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The Best Bonsai and Suiseki
Exhibits in Japan

By Thomas S. Elias

Where and When to Go & What to See

Public exhibitions of bonsai were held in western countries long before they appeared in Japan. Bonsai were displayed in France, England, and the United States at the numerous world's fairs and international expositions staged between 1860 and 1920. In Japan, the first public display was held in Hibiya Park in Tokyo in October 1927 and then annually through 1933 This was replaced by the first Kokufu, ten Bonsai Exhibition held at the Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park in Tokyo. Bonsai exhibits were common in Japan long prior to the late 1920's; however, these were private showings typically held in traditional Japanese restaurants. Bonsai, suiseki and accompanying items were displayed in tokonoma lining the walls of large banquet rooms. There, invited guests could view the plants on display. A catalog of one of these exhibits was compiled by members of the Bijutsu Bonsai Taikai and published in Meiji 25 (1892).

Today, there are literally hundreds of bonsai and suiseki exhibits held throughout Japan. Most are local or regional shows. There are several outstanding national and large regional exhibits that are likely to be of interest to those planning a trip to Japan. The best-known and finest exhibition is the Kokufu-ten sponsored by the Nippon Bonsai Association and held in mid-February. If you can only make one exhibit, this is the one. If, however, you are traveling to Japan at other times of the year or you wish to see more suiseki or specialized bonsai types such as shohin and satsuki azaleas, the following list of the best exhibits of bonsai and suiseki in Japan may be of interest.



Gafu-ten, Elegant Style Exhibit - Early January, in Kyoto

If little gems appeal to you, then this exhibit is a must. This early January show is the largest shohin-size bonsai held in Japan and probably the world. Shohin are miniature bonsai up to 20 cm high. Included here are the tiny mame-sized bonsai that can be no more than 7 cm high. Each year, about 200 trees are included in this four-day exhibit. It is held in the ancient capital of Kyoto at the Miyako Messe.

The All Japan Shohin Bonsai Association organizes the Gafu-ten. The Nippon Bonsai Association and the Nippon Shohin Bonsai Association based in Tokyo support this exhibit. The first Gafu-ten exhibition was held 27 years ago in 1975. A photo album of each year's exhibit is published. An extensive sales area equal in size to the exhibit space provides an opportunity for people to purchase shohin plants and accompanying equipment, supplies and materials. An amazing and beautiful array of comparable sized pots, stands, and figures are available for sale. The 2001 exhibit was held from January 5-8.

Sakufu-ten, Creative Bonsai Exhibit - Early January, in Tokyo

This early January exhibit is the only one where professional bonsai growers can exhibit traditional trees under their own names. Even though it is a relatively small exhibit, 57 trees in January 2002, the quality is high. The first Sakufu-ten was organized by the late Hideo Kato in 1975 at the Daimaru Department Store in Tokyo. It has been held at this same location ever since. The 400 growers of this association are the source of the vast majority of trees for bonsai in Japan; however, the growers are not often recognized for their styling skills. This exhibit provides that opportunity. Among the awards presented to the best trees are the Prime Minister's Award, the Environmental Minister's Award, the Agricultural and Fisheries Minister's Award, and the Minister of Science and Education Award.

The Mainichi Newspaper sponsors this event and publishes an annual photo album of the trees displayed. The trees are judged in October and the selected trees photographed then in order to have the catalog available for the January exhibit. An appealing sales area of plants, suiseki, equipment, and supplies offers everything an aspiring or experienced bonsai artist needs. Approximately 20,000 visitors attended the January, 2002 exhibit. This is an excellent exhibit.

Koju-ten, Satsuki Tree Exhibit - Early January, in Kanuma

This outstanding four-day exhibit of excellent bonsai styled satsuki azaleas is held in early January at the Kaboku (Flowering Tree) Center in Kanuma in Tochigi Prefecture. Kanuma is an easy one-hour ride via the Shinkansen bullet train. Participation in this exhibit is limited to professional bonsai growers; thus, plants are displayed under the grower's name. This is one of the few exhibits featuring the growers. Selection of the plants for this show is carried out in October for the upcoming display in January. This allows them to produce an attractive color book illustrating the trees on display.

The January, 2002 exhibit contained 57 trees. This is a nice feature as it is a reasonable number to appreciate and absorb without experiencing sensory overload from viewing too many works of art at one time. The Koju-ten is the counterpart of the Sakufu-ten exhibition in that it is restricted to professional growers.

