Bonsai Surviving Hiroshima

Everything has a story. How something got to where it is now. What transpired for something to be the way it is. When a confluence of events took place for something to be that something. Who were involved in the changes. And where things happened. These details and unique happenings come together and give something character. You don’t merely see a thing or a person. You see the experiences that molded them into becoming what they are now. And life, though inexplicably frustrating, is a great character builder. 

For today’s article, we are going to discover what awe-inspiring stories lie behind some of the most incredible bonsais around the world. So, sit back, relax, and prepare to be amazed. Also, grab some tissues while you’re at it. Because what you are about to read may or may not include thought-provoking and emotion-evoking stories…

Surviving Hiroshima

They do say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But what this bonsai did is much more than that. Not only did this white pine bonsai survive, but it lived and is still doing so after 390 years. 

On the morning of August 6, 1945, people residing in Hiroshima were definitely not expecting an atomic bomb for breakfast. About 15 minutes past 8 AM, bonsai master Masaru Yamaki was spending what was supposed to be a relaxing morning in his glass greenhouse. When the atomic bomb hit, shards of glass cut Yamaki’s face, and around 100 000 people dropped like flies. But fortunately enough, he and his family managed to survive, including the ancient white pine bonsai

Even before Hiroshima, the bonsai had already been passed from generation to generation and was more than 300 years of age. So, for it to live that long and survive Hiroshima, is a feat all on its own. Can you imagine witnessing world history unfolding as it happens? Well, this white pine bonsai surely can.

For 25 years, it has sat silently with its bright green leaves and 18 inches wide trunk among the bonsai collection of the Penjing Museum in Washington D.C. — its story untold and almost forgotten. Mainly because when Yamaki donated the bonsai in 1976, the only information that came with it was that it was 390 years old and that Yamaki himself looked after it.

The bonsai’s rich history was only revealed in 2001 when Yamaki’s grandchildren paid a visit to the museum searching for the bonsai they had heard about their whole lives. After sharing the story with the curator, the pine tree has since been called “the tree of peace.” It became a symbol of friendly relations between the two countries in the years following the Second World War.

And who knows how much more history the Yamaki Pine did witness. If only its leaves and bark could show us. What we are certain of, though, is that it is proof of strength and patience that human beings often lack. That an ancient little tree could withstand the chaos that humans bring upon each other. And that when all is said and done, that same miniature tree could forge the ties that no wars could ever accomplish.

Bonsai-napping at Federal Way 

All sorts of things happen all around the world all the time. This statement alone should not surprise us any more of the news we stumble upon. And yet, here we are rendered shocked by this bizarre story (Because who on earth steals bonsais? Apparently, the people who pulled it off in the Pacific Bonsai Museum).

Last February 9, 2020, museum curator Aarin Packard felt like he failed his job as a steward when he found out that two 75-year-old bonsais were stolen from the collection at Federal Way. The thieves stole a Japanese Black Pine that came from the Bay Area in 1990 and a Silverberry that has been in their collection since 1989. Together, the trees are valued at $85 000 (which must be why they were taken in the first place) according to Cmdr. Kurt Schwan. 

But what seems to be an even bigger mystery is that the trees, after three days, were discovered on the side of the road that leads to the museum. 

They were in a state of wear, but luckily, both trees and pots were still intact. The silverberry may have suffered the most damage to its branches, but Packard believed that it could have been worse. With the breaks and cracks that the bonsai took home with it, it was possible that its appearance would change but still would not compromise its value. Bonsais, like people, can experience trauma that could eventually leave marks and could alter their identity. 

On the other hand, the black pine fared better because of the way it was wired. Packard and his colleagues employed the use of copper wires to shape the bonsai’s branch growth. 

After the incident, the Federal Way police investigated a grainy security footage of a man walking through the museum. But they did not push for further investigation as they were already content with the trees’ return. 

Such a misfortune shows that there is a fragile balance between highlighting the value of the collection and securing its display. Tipping just even slightly could lead to another bonsai-napping. But as Packard said, “it’s a perpetual self-improvement.” 

Another Bonsai-napping: Tokyo Edition

Okay, so stealing bonsais might be a thing because our next story involves another heist and the disappearance of a 400-year-old bonsai.

Valued at around $91 000, the ancient bonsai of a Japanese couple vanished from their collection back in January of 2019. And to add more to the pain, the 400-year-old bonsai was just one of many valuable plants taken from a fifth-generation bonsai master. This, more or less, gives them 91 000 reasons to reclaim what was stolen. But the couple is more concerned that the thieves need to water the ancient bonsai. 

According to Fuyumi Iimura, the wife of bonsai master Seiji Iimura, she and her husband treat their bonsais like their children. And as a Shimapaku tree, the couple’s bonsai cannot make it a week without water.

On the morning of January 2019, bonsai master Seiji Iimura walked to his garden with four bonsai pots missing from his collection of 3 000. Seiji grew his bonsais outdoors and kept his garden open to the public to give access to bonsai enthusiasts and for anyone to be immersed in his remarkable collection. While this is quite thoughtful and kind of Seiji, it gave way for anyone to simply grab a bonsai and run. The garden may have cameras, and the couple’s future plans of a fence installation, but the police have had little to no luck catching the culprits. 

All in all, the stolen trees are valued at $118 000 and may be sold for more on the black market. The Iimuras just hope that through the help of the bonsai community, the sale of their beloved bonsais will fall through. 

Million Dollar Baby

Could a bonsai really be valued at a million dollars? 

It can, and one actually does. This expensive bonsai is located at Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in the heart of Tokyo. 

But telling a million-dollar bonsai apart from a regular one can be challenging, especially if they are both black pine bonsais that are placed side by side. Even experts find it difficult to decide which is which. 

When you visit Shunka-en Bonsai Museum, one of their activities is for guests to figure out which bonsai tree costs more than the other. Many have, of course, failed. 

According to the curators, the main factors in determining a bonsai’s value include:

  • Edajun: or the branch lineup. Trees like this million-dollar Black Pine grow at a slight downward angle with a nice balance that gives off a very natural look. 
  • Miki: or the trunk. As you can see, the Black Pine has a large portion that has already become dead wood. This expresses the rawness of nature after long years. 
  • Nebari: or the root spread. The Black Pine’s roots spread above the soil but are still connected firmly and strongly underneath.

But all in all, it is crucial for a bonsai to appear like the ancient tree that it is while growing amidst nature and battling against the elements. 

Talking about ancient, can you guess the age of this million-dollar Black Pine?

It’s 500 years old!

Wrapping Up

Bonsais are special. Sometimes too special that people resort to stealing them. 

But their monetary value is not what makes them all that precious. It is the rich stories that lie behind their leaves and trunks. The experiences and places that they are rooted in (pun intended). The test of time that they overcame to tell the history of one old generation to the current one. 

How ironic it is that these miniature trees hold far more knowledge and life than the rest of us. 

It is truly humbling to be the stewards of such mighty warriors. 

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