Sneak Peek at Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk: Chapter 1

(This is the first chapter of my book about apprenticing in Japan.)

Two Apprentices

Tachi intrigued me from the start. Why was he studying bonsai? He was an eighteen-year-old Tokyo kid not yet weaned from bubblegum TV shows and doll-like Japanese pop stars, utterly clueless about trees. Tachi told me that on a high school field trip a friend had pointed at a mountain and said how beautiful it was, and he had shrugged and replied, “Okay.” Tachi was without any particular touchstone moment when nature itself became extraordinary or arresting. He simply loved bonsai, and had to learn to appreciate nature.

Tachi was lucky. While still young he had discovered that the best, most honest endeavors are those we get little encouragement to do. Ninety-eight percent of his former high school classmates had gone to college, to which, according to his accounting, they had herded each other as a result of mass indecision. He told me of the rising panic of his classmates finishing their third years in Tokyo universities, beginning in that last year to apply for jobs in companies where the majority of them would become salaryman, office workers, pushing paper in any job they could find. That would be their careers.

Tachi puzzled, “I worry about them. I wonder not only if they can find a job, but can actually work. Here I am learning a work ethic, I know what quality is, am being trained in business, and I will be my own boss. One of my friends said he was ‘just not looking forward to sitting behind a desk’—and I thought, ‘That seems a bit late in coming!’ I worry about my friends.” Bonsai was an admirable career choice for one who was not quite ready to forgo being a kid, choosing a path that was not pleasantly weedy but rather strewn with big, seriously intimidating boulders.

Tachi was not always so philosophical. For most of their time in college, his friends were having a blast: girlfriends, parties, freedom, and, in the style of Japanese colleges, very little studying. They had studied very hard to get in, and now in, they relaxed. Whatever the quality of the university they were in, the quality of their future jobs would follow suit. The hard work was over. In the years we apprenticed together, Tachi would often talk wistfully about all the fun he was missing.

Although both of us would many times think, and for different reasons, what Faustian deals we had made matriculating as bonsai apprentices, it slowly dawned on Tachi that eventually he was going to be the clear winner. He was beginning to suspect that a life with bonsai provides finer and finer views with time, and from calculating his friends’ future trajectory, he knew that the life of a salaryman never quite gets off the airstrip. And that was when he began to worry about his friends.

Still, he had five years to navigate those big boulders. Training to be a bonsai professional is, if not Faustian, at least a form of study utterly contrary to what one might expect from a contemplative art. Cell phones ring, often two at a time, people are running, yelling, and generally getting quite winded in the process of creating, maintaining, and selling bonsai. Particularly for the low ranking, apprentice life is only rarely peaceful, wholly devoid of free will, and mostly constructed of disorientation, emotional stress, and heavy lifting.

Irony seemed the substance of our lives. We studied beauty under a haze of stress. After a few unforgettable years, our hands became compassionate when we touched bonsai, because it was familiar to us. We became bonsai monks.

But Tachi and I did not know about that yet. We knew only that bonsai was the focus of our lives, and that this had brought us to study in the small town of Obuse in rural Nagano Prefecture under a young and talented master, Mr. Shinji Suzuki. Tachi was eighteen, and I was thirty-six, but he was my superior because he had arrived seven months before I did.

Tachi had come a short way—two hours by train—and I had come a long way—eleven hours by plane. I had vacated a decade-long vocation as a potter making containers for bonsai in the United States, which, while pleasant, had felt increasingly dissatisfying. Too frequently in those last few years I walked home after making pots in the studio and realized that I had been thinking about trees all day. I packed up this incomplete career, squirreled it away in a five-by-ten storage unit, and left for Japan.

Although our personal histories had little in common, Tachi and I were both apprentices, which meant we had more similarities than differences. We had minimal wardrobes and lived in small apartments with little to distract us. We also had arrived with complete sets of fingerprints—which over the next few months would fade away in the erosion of work along with other parts of our identities. And that was where we began.

For more about Post-Dated: The Schooling of an Irreverent Bonsai Monk

This chapter © copyright Michael Hagedorn 2008; please ask permission for its use! Thanks.

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