Japanese Spirit with Western Learning: The Beauty of Bonbai (Not Bonsai!) Trees

JCMU English language instructor Sam Sorenson knows that many of you are familiar with bonsai trees, but what about bonbai trees? Read below to learn about these similar, yet uniquely beautiful creations!

Many readers have probably heard of the term bonsai (盆栽) in the context of “bonsai tree,” referring to the Japanese art of growing miniature trees in pots. However, “bonbai” (盆梅) is likely a less familiar term. The concept of bonbai is the same as bonsai in that it involves cultivating miniature trees in pots, but the twist is that the trees used in bonbai are all flowering plum (species nomination: prunus, multiple varieties) trees that bloom every year from January to March and produce brilliant blossoms ranging in colors from white to pink and even brilliant crimson.

Every year from January to March, an exhibit is held just north of Hikone in the city of Nagahama displaying hundreds of these miniature bonbai plum trees. There are numerous exhibits like this held every year around Japan, however none is more famous than the one held in Nagahama here in Shiga. Many of the trees on display at the Nagahama exhibit are hundreds of years old – the oldest being around 400 years old. It is an awe-inspiring experience to see these beautiful trees that have been cared for for so many generations and continue to bloom as beautifully as they did back in the days of old Japan. What also makes this exhibition special is that, while these are miniature trees, many of them are quite tall at around 1-2 meters making for quite an impression.

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Furou (不老) literally “perennial youth” (Age: approximately 400 years) 


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Shouryuubai (昇龍梅) literally “rising dragon plum” (Age: approximately 250 years). Some more astute readers may also recognize the term “shrouryuu” (昇龍) from shouryuuken (昇龍拳) – Ryu’s signature move in the Street Fighter video games.

The exhibit has been held annually for 66 straight years in a traditional Japanese mansion known as the Keiunkan (慶雲館), originally built for a special visit from the Meiji Emperor in 1887. The Keiunkan is surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens which contributes a mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere to the event.

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The Keiunkan and gardens at night (Photo courtesy of the Nagahama City official Facebook page)

I have visited the Nagahama bonbai exhibit annually for the last four years and it has become one of favorite annual events in Shiga. This year I organized an outing to the exhibit and invite all the JCMU students to come on Sunday, February 12th. Unfortunately, we had a winter storm here in northern Shiga that entire weekend dumping more than a foot of snow and making travel difficult. In the end though, five brave JCMU students still managed to make the trek through the blizzard out to Nagahama that day. The students were amazed by the lovely aroma of the plum blossoms that wafted throughout the century-old mansion. They even enjoyed trying plum blossom tea, and commented on the surprisingly salty flavor. In the end, it was a very relaxing and peaceful way to spend a snowy afternoon in Shiga.

For more information about the exhibit and for more lovely photos of all the trees on display, please follow a link to the bonbai exhibit’s official website. The exhibit is on display until March 12th, 2017 at the Keiunkan, just a five-minute walk from JR Nagahama Station’s east exit.

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