Bonsai (and the Zen of Elderly Nudity)

Obuse Travel Blog

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We decided to spend an extra day in Obuse (o-BOO-say) so we had plenty of time to check out the Bonzai Museum and the Onsen (hot springs).  After a four-course breakfast at the hostel, we headed to the museum to find... nothing!  It was gone!  Crap!  Luckily, I (Jeff) can speak and understand some conversational Japanese at this point.  I asked a nearby local about it, and we were pointed in the right direction.  Apparently, it had moved but not many people knew it yet.

We rang the bell and heard a Japanese voice.  The door opened and - a westerner?!  How unexpected!  He was equally as surprised to see westerners since the location was new and not listed with the tour guides or maps yet.  The Polish 25-year-old and us bonded briefly over my ancestry (I'm half-Polish), and he invited us to look around.  He was an apprentice and told us that another apprentice was from America!  Within a minute a tall blond white kid came out and quietly said hi, as if he hadn't spoken much English in a while.  He began to show us around the garden, and we bombarded him with questions from when I should add nutrients to my bonsai at home to how he ended up being a bonsai apprentice. 

The trees were absolutely unbelievable.  Rows and rows of astonishingly beautifuly bonsai surrounded us.  It was a truly impressive collection:  from trees we could fit in our hands to trees a little taller than us, from baby bonsai just a few years old to trees that were collected in the 1500s and passed through several generations.  How did the garden owner amass such a superb collection?  Because the bonsai master is none other than Shinji Suzuki - one of the most famous bonsai masters in Japan and therefore the world!  Seriously!  More than a dozen of his bonsai were "famous," meaning they had appeared in magazines or national/international art displays.  A few had even won 1st prize at the annual Japanese Bonsai Convention - a HUGE honor in the big world of bonsai. 

His collection was not literally all his trees though.  Bonsai trees are valuable pieces of art.  And just as someone in America or Europe keeps their jewelry in a lock box or hires someone to clean and upkeep their priceless paintings, Japanese people hire Suzuki-san to care for their trees - living art, some worth $10,000 or more.  Once, Suzuki-san had been offered about half-million dollars for his most famous tree that won 1st prize ten years ago, but he declined the offer.  While many of his trees are for sale, that one is apparently not.  But a half-million dollars - wow.

Anyhoo, it turns out that Matt, the 21-year-old American apprentice from Portland, was the senior apprentice there; he was 3 years into a 5-year apprenticeship that calls for 12-hour days 7 days a week.  No joke.  Bonsai masters are a rare breed, and to apprentice for such a talented and famous sensei one must be fully serious, dedicated, and passionate.  And no doubt Matt is.  He imparted a wealth of knowledge upon us for at least an hour and then the master himself arrived, barked some orders, and everyone scurried away: Matt, the Polish guy, and the Japanese 20-year-old.  Two minutes later, Matt came back and said that his master had told him to stop working and talk to the foreigners.  Then the master came by and told all three apprentices to invite us into a special room where they entertain clients and where clients can bring guests to entertain and display their bonsai trees.  Another minute later, the Polish guy came in with tea, and Matt explained that they had all been ordered to take a break, serve us and themselves some o-cha (Japanese green tea), and entertain us!    Then Suzuki-san even came in to greet us!  He's like the Bono or Kurt Cobain or Eric Clapton of bonsai, so we very politely and graciously asked him to take a picture with us and then he hurried off, busy with his bonsai-ing.  It's the growing season so there's constantly work to be done. 

We drank tea for a while.  The Polish guy was pretty quiet.   The Japanese kid didn't speak much English, but he was trying to learn and managed to brag about his six girlfriends for a bit.  We were really hitting it off with Matt, and he told us all about how to care for bonsai and how his path had come to where it was.  It was absolutely fascinating, and Kelsey and I were both infinitely intrigued.  But, being the most senior apprentice and therefore the boss of the other two, Matt knew there was much to be done.  He walked us through the garden once more and we got ready to go (we had tickets to some hot springs).  But first we decided that we should hang out that night, so we agreed to meet at our hostel later so Matt could take us to his favorite bar/restaurant, Tommy's, for some American-style burgers.

