Bonsai in Kyoto

Every autumn, a fantastic even is held in Kyoto at the Miyako Messe Exhibition Hall. There a number of professional bonsai shows in Japan throughout the year, but the Kyoto Taikan-ken Bonsai Exhibition is said to be one of the largest of it's kind in the world. This was the 35th annual exhibition, and the third year that I've attended. As always, the tiny trees on display did not disappoint!

Bonsai is all about growing growing small trees that mimic their full sized cousins in shape and style. Check out this infographic for some basic insight on the history and types of trees. Personally, my favorite ones are the forest displays. Those seem to be the best examples of capturing natural settings on a tiny scale.

Here are a some of the trees that I saw at this year's Taikan-ken. Can you recognize some of the tree shapes from the infographic linked above?


In January, another bonsai event occurs in Kyoto, but this time all the trees are even smaller (if you can believe it). This is the Gaku-ken Exhibition, and this is limited to trees in the Shohin (under 25cm) and Mame (under 10cm) categories. As much as I love the bigger trees, these Shohin bonsai are where it's really at. This is where the artistry of bonsai experts truly shines, and some of these trees have to be seen to be believed. The Gaku-ken is the largest gathering of Shohin bonsia masters in the world!

Here's a video I made at the Gaku-ken earlier this year. As you'll see, we're talking about some seriously tiny trees here. Check out those little bonsai sitting a 50-yen coin... those trees are the size of a grain of rice! Unbelievable...


But here's a twist... you thought bonsai was all about trees, didn't you? There's another element to the mystique of bonsai, and it's called suiseki, or "viewing stones." Here's what has to say about these interesting stones:


"Suiseki are small, naturally formed stones admired for their beauty and for their power to suggest a scene from nature or an object closely associated with nature. Among the most popular types of suiseki are those that suggest a distant mountain, a waterfall, an island, a thatched hut, or an animal. They represent nature in the palm of your hand.

Collected in the wild, on mountains and in streambeds, and then displayed in their natural state, these stones are objects of great beauty. Explained in a simple way, the suiseki is the comprehension and the appreciation of nature through a stone, resulting from nature."


Pretty cool, huh? I didn't know about suiseki until I started attending these bonsai exhibits, but now I always keep my eyes open for them when admiring bonsai. Some of them are extremely eye-catching, and it's easy to see why they're so sought after.

Suiseki are never altered or polished, except when they are cut along a straight edge to lay the rock flat on a base. The bases are usually thin wood that's been carved to match the shape of the stone, but sometimes they can be ceramic or stone bases as well. Once in a while, you'll see a suiseki that's been placed in a container of gravel or sand, and these are my favorites. They are instantly recognizable as islands raising from the sea, or cliffs jutting out over waves. Truly remarkable little landscapes from a single stone.


The two Kyoto bonsai exhibits also feature the largest seasonal bonsai markets in Japan. Every year I tell myself I shouldn't buy another tree or two, but you know how that goes...

There are many other bonsai events throughout Japan during the year, but if you want to see some world class bonsai artistry, Kyoto is the place to be. If one of these bonsai exhibitions is happening when you're in Kyoto, contact us at KyoTours and we can arrange a bonsai viewing and shopping experience for you!

See you in Kyoto!