In early 2004, when my apprenticeship with Shinji Suzuki was only four months gone, a TV crew came to make a documentary on apprenticing in bonsai. They focused on the gaijin, me, and after a couple days of filming came up with this eight minute piece that ran on a local channel. Afterwards, quite a few people I had never met before came up and said ‘Hi Michael!’, which was disorienting to say the least.
The film gives glimpses of what an apprenticeship is like; and yet a few parts are endearingly inaccurate— such as me leaving the studio after work to go to a restaurant, which happened only rarely. I think they wanted to give the feeling that apprenticing is relatively human, which it is not, really.
It is mostly in Japanese, except for some short bits where I speak English. And then there are parts where I speak some Japanese, and, well, I had only just gotten there and wince when I hear myself using the wrong words, if with the right intention… It’s also really weird to see yourself on film.
I hope you enjoy it–
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Well, I finally got back there… and I brought quite a few photos back with me. So over the next couple of days I’ll run several posts about the week and a half spent at my teacher’s studio: the people, the nursery, the trees I worked on, even the monkeys.
Suzuki's main display greenhouse, showing the range of styles and species that he works with.
In the first week of my apprenticeship in 2003 there was a record-breaking snowfall. I remember shoveling for over five hours. Two years later it was repeated. Then five years went by---about the time I've been back in the States---and now, on the first day of my visit, they had the biggest snowfall in five years. Suzuki was calling me the 'snowman' by the end of my visit.
I love this photo for the inaccuracies it suggests. Suzuki-san is on the left, and is not quite as big as he appears, but he's closer to the camera. Larger than life indeed! Mika-san, his manager, is to the right of him. Matt Reel is the next inconsistency, as he's actually 6' 3" and usually towers over me. He's crouching, like that famous tiger. I'm on Matt's right. On the far right is Yusuke, the newest apprentice, who is making an impression of being serious, when he's mostly playful. It's a great shot after a group dinner.
This massive black pine (it's almost as high as the wall!) was one of the trees Suzuki gave me to work on. There was a huge change made with it... and I'll include other photos of this tree in a separate post. And I'll post some photos of two trees I worked on that were for the Kokufu show. And some other client's trees. I think I worked on about 12 or 13 trees in 9 days, lost track.
Once again, I went to the snow monkey hot springs, about an hour from Suzuki's studio. There were many more monkeys than the first trip in 2004, maybe because it was so darn cold more of them were at the hot springs. Taking the suggestion, I went to a human hot spring after that, and assumed a similar blissful demeanor.
Stay tuned for more posts! Lots of before and after bonsai photos, and more photos about each of the above topics.
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If you haven’t heard yet… Ryan Neil is now back in the States. Ryan studied six years with Kimura and his return home is certainly the major bonsai news of the year. I hope you will join me in applauding his achievement, and welcoming him home. And the best way you might do this is to bring him over to wherever you are—your club, your backyard, your convention—and congratulate him in person. And then have him show you a few things about bonsai.
I’ve been a fan of Ryan since we first met in Japan years ago. He is genuine, winning, and talented, and I am sure we are about to see a new era in Western bonsai.
Congratulations Ryan, welcome home.
With Ryan’s permission, I offer his email here for anyone who wishes to contact him directly:
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