7:30 rolled around and the three apprentices picked us up in a big white van - the Bonsai Van!  They dropped the two of us and Matt off at Tommy's and then headed off to run a bonsai errand.  The people there knew Matt, and he called the owner "Mama" because that's apparently what everyone called her.  It was a quaint little burger shop with dogs out front and the entire 1992 jazz-hip-hop album by US3 playing through the speakers.  We ordered drinks and burgers and just chilled.  We asked Matt, who had moved to Japan for the apprenticeship just 2 weeks after graduating high school not knowing one word of Japanese and never having eaten sushi, about his plans for after his apprenticeship.  He didn't really have a full plan, as part of bonsai care is focus and it was really important to him to be completely focused on his apprenticeship.  However, we did agree on one thing:  we will be his first clients and he will be our oyakata, which is what he and their clients call the bonsai master.  It loosely means teacher, mentor, parent, guardian, sensei. 

So basically, we now have a direct line to who will be one of the foremost bonsai experts in the Americas, the 2nd ever American bonsai master to have apprenticed under the great Shinji Suzuki.  We have only one bonsai now, but as we learn the art our collection will grow over time.  Bonsai is a living art, and we now have our own Van Gogh to teach us and help care for our trees!  Talk about SATORI!!!

Later in the night the other apprentices joined us with a friend of theirs who is apparently (and unfortunately) a 36-year-old virgin.  We introduced them to tequila shots, and we all took turns seeing who could to the funniest thing with a bottle of Galliano Black.  And by the way, the burgers were AMAZING!  Pork and beef slow cooked on a hibachi-style grill.  Mmmmm!  What a great night!  But, I skipped over the hot springs...

Earlier when we left the bonsai museum, artistically and horticulturally inspired, we got on our borrowed bicycles and headed up to an onsen.  We arrived and the greeter told us "men-left, girl-right."  A little freaked out by the vibe in the place, we agreed to meet back out in the main area in 20 minutes.  We each walked to our respective areas and were instantly completely weirded out and uncomfortable.  Naked old Japanese people.  Naked.  And old.  Saggy.  Hairy.  Did I mention naked?  Naked.  Some were undressing, some drying of, some bent over putting on socks, some standing naked in the mirror or outside getting fresh air, some sitting on these buckets showering themselves, and some actually in the indoor spa.  Kelsey says all she saw was hair.  And I must admit my experience was the same - just tufts of hair.  But hey, at least I can honestly say that (relatively speaking) I'm big in Japan!  Haha!

Japanese culture has a history of being ok with being naked.   For each of us, the first few moments were more than just a little awkward and embarassing.  The urge to cover ourselves was battling our sense to try to look as un-awkward as possible.  We each showered off and got in.  (I should remind you at this point that, although I'm telling the story from both of our viewpoints, the men and women are separate and therefore Kelsey and I are both alone in these onsen with the naked old people.)  Kelsey's was deep enough to sit all the way in, but the intense heat kept her constantly getting out and back in.  Mine was only knee-deep, so I was on my knees, with the water up to my waist.  Through the large windows was a beautiful view of the rolling hills and mountains, which would have been even more beautiful had the double-paned glass not been mostly fogged up on both sides.  After a while I tried sitting back with my legs straight out, but in that position I was... um... exposed. 

About that time a man showed up with two children, about 8 and 10 years old.  When the 10-year-old - who had what looked like a rash all the way down his left leg - decided to get in, I thought it was a good time to get out and shower off.  Kelsey had our only towel, so I went out the sliding door to air dry, not noticing the clear view down to the parking lot.  My mind swam with how to describe this experience to my family.  I snapped out of my daydream and noticed how clearly I could see the people walking down below and realized how easily they could see me, and not just my face.  Oops!  I went inside and used the complimentary hair dryer to finish the job, which added even more awkwardness to an already tragically memorable experience.  I dressed and got outta there quickly to find Kelsey already waiting in the lobby with the same expression on her face.  We agreed that it was totally weird in a very lame way and we should leave now.  It didn't change from uncomfortable to funny until we got downstairs and we could relax and laugh about how awkward it was. 

We found out later that we had accidentally gone to the not-cool one, and there are actually really cool ones that don't have that totally weird vibe.  So for those of you planning an onsen experience, don't be discouraged!  Just make sure you go to the right one and before you arrive, try to find your zen with elderly nudity.

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39,368 km (24,462 miles) traveled
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