SOSA, Japan: With a deft clip here and a gentle tug there, Makoto Ishibashi sculpts trees with the skill of an artisan whose work is far more than just a job.
The heir to a centuries-old family business, he creates masterpieces that can turn a pine tree into a work of art that could fetch $40,000.
“This tree is a woman—the leaves are soft,” the arborist says of the pine into a triangle at his farm in the city of Sosa.
“Trees are my family—they don’t say what they want but they are sending messages about how they want to be shaped.
“The feeling may be one-sided, but I believe that we share something with trees, just like living creatures.”
Sosa, a small city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of the Japanese capital, has long been known for supplying many of Tokyo’s expertly manicured gardens and temple grounds with trees that seem like they were shaped by the wind or the weight of snow.
That dramatic effect involves chiseling branches to twist and pull them into shape, while keeping the tree alive, a delicate technique called “nomiire.”
“Oh, it hurts? Sorry, I’ll do it slowly,” Tadayoshi Udono, an expert in the style, says to one tree as its branch squeaks under the pressure.
Like many traditional crafts, the art of shaping so-called macro bonsai trees—cousins to the smaller and potted bonsai—has been facing tough times.
Few among the younger generation are taking up the painstaking profession these days, and some who abandoned the trade as the economy turned sour in recent years.
Yoichiro Sato, 38, has seen colleagues quit and jokes that he was “brainwashed” by relatives to work in a business that has been in his family for four generations.
Sato sees challenges ahead, not least of which the fact that Japanese homeowners are increasingly turning to easy-to-care-for trees instead of those that require expert care.
“So, I’m really grateful that people abroad are looking to Japanese garden trees,” he says.
Koichi Ebato, chairman of gardening firm Koshuen, agreed times are tough in the densely populated country of 128 million.
“In Japan, there is no space, and houses are not suited for Japanese gardens anymore. And the economy is bad. Nowadays most of my clients are Chinese,” he says.
Banking on overseas demand
Japan exported about 8.17 billion yen ($82 million) worth of trees, plants and miniature bonsai last year, up 22 percent from 2011.
But it’s a tricky kind of export.
Trees and plants must meet importing countries’ strict quarantine requirements.
And they will spend weeks in refrigerated shipping containers without sunlight or water before reaching markets including China, Taiwan, Singapore, Germany, France and Britain.
Buyers must have deep pockets, and patience. It can take a decade to complete a relatively small tree, while others are a century or more in the making.
The 55-year-old Ishibashi, who started when he was 18, recalls his father scolding him for wearing gloves as a beginner.
Gloves, he was told, make the hand less able to complete delicate snipping and trimming worthy of a surgeon. While Ishibashi has come a long way since then, the veteran still thinks he has only scratched the surface.
“This job is profound—I won’t learn everything before the end of my life.”