flower simply do them no justice. Seeing these spectacular plants in person instantly changed my bonsai focus. After that first show I was hooked on satsuki! Then, as fate would have it, a school dedicated to the development and cultivation of satsuki bonsai was about to open. My bonsai life was at the precipice of a dramatic and positive change.
The El Dorado School of Satsuki Bonsai was a facility located in Placerville, CA. Its intent was to sell satsuki imported from Japan while conducting classes, taught by a Japanese master, focused on the care and cultivation of satsuki bonsai. I was fortunate to be a member of the first class taught by Gondo Tatemori at El Dorado Bonsai.
The information and insight Gondo-san shared about satsuki azaleas was unprecedented. Never before had I been exposed to such comprehensive and organized instruction on a bonsai subject. The sessions were comprised of classroom instruction, discussion, and hands-on work with our own trees. This allowed principles and techniques taught in class to be applied directly to our trees. As a dry sponge absorbs water, I voraciously drank in the wealth of information presented each and every class. And, as a complement to this wonderful instruction, the satsuki available for purchase were outstanding.
When visiting El Dorado for a class, prior to its start I would conduct a leisurely examination of all benches where satsuki were placed. I would often arrive 1.5 to 2 hours early just to enjoy viewing these trees. Sometimes there would be new arrivals in the greenhouse that were either recently repotted or just unpacked, bare root, awaiting the repotting process. For any avid satsuki fan, the feeling of wonderment and discovery at seeing the new arrivals was much like the sensation of being a hungry child stepping in to a well-stocked candy store. Still, there was another dimension to the overall experience that was both magnetic and enthralling, benefitting me in ways I could never have anticipated.
During Gondo-san’s engaging lectures he would often recount experiences or stories from Japanese life to illustrate various points. Through these intricate allegories we were offered unique glimpses into the thoughts, traditions and sense of humor of the Japanese people. Better still, there were many times Gondo-san and I would examine various satsuki together where he pointed out the subtleties of each individual plant. Best of all, Gondo-san and I sometimes walked the property discussing what is appealing about trees in nature and how that influenced bonsai style. Through these one-on-one interactions I gained an in-depth exposure to the Japanese culture and aesthetic I had never before experienced.
After successfully testing to become certified in satsuki instruction at the end of a 3-year program, I continued taking classes at the school to further my knowledge. When Gondo-san was unable to continue teaching at El Dorado, the satsuki master who taught him, Nakayama Suisho, stepped up and visited the U.S. several times in order to provide instruction. Sadly, the El Dorado School of Satsuki Bonsai eventually closed.
What now? At this point I realized that for all I had learned about satsuki, much more remained unknown. How was I to continue my journey? Once again Nakayama sensei offered a solution to the problem at hand. He generously extended an offer to some of Gondo-san’s students to continue their studies with him in Japan. From that time in 2004 when the offer was made, I have continued my studies with Nakayama-sensei by making several trips to Japan each year. To this day, I remain the only student from that first class at El Dorado Bonsai to extend my education on satsuki bonsai with Nakayama-san.
I have enjoyed many wonderful experiences since that first visit to Japan. These experiences have been invaluable both in furthering my understanding of satsuki bonsai and by helping acquire a deeper exposure to, and appreciation of, the Japanese culture. I have fond memories of expansive conversations with Nakayama-san explaining interesting facets and subtleties comprising the fine art of satsuki bonsai. These conversations take place not only during the day while working together, but sometimes at the end of a long day when, walking out the door, a casual comment about the color of a pot yields an hours-long discussion on glazes, clay, pot shape, feet styles, and more. Sometimes a topic arises over dinner that sheds light on other questions I may have had, but did not consciously realize. Here is revealed one of Nakayama-san's greatest talents: the ability to give such crystal clear and detailed explanations effectively unifying all he has been teaching me over the preceding discussions. I often scramble back to my hotel room to feverishly record notes in order not to forget those gems conveyed over dinner. There is never a time when my teacher is not teaching as long as I am willing to learn.
Since becoming interested in satsuki I have observed a significant number of satsuki bonsai, both in-person and via the Internet, that are owned and cared for outside of Japan. The most common and alarming observation is the unhealthy condition of these plants. Too often these weak, poorly styled trees are offered for sale at exorbitant prices. Unfortunately, the only satsuki most bonsai hobbyists have been exposed to are these weak and poorly styled trees. Many hobbyists outside of Japan have no basis for comparison having never been exposed to healthy, well-designed trees. In speaking with other bonsai enthusiasts about satsuki care, or after reading care recommendations in books and on the Internet, it becomes clear that the majority of information exchanged about satsuki is deficient, outdated, or simply incorrect. Perhaps this explains the observation above regarding weak trees.
After beginning my study in Japan I have been fortunate to visit farms, nurseries and shows focused on satsuki azaleas. The vast difference in the appearance of healthy satsuki located in Japan compared to the weakened condition of most resident outside of Japan is striking. As a plant which is native to Japan, clearly the environment is an important factor in maintaining the plant's vigor. However, I have also observed weak and poorly-styled satsuki in Japan as well (though not nearly to the extent observed outside Japan). As you may guess, those with the best satsuki knowledge had the healthiest trees possessing the most interesting styles. This does suggest then that even in its native environment it is important to understand the characteristics and techniques unique to satsuki.
By their very nature plants used for bonsai have specific requirements around sun exposure, water needs, fertilization, styling, etc. Satsuki are no different. However, it seems as though this depth of knowledge about satsuki lacks outside of Japan. In addition to the numerous satsuki (outside of Japan) appearing weak and unhealthy, many die unexpectedly. This has yielded an unfortunate belief that satsuki are difficult to maintain when, in fact, quite the opposite is true. One can understand a person’s hesitation to purchasing a satsuki if there is a strong impression they are difficult to maintain and die easily, especially considering the high prices commanded by some of these trees.
If you've read this far then you certainly deserve to see our philosophy. So, here it goes...
We believe that high-quality products can be offered at reasonable prices and information about satsuki can be taught in a respectful, thoughtful and organized manner. Above all, it should be fun!
Merriam-Webster defines recreation as “refreshment of strength and spirits after work”, or “means of refreshment or diversion: hobby”. Bonsai, or in our case satsuki bonsai, is a recreational pursuit. If you do not enjoy, gain satisfaction from, or eagerly anticipate working with your satsuki bonsai then you will cease to pursue this recreational activity. We maintain that your enjoyment and level of satisfaction grow in direct proportion to the amount of success you experience with your trees. If you begin with poorly styled and weak trees, your ability to be successful in satsuki bonsai is severely limited. Therefore, our success as a business is directly related to your success as a satsuki bonsai enthusiast. We will provide high-quality, healthy trees with interesting styles offered at reasonable prices. Please do compare our trees with other businesses that also sell satsuki. If you find a better tree for a more reasonable price somewhere else, buy it there.
Like you, we are passionate about satsuki bonsai. We truly hope to share our enthusiasm for this beautiful art as well as our deep appreciation for the Japanese culture from where it originated.