Kanuma City maintains both outdoor and indoor facilities for selling plants, horticultural supplies and an extensive array of bonsai pots. An adjacent building houses the sales area for approximately 40 satsuki growers. Kanuma, the capital of the satsuki production in Japan, is the place to be to see the amazing array of bonsai type, size and flowering bonsai satsuki azaleas. They are available for purchase at more reasonable prices in Kanuma than in Tokyo.

Meifu-ten, Excellent Style Exhibit - Mid-January, in Nagoya

Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture is one of the major long-term centers for bonsai growers in Japan. There are 61 dealers, mainly growers, located in Aichi Prefecture. The Chubu Bonsai Cooperative located in Nagoya sponsors this major exhibition of bonsai. This is the second largest and second oldest continuous public exhibition in Japan. The 72nd exhibit was held in 2002. This year, 236 plants were displayed, 90% of them owned by hobbyists. Thirty-two of the plants displayed in this year's exhibit will also be selected for the Kokufu-ten exhibition in Tokyo in early February.

This three-day exhibition attracts approximately 20,000 visitors and the modest admission fee of 500 Yen (about $4.50 US) is a bargain. There is a large sales area adjacent to the exhibition. Here, plants, supplies, materials, and a nice assortment of suiseki are available at reasonable prices. Some of the best suiseki collecting areas in Japan are located near Nagoya so you may find some prizes among the vendors. The sponsoring association publishes a handsome photo album of the plants on display. Like many other major exhibits the plants are judged, selected, and photographed in the fall in order to have the photo album available for the January exhibition. It is always held over a mid-January weekend including the Monday national holiday known as Adult Day.



Kokufu-ten, Classical Bonsai Exhibit in Tokyo

This eight-day national exhibit of bonsai from large specimens to small shohin-size trees is the largest and most prestigious of all bonsai exhibits worldwide. If you can only afford to attend one major bonsai exhibit, this is it. The Nippon Bonsai Association (NBA), the official sponsor of the event, worked diligently over many years to insure that only the finest bonsai in Japan are displayed. To win one of the several prizes awarded greatly enhances the career of the stylist and honors the owner of the outstanding tree. However, the Kokufu prize is not given if there is not a worthy tree. This year only two trees received awards. The hundreds of trees are displayed in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park. The Kokufu-ten is also the oldest continuous (except during World War 11) public exhibit in Japan beginning in 1934. Norio Kobayashi was the driving force behind the establishment of the Kokufu Bonsai Society and the Kokufu-ten exhibition. It is advisable to go through the exhibit more than once. The first time to enjoy and appreciate the trees, and another trip just to see the beautiful and impressive stands and display tables.

The Nippon Bonsai Association publishes a high quality catalog or photo book of the large and medium-sized trees displayed along with many of the shohin-sized trees. A short free bus ride away is a large sales area adjacent to the NBA office. Here, one finds a great array of trees, pots, supplies, equipment, publications, and even antique artifacts relating to bonsai. Bring cash as most dealers do not accept credit cards.



Nippon Suiseki Sogo-ten, Comprehensive Suiseki Exhibit of Japan - in Tokyo

If you are a collector of suiseki or one interested in understanding more about the art of stone appreciation and collection, then the Comprehensive Suiseki Exhibit of Japan is for you. This major suiseki exhibit is held at the end of March at the Ueno Green Club in Ueno Park, Tokyo. It is a juried show sponsored by the Japan Suiseki Association. The actual number of stones displayed each year varies between 80 and 100 depending upon the initial number submitted for evaluation. The stones are grouped into one of four classes. These are (1) Suiban-seki or stones displayed in suibans, (2) Daizaseki or stones displayed on specially carved wooden stands, (3) Pattern Stones, and (4) Figure Stones. Four awards are given for each group and the best stone in the exhibit receives the Minister of Education and Sciences Award. Photographs of the winning stones are published in their associationís magazine. A sales area of all relevant items accompanies the exhibit.



Kanuma Satsuki Festival - Late May in Kanuma

This is the second largest flowering satsuki azalea exhibit held in Japan. It is sponsored by the city of Kanuma in Tochiga Prefecture about an hour's train ride north of Tokyo. The festival lasts ten days and begins the last week of May. The Kanuma Satsuki Festival is held at the Kaboku (Flowering Tree) Center. The display of outstanding flowering satsuki azaleas is held in an attractive exhibition hall over looking a spacious sales area. See the description of the Koju-ten to learn more about the sales area.

There are 1106 registered and officially recognized varieties of satsuki azaleas in Japan. Many of these will be in full flower at this festival. This is an unusual opportunity to see and appreciate the great diversity and range of flower colors and flower types. This is a very popular festival and as such it attracts a large audience. If possible, visit this exhibition during the week as the weekends are especially crowded.



