Where to go
The Kanto area (greater Tokyo region) is home to the most famous Japanese Bonsai nurseries, while Kyoto houses the most impressive Japanese gardens and other cultural sites. Personal highlights included visits to Suzuki, Kimura, Omiya, the top-three Japanese gardens and the uncountable number of superb Kyoto gardens. If time permits, schedule a visit to Kinashi Bonsai village as well. Some non-Bonsai related highlights included attending a Sumo tournament day, indulging on some of the best food in the world, making a trip to the wonderful Shikoku island and skiing in the Japanese Alps. A Bonsai holiday to Japan will very likely result in new personal interests, like gardens, Suiseki, Ikebana, Manga, etc!
When to go
Most organized Bonsai tours to Japan depart early February, for the one reason to coincide with the famous Kokufu-ten Bonsai exhibition. The warmer and climatically more stable seasons of spring and autumn are much better times to visit Japan though. When visiting in spring, make sure your trip coincides with Shunga-ten (Shohin exhibition Osaka, late March) and the cherry blossoms (late March/early April). For the most intense autumn colors, visit in November, possibly coinciding with the Shuga-ten (Shohin exhibition Tokyo, early November) or Taikan-ten (Bonsai exhibition Kyoto, mid November).
Other main Bonsai exhibitions in Japan include the Gafu-ten (largest Shohin exhibition, Kyoto early January), Koju-ten (main Satsuki tree exhibit, Kanuma early January), Sogo-ten (Suiseki exhibit, Tokyo late March) and the Satsuki festival (Satsuki trees, Tokyo early June).
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The masterpiece Bonsai trees are displayed spaciously and very orderly, giving visitors the opportunity to appreciate the trees from all sides. From the entrance of the museum you enter the garden through a gallery of Bonsai and walking into two famous and very large pine trees.
The area has a history of growing Bonsai for over 250 years and it has an 80% share in the domestic market of pine trees. About a hundred nurseries are located here, of which about a dozen can be considered high-end (training high quality trees). Many large fields of young nursery plants are grown in the area too, making the entire neighborhood feel like heaven on earth.
Mr. Nobuichi Urushibata (a well known Bonsai master) and his son, Taiga Urushibata (who apprenticed at mr. Kimura) run the garden in a very professional way and welcome visitors. Taiga speaks English, which is very convenient if you visit the garden or when you are interested to study Bonsai. They accept foreign students for studies of a few months, which receive very positive reviews.
上野グリーンクラブ & 日本盆栽協会 - The Ueno Green Club is located at the west part of Ueno Park and is home to several Bonsai shops offering trees, tools and pots. Most stands only open during weekends and the club gets crowded during the Spring Bonsai Festival (early February, scheduled part of Kokufu-ten) when over a hundred stands are set up. The area is closed on Wednesdays.
Right in the middle of the classic shopping district Ginza you will find this upmarket Bonsai store. Morimae Ginza showcases several beautiful trees and tokonoma displays. On the second floor there is a selection of a few antique pots, tools and two more tokonoma displays. The shop is rather small, but definitely worth visiting as you will probably make it to the Ginza district in Tokyo anyway.
Throughout the year several Bonsai, Shohin and Suiseki Exhibitions are held in Japan. The most important exhibition is the Kokufu-Ten, where the highest quality Bonsai trees of Japan are displayed. The exhibition is held in Tokyo in February. Another key event is the Taikan-ten, held each November in Kyoto. For Shohin lovers the most important show is the Gafu-Ten, also held in Kyoto in January.
Kyoto is absolutely packed with fine Japanese gardens, needless to say a must visit in any Japan itinerary. The gardens, often part of temples or old imperial retreats, are spread around the city (with the exception of Daitoku-ji, which is a large complex housing several temples).
兼六園 - A former castle garden, Kenrokuen dates back from the 17th century and is rated one of Japan’s top three gardens. The name means ‘combined six’, referring to the six attributes of perfection (seclusion, artificiality, spaciousness, antiquity, abundant water and broad views).