On being a deshi in Shunka-en

A professional gardener, German Valentin Brose’s love of bonsai drew him to Japan to learn more about this fascinating art. So he decided to quit his job and went to work for famous Master, Kunio Kobayashi. He soon found out that life as a student is somewhat
different.

I was 11 years old when I saw a bonsai for the first time. It was at a rather unusual place: the Ludwigsburger Christmas market, near Stuttgart. I discovered it at a bonsai dealer’s pitch between sausage stands and hot wine punch — small trees that can be held in the hand! I was absolutely fascinated by this perfectly shaped microcosm. I was given a Ligustrum tree as a Christmas present and so my bonsai passion began.

While still at school, I built a large plant stand for a couple of bonsai that I had styled myself. Then, after leaving school, I was given an apprenticeship to become a gardener. I studied many bonsai books and magazines and my interest increased so that I wanted to learn even more about bonsai. I even often visited the Bonsai Club Mannheim, where I met people like Udo Fischer and Willy Benz and dreamt of becoming a professional bonsai artist. That is why I took the decision to go to Japan to study with a Master. On YouTube I found a video report about Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunkaen Bonsai Museum where I saw Peter Warren and Sandro Segneri. I planned to attend a 3 month workshop there.

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I used all my savings to pay for the flight ticket, the course fees and headed for Japan. After arriving in Japan, I had a two hour trek across Tokyo, a reallyenormous city, to Kunio Kobayashis garden.

As I entered I felt as ifI had set foot in another world. I had just driven past an ocean oftower blocks and now mere minutes later I stood in a forest of very old bonsai masterpieces. The trees I already knew from magazines were, in reality, even more impressive. I had never before seen such a perfect combination of bonsai, garden and traditional buildings with tokonomas. It was there that I began my 3 months’ workshop. After my scheduled three months was up I felt that I wanted to learn even more, so I decided that I would become a deshi (student).

 

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At work on a hot day

Life here in Japan is quite different from life in Europe. The mindset of the people, the language and the food are totally unlike ours. As a deshi you live in strict hierarchy with the family of the Masteras if you are a member of it. You eat together and you have to do almost all the chores. You mostly learn by watching, since hardly anybody explains and discusses things with you. As a deshi you don’t have any weekends to yourself; you are given only one day a month off.

As well as working on the trees, which can take us late into the evening or night, there are many other tasks to carry out. I have to guide visitors round the museum, give bonsai lessons for ‘Gaijins’ (foreigners) create exhibitions and tokonoma displays and besides this I also work in the shop. We have all kinds of visitors: the regular tourists as well as very rich bonsai and pot collectors.

The two important things a deshi has to learn are: ‘kikubari’ and respect. Kikubari means to be considerate, to anticipate a request before it is requested.

The order of rank is customer, Master, bonsai . . . and me.
Here’s a typical situation that can happen quite regularly:
It’s 11.30 pm and I’m already in my room. Suddenly someone is knocking at the door and my ‘Sempai’ (the deshi at the next level) shouts for me. I must come quickly because a dealer has arrived unexpectedly. We have to unload antique pots and bonsai. Master and dealer speak about the goods. I make tea and serve it, kneeling to show my respect to the dealer. After that I wait in the next room and observe the situation in case I am needed again. I continue to work in the workshop until the dealer goes home an hour later. Not until then can I return to my room again. It wasn’t easy the first time and my Japanese was not very good.

I have now been here for two years and I’m used to the life. Last year I wired a tree for the Kokufu-ten and recently my first official styling was featured in a magazine.

My worst mistake occurred at the beginning of my time at the Shunka-en. I had to repot a Juniperus chinensis (Shimpaku) and I cut off too many roots. The tree took a long time to recover. Since then I’m very careful when repotting junipers. I get great pleasure in working on an assortment of species, because I think that handling a big variety of bonsai makes the work that much more interesting. I especially prefer working on pines with very old bark and good needles.

Life as a deshi is hard. It’s rather like a bonsai, which has to be shaped. If the trunk can’t be bent, it will break, but my great passion for bonsai has made my time as a Deshi very good.

Text and photography: Valentin Brose