Tokyo is known to hold Japan’s finest collection of Bonsai trees, and the Shunkaen Bonsai Garden and Museum is no exception to this rule. We LOVE this place, and find an approximately two-hour visit to be an excellent representation of the unique art form/craft of Bonsai.
History of Shunkaen, Kobayashi, & Legend of the Bonsai
The Shunkaen Bonsai Gardens & Museum was founded in 2002 by the Bonsai master, Kunio Kobayashi, three-time winner of the Prime Ministers Award (most prestigious award in Japan). Kobayashi, 74, has devoted his life to becoming a master, curating the unique ability to recreate the image of a powerful thousand year-old tree, form a landscape of dense forest, mountains and gorges, the sea shore – all on a small piece of land. Kobayashi currently both works and lives at the museum (and you may have a chance to meet the legend himself!).
In “The Beautiful, Brutal World of Bonsai” (a November 2022 article in our beloved New Yorker), Robert Moor explains that the Bonsai is not just a plant; growing it is a process and an ancient form of art traceable back to China’s Tang dynasty circa 700 A.D., before spreading throughout Japan in its Edo period (year 1700). Originally, Taoists and Buddhist monks created miniature gardens as objects of contemplation, with this miniaturization gradually serving the purpose of allowing people to go outdoors without leaving their homes. The aim of “styling” bonsai has never been about imitating the profile of large trees, but rather, to intensely evoke them. Hidden amongst taller surrounding buildings, the museum is an oasis of tranquility.
Upon entering the garden & museum, you will come face to face with hundreds of different trees, most prominently a pine tree that is over 1000 years-old! As you walk past the courtyard garden and inside the Kobayashi house, several tokonoma, historical books, prints, and a beautiful collection of antique Chinese pots & furniture are displayed.
Personal Bonsai Lesson Experience in Shunkaen Garden
During your visit, you will have a personal Bonsai Lesson Experience! Throughout the lesson, you’ll be briefly lectured about the basics and history of the Bonsai. Following your in-class learning experience, you have the opportunity to make your own Bonsai, as the artistry lies in shaping the tree and evoking something larger. Given that Kobayashi lives and works on the premises, most classes are joined by the legend himself. Held in the center of the courtyard, the bonsai lesson is a true classroom-style interactive experience. Before leaving, we recommend visiting the tea room and having a cup of their signature matcha for the full Zen (!) experience.