Japan, home to the world’s most beautiful Bonsai trees, is a place to have visited at least once in a lifetime. The quality (and quantity) of Bonsai trees, Japanese gardens and other cultural sites is simply overwhelming.
The Kanto area (greater Tokyo region) is home to the most famous Japanese Bonsai nurseries, while Kyoto houses the most impressive Japanese gardens and other cultural sites. Personal highlights included visits to Suzuki, Kimura, Omiya, the top-three Japanese gardens and the uncountable number of superb Kyoto gardens. If time permits, schedule a visit to Kinashi Bonsai village as well. Some non-Bonsai related highlights included attending a Sumo tournament day, indulging on some of the best food in the world, making a trip to the wonderful Shikoku island and skiing in the Japanese Alps. A Bonsai holiday to Japan will very likely result in new personal interests, like gardens, Suiseki, Ikebana, Manga, etc!
Most organized Bonsai tours to Japan depart early February, for the one reason to coincide with the famous Kokufu-ten Bonsai exhibition. The warmer and climatically more stable seasons of spring and autumn are much better times to visit Japan though. When visiting in spring, make sure your trip coincides with Shunga-ten (Shohin exhibition Osaka, late March) and the cherry blossoms (late March/early April). For the most intense autumn colors, visit in November, possibly coinciding with the Shuga-ten (Shohin exhibition Tokyo, early November) or Taikan-ten (Bonsai exhibition Kyoto, mid November).
Other main Bonsai exhibitions in Japan include the Gafu-ten (largest Shohin exhibition, Kyoto early January), Koju-ten (main Satsuki tree exhibit, Kanuma early January), Sogo-ten (Suiseki exhibit, Tokyo late March) and the Satsuki festival (Satsuki trees, Tokyo early June).
The main Bonsai sights in Japan include the Bonsai villages in Omiya and Takamatsu (Kinashi), the gardens owned by mr. Kimura and mr. Suzuki, Osaka based Fujikawa Kouka-en, the Kyoto based Koju-en Shohin nursery, several famous Bonsai exhibitions and Kunio Kobayashi’s Shunkaen Bonsai museum in Tokyo.
Japan’s top three gardens are Kairakuen (Mito), Kenrokuen (Kanazawa) and Korakuen (Okayama). Kyoto offers many stunning gardens, including Ginkakuji, Kennin-ji, Daisen-in, Koto-in, Ryogen-in, Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji and Ninna-ji. Finally, Ritsurin garden in Takamatsu is worth going when visiting Kinashi Bonsai village.
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Omiya has been an old time favorite destination for Bonsai enthusiasts travelling into Japan. The village is a pleasant neighborhood in Omiya (a suburb of Tokyo) that hosts about a dozen top Bon-sai nurseries. The gardens can be visited on a daytrip from Tokyo, but make sure you arrive early to have the place for yourself. Please note most gardens are closed on Thursdays.
The Taikan Bonsai museum is owned by Mr. Shinji Suzuki and is an absolutely stunning place. In my humble opinion its the best looking Bonsai garden in Japan and the museum is very well laid out. The masterpiece Bonsai trees are displayed spaciously and very orderly, giving visitors the opportunity to appreciate the trees from all sides.
Shunka-en is the Bonsai garden and museum set up by Bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi (three times winner of the Prime Ministers Award, the most prestigious price to be won in Japan). The garden is an absolute highlight and should not be missed. When entering the garden the first thing you are likely to note is the stunning 1000 year old pine tree in front of the house, the masterpiece of Mr. Kobayashi’s collection. Inside the house several tokonoma are set up and a large collection of books and antique Chinese pots and tables are displayed.
The Fujikawa Kouka-en garden is owned by Mr. Fujikawa and is located near Osaka, in the suburb of Ikeda. The nursery opened in 1950 and several of its trees entered in the Kokufu-ten in Tokyo since then. The garden is full of great masterpiece Bonsai trees and it is a working-place with several apprentices and students around. Fujikawa Koukaen is the shooting location for the "Bonsai Art of Japan" series, created by his apprentice, Bjorn Bjorholm.