Satsuki Festival - in Tokyo

This is the largest and finest of all the flowering satsuki azalea exhibitions in Japan. This seven-day display is held in early June in the large Ueno Park or, more precisely, near the large pond in a section known as Ikenohata Park. It is one of the few major bonsai exhibitions that is held out-of-doors. The display trees are under open shelters. Here one can see the flowering satsuki azaleas at their very best. It is easy to see why these azaleas are so popular. After viewing this exhibit the subtle differences between the various varieties can become blurred to the novice satsuki enthusiast; however, to the more experience satsuki fancier, it is a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the floral diversity found among these plants. Hobbyists compete for one of the coveted Supreme Prize of Excellence or lower ranking Prize of Excellence.

This festival is organized by the Japan Satsuki Association and is open to hobbyists throughout Japan. You may well be greeted by one of the young satsuki ladies from the Japan Satsuki Association as you enter and tour this display. Caution, there are a large assortment of tempting plants available for sale along with all of the necessary supplies, equipment, tools, and pots needed for growing these beauties. Demonstrations are held periodically throughout the seven-day exhibit. In typically Japanese fashion, a beautiful, profusely illustrated photo album is published for each year of the exhibit.

Nippon Suiseki-Meihin-ten, Japan Excellent Suiseki Exhibit - Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

This is the second major exhibition of suiseki in Japan. It is held in mid June at the Meiji Shrine in Harajuku in Shibuya District of Tokyo. The Nippon Suiseki-Meihin-ten is jointly sponsored by the Nippon Suiseki Association and the Japan Economic journal. Approximately 100 stones are selected for display from those submitted for consideration. Unlike the earlier exhibition, no awards are given here. Visitors can purchase an illustrated memory book of the exhibit. In a departure from the other major shows, no sales area is available.



Yusui-ten, Playful Green Exhibit - Ueno Green Club, Tokyo

This national three-day, satsuki exhibit is a relatively new exhibit to provide a venue for featuring these azaleas at their peak autumn condition. Little known outside of Japan, this exhibit gives fanciers an opportunity to view outstanding satsuki bonsai at another season. This exhibit is held at the Green Club of Ueno near Ueno Park. This is a larger satsuki bonsai style exhibit than the January show in Kanuma because it is open to hobbyists and not just professionals. One hundred and twenty-eight trees were displayed in the October 2001 show. The Japan Satsuki Association publishes an illustrated book of exhibited bonsai from both the Yusui-ten and the Koju-ten exhibits. Satsuki hobbyists will find this publication of considerable interest as they style their own plants.



Taikan-ten, Great Viewing Exhibit - Kyoto

This outstanding, four-day national exhibit of bonsai is the largest and best of the late season shows. This is another of the exhibits that is held for hobbyists although many of the better trees have been styled and maintained by bonsai professionals. Held in late November, the Taikan-ten features bonsai, satsuki azaleas, and suiseki. The Nippon Bonsai Association, the Taikan-ten Organizing Committee, the City of Kyoto, and the local Kyoto Television and Newspaper companies jointly sponsor this exhibit. It has gained popularity and notice in part due to the widely publicized bonsai contest sponsored by Japan Airlines (JAL). This is a worldwide contest where individuals submit photographs of their best bonsai for judging by an expert panel. The winners of this annual contest are flown to Kyoto where the photographs of their prize-winning bonsai are displayed at the Taikan-ten exhibition.

Like other major exhibits, a large sales area is present and the organizing committee publishes an annual photo album of the plants displayed. Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan and has many important and impressive shrines, temples, and museums. A side visit to the old Gion District near the Kamo River is a must. One of the finest Kabuki Theaters in Japan is located downtown. This is an opportunity to combine a great bonsai exhibit with a large slice of ancient Japanese culture.


About the Author

Dr. Thomas S. Elias is the Director of the U.S. National Arboretum and BCI's Historian. He has published several articles in BONSAI Magazine and received the BCI Artist, Writer, Photographer Award in 2001.

This article appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of Bonsai Magazine, the official publication of Bonsai Clubs International, and was reprinted with the permission of BCI and Dr. Thomas S. Elias.

Other links to Bonsai and Suiseki exhibits in Japan

Bonsai exhibition schedule - on Koju-en Nursery website

The Juppu-an and Taikan (Bonsai Museum) - Mr. Shinji Suzuki - Obuse near Nagano

The Takagi Bonsai Museum - Mr Reiji Takagi - Tokyo


All Information and Photo's on these pages are COPYRIGHT and may not be reproduced without permission