I was introduced to Boon when he came to our local club for a “Master Weekend.” I have never hidden my feelings about these dog-and-pony shows, but this one turned out differently. I had reached a stage in my desire to learn bonsai that consisted mostly of frustration at a lack of those who would teach in the heartland. Boon showed me some things that truly opened my eyes. In frustration, I asked, “Where can I go to get some solid teaching?”
He studied me for a moment, then said, “You could come to my Intensive.” It was the first I had heard of this new project, and I found myself at one of the first Intensives offered, with students like Michael Hagedorn, Howard Smith, and Scott Elser. What an honor. I was truly humbled both by the amount I learned and the amount I needed to learn. It’s been an incredible honor and challenge ever since.
Sashi-eda: Boon, many say you are incredibly talented, but you say you are lucky. What do you mean by that?
Boon: My professional studies was very lucky. I cannot imagine anyone with more luck. Before I went to Japan, Akio Kondo stayed in my home and did bonsai in my garden for a year. Mr. Kondo was then a first year professional from the famous Bonsai garden Kihachi En.
Then I spent one year with Yasuo Mitsuya, at the Tokai-En garden. There my sempai (senior colleague) was a 5th year apprentice (in other words, very good) and he spoke very good English—another stroke of luck.
My final studies were with my Oyakata (master) Kihachiro Kamiya at Kihachi En. Kamiy was a great teacher, a great artist, and a great human being. And, as a professional, he won the Koku Fu Award eight years straight.
Having trained with Mitsuya and my master, I luckily had the opportunity in helping set up every major bonsai exhibit in Japan. Since both are very good, along with many, many other masters, again I had the kind of luck I would never have thought of.
The first six months were hard, like they were supposed to be. I got half day off per week. That was the time for laundry, not taking, letter writing, and other personal matter. At Kamiya’s garden there were seasons when the work did not stop at five—but went on into the night.
Sashi-eda: How did your teacher know or suspect that you were ready for a truly valuable bonsai? How did he evaluate your knowledge?
Boon: Getting a valuable tree to work on happens very much like my own bonsai intensives in California. You get a tree that is correct for your bonsai skills, while pushing your abilities a little bit. You simply work on better and better trees until a very valuable tree is not that big a step. I have to show that I pay attention and show that I can do the same work on lesser trees.
I guess the first test was to de-wire a very large black pine that was going to the Koku Fu Show in two years (it later took the Kokufu Prize). Akio said, “If you break one single needle…” Then he made a slashing motion across his throat with a grafting knife. It took just short of two days to do the job.
Sashi-eda: Many Americans resist the idea of studying as an apprentice to one master, or taking one teacher. What might be some advantages to the Japanese system of learning bonsai?
Boon: As an apprentice, with a good master, you are developed as an artist. He has an eye on you. He wants you to become great. It is the highest compliment you can give him. Also if you wire 10 hours a day for 3 months (wiring season), you will improve very rapidly. Systematic and efficient ways of working are also important (just like a plumber or bricklayer’s apprentice). In growing and developing bonsai, using tools, or wiring a bonsai pot, a good master will teach you speed. (Note: a master will insist on good work before speed.)