What makes the art of bonsai so expensive? : $1 million for a bonsai tree and $32,000 for bonsai scissors
During periods spent at home over the past year, many of us have attempted to introduce more plant life into our environment. By some accounts, indoor gardening ranks among the most cost-effective ways to improve the quality of home life. But those of us who delve into it too much (aggressive pursuit of interests being a known characteristic of Open Culture readers) may find ourselves getting more than we bargained for, or at least paying. more than they intended, especially if they go down the road from bonsai. Although it has its origins in the Chinese practice of penzaione must look to Japan to find the practitioners who have made the greatest investments in the art of growing proportionately flawless dwarf trees – investments of both time and money.
Purchasing a mature piece of bonsai can cost up to nearly $1 million, according to the above episode of Business Insider’s “So Expensive” series. It was the prize for one tree at the 2012 International Bonsai Convention, but others received ratings almost as impressive. This reflects the enormous amount of work that a good bonsai requires: not just daily watering, but “years of pruning, wiring, repotting and grafting”, as the narrator puts it.
“Many of these techniques take years to master, and any mistake made can result in the permanent ruin of the form or even the death of a plant that has been growing for centuries.” Bonsai work is the work of generations, a fact epitomized by Chieko Yamamoto, the fourth generation bonsai master pictured explaining the pursuit she has spent more than half a century in.
Even Yamamoto’s relatively simple bonsai took fifteen, maybe 25 years to take shape. When executing a new idea, she has to wait about five years just to see how it turns out, and the result is not always to her satisfaction. “There are no immediate answers,” she says, “so I have to live a long time to see the results.” Bonsai has on its side the famous longevity of the Japanese people, as well as the equally famous dedication of Japanese civilization to cultivating master craftsmanship. But even so, the now dwindling number of bonsai businesses compounds an already severe limitation of supply versus demand, and the trade itself has some formidable barriers to entry. “Bonsai parts and tools are often handmade,” the Business Insider video narrator explains, “and can cost thousands of dollars themselves.
In the case of the Sasuke scissors, featured in the Great Big Story documentary short just above, they can cost tens of thousands of dollars. In his shop of the same name outside Osaka, blacksmith Yasuhiro Hiraka – a fifth-generation chisel maker and the last of its kind in Japan – works for a week or more, ten hours a day, just to make a pair. A the standard model costs around $1,100 and a deluxe model costs over $32,000, but a full-fledged bonsai master can’t settle for less. “I never thought I could have them,” says one such devotee, Masakazu Yoshikawa, of his first Sasuke scissors. “It was very moving.” But just getting to grips with them, he adds, “makes me want to make good bonsai.” For his part, Hiraka says, after 50 years of making scissors, “I finally think I’m starting to hit my peak.” As we say in the West, we don’t rush quality.
The art and philosophy of bonsai
This 392-year-old bonsai survived the Hiroshima atomic explosion and is still thriving today: the power of resilience
Digital animation compares tree sizes: from 3-inch bonsai to 300-foot redwood
Daisugi, the 600-year-old Japanese technique of growing trees from other trees, creating perfectly straight wood
See how traditional Japanese carpenters can construct an entire building without nails or screws
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city books, the book The City Without a State: A Walk through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.