≡ Menu

How Bonsai Got Started?


I know only the tiniest bit about bonsai. But when I see trees growing out of rock, wind- and weather-shaped, I can’t help wondering if the inspiration came from high mountain trees like this. (Well, that and the ever-enticing concept of having a small world which you can shape and enter into entirely.) This tree, though huge by bonsai standards (a few feet tall), has a form and surroundings that bring to mind less-shaggy bonsai.

If I’m remembering rightly, Japanese culture has a spiritual and aesthetic reverence for things mountainous.

Including rocks. One my one visit to Japan, I visited one Shinto shrine which had a rock that was famous for curing respiratory diseases. (If you’re interested, I was exposed to a respiratory flu in Japan that lasted for six violent weeks when I got home. After it was over, my susceptibility to bronchitis did seem to taper off.) Buddhist and Shinto shrines always featured rock and plants, in one way or another.

Shinto is the indigenous spiritual practice of Japan; like most indigenous spirituality the world over, it concentrates on the cycles of nature. It was inspiring to me to be in a country where this type of worship had been respected, instead of systematically killed off as much as possible, as it was in Europe and the United States. Shinto seems to thrive along with the different sects of Buddhism, Christianity, and the other religions of Japan. People don’t seem to consider it exceptional to visit more than one kind of worship place; the religions aren’t in competition with each other.

While many Buddhist shrines had beautiful gardens,  I was most fascinated by the tiny plots of ritualized country that formed the Shinto shrines. There were so many of them in Tokyo, in amongst the skyscrapers and traffic noise.  At least one for every neighborhood, it seemed. With the help of an English-language guidebook, I walked to different ones each day and spent time sitting in them, listening to the sound of water from the bamboo fountain, watching suited businessmen come in for a quick prayer before going on with their day.

In my culture, religion is formally separated from nature (although a lot of gardeners heal that rift), a legacy of a time when nature, and those who understood its voices, were enemies of the church/state. In Japan, the connection between nature and spirituality seems to be a given. I can’t help feeling that anyone who has experienced time in nature knows that for truth.

I remember walking by a very small local shrine, a low fence enclosing a small triang


le of bare ground maybe ten square feet on a narrow city corner. I don’t know what kind of shrine it was, and since I had about ten words of Japanese, I couldn’t ask. My book didn’t  say.

I saw many dark rocks, smoothed by time, any carving or elaboration long since worn away. It gave me shivers. Ancient things do that for me. I feel somewhat the same way looking at Sierra granite, still holding on to the polishing glaciers gave it millenia ago.


{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond October 19, 2008, 3:09 pm

    Pomona, you do have the most interesting posts! I’ve always wanted to experiment with bonsai, more so after seeing some miniature maples that had been tended this way. (http://tinyurl.com/6fyw4r) I agree — it looks as if this pine could very well have been a bonsai project!

  • joco October 20, 2008, 2:35 am

    Hiya pb,

    Couldn’t help laughing at your account of the visit to the healing tree: you might have expected to be exposed to many germs in such a place with so many sick people gathered to find a cure.
    Sorry, very irreverent of me in such a serious post.

    The relationship nature – religion used to bother me. No more. I have always taken the outdoors to be my temple or church. And I stay away from architectural ones without feeling guilt any longer.

    The one thing nagging me is the phrase: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be.”
    Usually, I am on my own and can’t help wondering if in that case, I am not worthy of His attention.

  • Pomona Belvedere October 22, 2008, 3:58 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees the bonsai-ness of this tree! And I can understand being drawn by maple bonsais–I saw a tiny grove of them at Huntington Gardens, and I wanted to crawl in and live there.

    About the two or three: well, you see, in my opinion everything has a soul, so two or three might be a pebble, a lake, and me. Or just three pebbles.

    According to the germ theory, you’re quite right about the healing places…but as even Pasteur said, “The disease is nothing. The terrain is everything.” (Got out of that one nicely, didn’t I?)

    And as for irreverence…the older I get, the more I think unmalicious laughter is the best religion of all.

Leave a Comment