For two days in a row I tried to decipher the words of the Japanese train announcer as he quickly announced the specific train stops while riding the railway to Kyoto with my friend. The one phrase I finally understood was “Omi-Hachiman, Omi-Hachiman desu,” roughly translated into English as “the next stop is Omi-Hachiman.” Although we did not get off the train in Omi-Hachiman, the announcer’s rhythmic words stuck in my head like a catchy little tune.
Much to my surprise several days later, my friend’s carefully planned itinerary included an actual visit to the historical city of Omi-Hachiman, bringing life to the Japanese city name that merely danced in my head. Omi-Hachiman is a small castle town near Lake Biwa in central Japan. Before trains and automobiles, it was a hub for canal transportation delivering goods and people to nearby Kyoto. Today visitors can still walk the historic canal (great for photos) and visit the old market street where merchants used to live and conduct business. The canal is also used today for filming dramas based on the historic period, and we actually got to witness a film crew in action!
But for me the real beauty of the town sat tucked away at a local shrine where an opportune and gorgeous display of azalea bonsai blooming in shades of pink, white and red greeted visitors at the shrine’s entrance. Not only was this was my first experience seeing bonsai of a plant other than the traditional tree, it was also my first experience seeing azalea in a miniature, twisted bonsai form. Up until this display, azaleas in my life existed as large bushes blooming for a short time in spring. Azaleas make beautiful bonsai specimens, but many bonsai growers shy away from using the azalea because it is difficult to keep healthy.
Bonsai: “Bon” = tray and “sai”= a planting. Basically, the bonsai growing technique is the long-term shaping of trees (or other suitable plants) planted in shallow, tray-like pots. The purpose of bonsai, whether trees, azaleas or other bonsai-able plants, is primarily for contemplation by the viewer (I fully agree!). Bonsai is also intended as an exercise of discipline and creativity for the grower. Interestingly, the Japanese art of bonsai dates back to the 17th century with certain specimens having been declared Japanese National Treasures and housed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Among the many trees at the Imperial Palace over 100 years old is the “Third Shogun”, a Japanese white pine bonsai recorded to be 550 years old! The collection at the palace is a bonsai lover’s dream.
I sure enjoyed being the contemplative viewer of bonsai that day in Omi-Hachiman. I quietly reflected on the many years of shaping and hours of patient, tender care required to form the beautiful dwarfed, twisted and miniature features of what would otherwise be very large azalea plants. The azalea bonsai fulfilled their contemplative purpose and conveyed a sense of peace and calm to me. Furthermore, the visit to Omi-Hachiman erased the catchy tune stuck in my head and replaced it with pleasant memories of a real, historic place in the center of Japan where I first encountered azalea bonsai.