Bunjin Part II—Building On Weird

From our previous post in this bunjin series, John Naka suggests bunjin is a poetic form of bonsai. If we agree with this, then we can agree that herd approval won’t be there. Poetry annoys too many. The crowd pleasers are the chunky thick-trunked trees, the Marvel films. Trees and movies we can understand.

The problem that besets the bunjin-curious is that we’re often on our own.

I’d felt lucky that Mr. Suzuki was in love with bunjin, and had many in his garden when I was there. A good place to study them. They aren’t easy isn’t to talk about, though.

Mr. Suzuki taught me and my sempai Tachi by appreciating one tree over another. He’d point out the good points of one tree, and dismiss those of another.

I thought we’d do the same here. I’ll show a few bunjin, and discuss their positive and negative attributes. The following are three bunjin, followed by comments.




All these are pines. All are old. The first bunjin in this set is the best of the three, an award-winning tree from Japan. It has an awkward balance with an unexpected trunk line, especially near the top. The one in the middle is the least good bunjin, mostly on the error of looking a lot like a bonsai. The line of the trunk feels wired and has a “pleasing, polite” movement. It’s a bit too sweet. The last tree has the least movement of the three, but isn’t a bad bunjin. It feels wild, blunt, untamed. Even the branches carry an irascible dignity.

Notice the round crowns on all of these. The last one has a broad crown. Normally a thin-trunked tree has a narrow crown, still rounded, but small. In bunjin this isn’t always so, as great age is such a crucial feature of them, and as trees age their crowns broaden. So while a broad crown is out of step with a thin-trunked tree, it is in step with a bunjin.

We are left with one of the contradictions of bunjin: a thin-trunked tree with a broad crown. A hint—beyond bark—that our skinny tree is really old.

This is part of a series on bunjin, the first is here.

August 2022 Bulletin Board

  • Book Signing at the Pacific Bonsai Expo! If you’ve not yet got your copy of Post-Dated (a memoir about my apprenticeship) or Bonsai Heresy (an offbeat educational guide to bonsai), visit my booth at the show. Buy a copy for a friend in desperate need of a bonsai book (we all have such deficient friends). I’ll be there both days, November 12-13, 2022 in Oakland, CA. Happy to chat bonsai, too! Bring your puzzlements, predicaments, triumphs. See some cool trees, chat bonsai, run home with books—what could be better?
  • Have September 24-25th free? Join us for the unbearably popular Seasonal-lite series! Our fall program caps the 2022 season, covering conifer and deciduous fall techniques, a deep dive into design  (including 4 traps to avoid), fine tuning your foliage pads, winter care, and much more. We’ve had folks from all over the world join us for these sessions—a few brave Australians have obliterated their early morning hours…definitely easier for our European participants… For more info please look here, and to reserve a spot, send me an email at crataegusbonsai@gmail.com

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  1. RAY NORRIS says:

    Thank you Michael for pointing out characteristics of bunjin. It is confusing sometimes when styling to get carried away from what a bunjin truly looks like.
    When I water and inspect my trees I’m always looking towards the continuing design development.
    Thanks for posting

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. vennfootwear says:

    This is great.

         MARK BRITTON  www.markbrittondesign.com MarkBrittonDesign@Gmail.com          +1.949.566.3518
  3. Eduard Novotný says:

    Super zhodnotenie bunjin.

  4. Em says:

    been listening to Bonsai Wire podcast. great to see your site.

  5. I think that Bunjin is the most challenging style in Bonsai and when done well it is one of the most meaningful ones in my humble opinion! Thanks for your so well-explained article!
    Hans van Meer.

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