Less famous, but many times larger than and perhaps almost as beautiful as Omiya, Kinashi is a very impressive sight and surely worth some time in your travel itinerary. The area has a history of growing Bonsai for over 250 years and it has an 80% share in the domestic market of pine trees. About a hundred nurseries are located here, of which about a dozen can be considered high-end (training high quality trees). Many large fields of young nursery plants are grown in the area too, making the entire neighborhood feel like heaven on earth.
Kojuen has a large collection of superb Shohin trees, both deciduous and coniferous, beautifully displayed in an Kyoto-urban garden setting. Owned by Tomohiro Masumi (one of the most respected and well-known Shohin masters in Japan) and his son, this nursery is very centrally located near Toji temple. Bonsai classes (on Bonsai and Shohin care) are offered every 4th Sunday of the month.
上野グリーンクラブ & 日本盆栽協会
The Ueno Green Club is located at the west part of Ueno Park and is home to several Bonsai shops offering trees, tools and pots. Most stands only open during weekends and the club gets crowded during the Spring Bonsai Festival (early February, scheduled part of Kokufu-ten) when over a hundred stands are set up. The area is closed on Wednesdays.
Right in the middle of the classic shopping district Ginza you will find this upmarket Bonsai store. Morimae Ginza showcases several beautiful trees and tokonoma displays. On the second floor there is a selection of a few antique pots, tools and two more tokonoma displays. The shop is rather small, but definitely worth visiting as you will probably make it to the Ginza district in Tokyo anyway.
One of Japan’s main Shohin exhibitions, Shunga-ten (春雅展) is a yearly event organized by the All Japan Shohin-Bonsai Association (AJSBA), held in Osaka in late March. Over a hundred displays are presented in a beautiful setting; inside the Mizu no Yakata dome (Flower Expo Memorial Park). There is no entrance fee, but participating in a workshop will cost between 1000-5000 Yen. Several merchants set up a stand in the sales corner, offering trees, tools and pots. Taking pictures of the displays is strictly forbidden; I was only allowed to take a few overview shots for this guide.
Throughout the year several Bonsai, Shohin and Suiseki Exhibitions are held in Japan. By far the most important exhibition is the Kokufu-Ten, where the highest quality Bonsai trees of Japan are displayed. The exhibition is held in Kyoto in February. For Shohin lovers the most important show is the Gafu-Ten, also held in Kyoto in January.
Kyoto is absolutely packed with fine Japanese gardens, needless to say a must visit in any Japan itinerary. The gardens, often part of temples or old imperial retreats, are spread around the city (with the exception of Daitoku-ji, which is a large complex housing several temples). Unfortunately, most gardens get crowded on afternoons, especially in the weekends. The gardens are particularly beautiful in November, with the colorful autumn colors. Rent a bike to get around easily.
Kairakuen (literally ‘the garden to enjoy with people’) is one of Japan’s top three gardens. Its location close to Tokyo makes for a worthwhile daytrip. The garden is over 18 acres big and houses a large plum tree area (blooming early March), a gorgeous three-storey pavilion (Kobun-tei) and several small lakes. To enjoy the garden most visit it in the morning (to beat the crowds that arrive by the busload) on a sunny day.
A former castle garden, Kenrokuen dates back from the 17th century and is rated one of Japan’s top three gardens. The name means ‘combined six’, referring to the six attributes of perfection (seclusion, artificiality, spaciousness, antiquity, abundant water and broad views). Inside the park make sure to enjoy a tea ceremony in the beautiful museum-like pavilion, Seison-kaku.
Located on the slopes of Mt Shiun, Ritsurin-koen (栗林公園) is astonishingly beautiful. It dates back to the 17th century, built for the feudal lord of Sanuki. The park houses several lakes, islands, bridges and teahouses (of which Kikugetsu-tei offers a recommendable tea ceremony). The main lake/pond is filled with large Koi fish, which gather near bridges to be fed by tourists.