Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

Japan’s Natural Arts

Photo: Christopher Paquette on Flickr

Japan’s Natural Arts

Bjorn Koolen

The Japanese garden is one of careful design aiming to exquisitely mimic the ideal landscape in miniature form. For those of us who do not have a garden to enjoy, Japan's traditional natural art forms bonsai, kokedama and ikebana offer an alternative to connect nature with our homes.


Photo: Bjorn on Instagram


Bonsai is perhaps the most well-known natural art form as it has been featured many times in popular culture, such as the movies "Karate Kid” and "The Spy Who Loved Me". Bonsai literally means 'plantings in a tray' and originated from China where it was known as 'penjing' and was popular amongst Buddhist monks. The art of bonsai serves as a source of contemplation for the viewer while for the grower it serves to exercise effort and devotion. A common misconception is that bonsai are dwarfed trees, but in fact they are normal trees kept miniature by extensive pruning and wiring techniques. Many of the so-called bonsai you find in garden centers are dwarfed trees which have been genetically altered to restrain their growth.


Photo: Aaron Dykstra on Flickr

Growing a real bonsai yourself may seem fairly easy but looks are deceiving as for example too much pruning can harm the trees growth while being lazy with one's wiring will scar the tree beyond repair. A grower always has to keep in mind that the bonsai is a living plant and not a mere object. Through the creativity of growers and development of techniques, several styles of bonsai have emerged over the years. From those in an upright position, a downward cascade or even those who are to resemble driftwood, bonsai have taken many forms to achieve the resemblance of the ideal landscape in a tray.


Kokedama, or literally 'moss ball', is also known as the poor man's bonsai. The reason for this is that compared to bonsai kokedama is easier, and well cheaper. A kokedama is made by planting a sapling into a ball made of a mud mixture surrounded by moss which is held in place with strings. Apart from regular watering the kokedama generally does not require much pruning and no wiring at all. In recent years its popularity abroad has grown tremendously as it transferred from Japan to Europe and later to the United States. Like bonsai, kokedama has also developed over the years and contemporary styles whereby several plants are suspended by strings into so-called 'string gardens' call upon one's imagination of small floating islands.


Photo: Bjorn on Instagram 


The art of flower arrangement is one that truly deceives the eye as its minimalism often gets confused with simplicity. Ikebana is the arrangement of living flowers to resemble natural constructions made out of branches, leaves and blossoms. This principle of natural constructions comes forth from the Japanese aesthetics which one also observes in gardens, architecture and other designs. Through combining colors and shaping graceful lines in certain ways the arrangement aims to bridge one's home with nature rather than merely bringing nature into one's home.


Photo: Carlos Donderis on Flickr

Ikebana follows certain fundamental techniques which can be mastered through devoted training and practice. In our contemporary times flower arrangement is seen as a "feminine" activity, but ikebana on the other hand has always been studied by men and women alike. Even the famous samurai appreciated and studied the art in their pastime to rest their mind. Although there are many schools and common features amongst ikebana any plant may be used making it a very accessible pastime for anyone.