Japenese festival allows patrons to admire the art of bonsai

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Guests of the 28th Arizona Matsuri flocked to the bonsai exhibit to experience the tranquility and complexity that the trees offer. (Madeline Pado/DD)

A twisting trunk coiling up toward the sky, a balancing act of confined roots stretching one way and branching another, an off-centered placement in its soil; the beauty of bonsai.

Last weekend, enthusiasts gathered to share and celebrate aspects of Japanese culture at the annual Arizona Matsuri.

Some especially focused on the spirit and art of bonsai.

Simply put, bonsai is the practice of growing miniature trees in containers. It has been a symbol of Japanese history and a revered form of art for centuries.

“Bonsai is something that people associate with Japan,” said Ted Namba, committee member for the Arizona Matsuri. “The bonsai exhibit is significantly larger in the festival because people are drawn to it.”

The Arizona Matsuri festival brings in a crowd of 60,000 to 70,000 to the Heritage and Science park in downtown Phoenix every year, many of them returning year after year, Namba said.

Celebrating a 28-year-tradition, last weekend’s festival opened with a visit from the Japanese ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, and had a variety of vendors, three stages for entertainment and food.

However, the bonsai trees were one of the most popular attractions.

“Bonsai is something that a lot of people enjoy,” Namba said. “It’s very relaxing and people just love the sheer beauty and simplicity.”

The Phoenix Bonsai Society, the second oldest club in the country, holds the main bonsai attraction at the festival every year. The self-proclaimed three musketeers of bonsai — current president James McEown, past president Jamie Sims and president elect Frank Harris — described the art of bonsai as both complex and serene.

“You break bonsai into two schools of thought. One is the horticulture side of the art and the other is artistic principles of the art,” Sims said.

Sims believes the horticulture side is the more difficult to master because environmental changes impact the plant and there is no possible way to predict them.

“The most important thing in bonsai is to keep your tree alive,” McEown said. “Everything else is secondary.”

McEown related the practice of bonsai to something mentally therapeutic.

“It takes all the extraneous away and it’s just you and your tree,” he said.

Any kind of tree or woody shrub can be bonsais and they typically live outdoors, McEown said. Mastery of bonsai techniques requires patience and the willpower to endure countless failures.

“Any bonsai artist who says he’s never allowed a tree to die has never done bonsai,” McEown said.

McEown referred to bonsai as the great equalizer because all walks of life can practice it. “Irrespective of your place in society, here, we’re all on the same level,” he said.

“With bonsai plants, they last,” said Tony Ly, who has attended the festival the past two years. “You want to take care of it the same way you would your health because if it dies, it will be a part of you dying.”

Contact the reporter at aiyana.havir@asu.edu