One Road Leads to Another
By Ryan Neil
As I’m sitting here on the plane ready to leave one chapter of my life and take off on another I can’t help but reflect on all that I have experienced and learned over the past five and a half years. I have come to value my experience as an apprentice of the great Masahiko Kimura as if it were gold, but I never could have fathomed the complicated life of an apprentice, nor believed I personally could persevere when it all began.
I had known since high school that I wanted to pursue bonsai and I thought my journey to California to attend college was a mere stepping stone in my pursuit. As fate may have it, California was the starting point of the rest of my life. After all, it was there I had the honor of studying with multiple influential people, including the catalyst for my apprenticeship, Mr. Ben Oki. After only a few short meetings Mr. Oki must have seen my passion and dedication to bonsai, and was generous enough to invite me to Japan where he personally recommend my services to Mr. Kimura. I returned to the states determined to seize the opportunity and initiated a letter writing campaign to Mr. Kimura in which I expressed my intent to serve as his apprentice; one letter a month for nearly two years. To me that was the beginning of an unwavering commitment I pursued with an ambition that at times has surprised even me.
Throughout my apprenticeship I have seen countless foreigners attempt to acquire the same position in my master’s nursery only to fall short for one reason or another. I slowly have come to realize how lucky I am Mr. Kimura felt compelled to give me a chance, coming only in the form of a short note received 23 months after writing my first letter. His response read, “You are welcome to come and study IF you are willing to do what it takes to be my apprentice.” It was a daunting acceptance and a fitting precursor to my formal education in bonsai.
The flight attendant just notified us of the plane’s departure but I find myself wondering whether she was speaking Japanese or English. By now the two have started to sound the same inside my head; a subtle change that has occurred, like so many others, over the past five years. I remember my first day at the nursery showing up a few hours early, clueless but excited, determined yet down right afraid. Being a foreigner at Mr. Kimura’s nursery increased the potential for mistakes, and the majority of my first three years were spent relearning what 21 years of life had already taught me. He placed me in the smallest work space in the workshop telling me it would help shrink me down to an apprentice size. So there I sat working on trees hour after hour, day after day. Initially I could only sit in seza (on my knees) for a few minutes and was granted mercy once sweat and smirks of pain naturally emerged. However, like learning Japanese and the system of thought that governed Mr. Kimura’s nursery, my knees also made the adjustment to the foreignness of life as an apprentice.
As the plane lifts off and I look down on the farm ground surrounding Narita airport I remember the relief I felt being granted my first leave as an apprentice, heading home to see my family nearly two years after starting. Initially I was the youngest of 5 apprentices, the grunt, at times the pee-on, and always the one with the most to learn. Things that come naturally to me now were so incomprehensible to me then, and things that seemed impossible have naturally become an unspoken ability. This transition from clueless to capable occurs in anyone who dedicates themselves to translating what Mr. Kimura teaches them into conscious thought within themselves. However, the turning point in my apprenticeship came upon my return to Japan from that 10 day hiatus, and the graduation of my two senior senpai.
Within the bonsai world most masters have an ongoing chain of apprentices. Students enter his nursery on a continuing basis, and each new apprentice works to gain knowledge and experience so he is ready to take over when his senpai receive their master’s blessing to pursue bonsai on their own. Like most other transitions, the move from being the youngest to the eldest apprentice was difficult, if not traumatic. However, it also offered the biggest opportunity to improve myself as a person and my skills in bonsai. In the blink of an eye I went from being a role player in Mr. Kimura’s nursery to being his right hand man, and all the responsibility that I used to dread baring was naturally placed on my shoulders to be taken in stride.
Of course, like this plane’s course flying from Japan to San Francisco, my path as an apprentice was mapped out with the utmost care and consistency by my master. Little to my knowledge, Mr. Kimura had been gearing me up for the day I would accept the brunt of responsibility at his nursery. And even though there was room for dramatic improvement, bonsai work was the least of his worries. Instead, the biggest challenge I faced throughout my entire apprenticeship was being put in the position to teach my kohai (younger apprentices). How does someone who still struggles at times with the language go about teaching his peers the intricacies of caring for their master and conducting themselves in the highest manner? After all, we are extensions of our master, and where we go he follows, whether he is with us or not.
I spent a tremendous amount of time wrestling with this question and the uncertainty of my inherent responsibilities. Even to this day, as I look out the window and realize Japan is now miles behind me, a speck in the ocean, I question whether I’ve done what was necessary to pass the torch to the next generation of apprentices at Mr. Kimura’s nursery. Yet, it is within this continual consciousness of my concern for their wellbeing that I realize the most important thing. Regardless of culture or language, if my actions came from the heart and my sense of gratitude and respect for my master were as strong as my concern for his wellbeing then I will have done all I can, and that is enough.
So, I turn my head from looking back on my once tiny world and look at the map of my flight to come on the monitor in front of me. Funny how they can capture such a massive image of the world on such a small screen. In reality the world has become quite small and the role of bonsai within the world much larger. I sense the potential for great prosperity in the American world of bonsai as well as abroad, but not without the same amount of suffering and growth, determination and dedication. I think America has bonsai greatness sitting at our fingertips but we have a long road ahead if we are intent on grasping our opportunity and fully realizing our potential to achieve great things. Just as this plane has a course to arrive in San Francisco, I had a course to arrive as an apprentice, and I believe the U.S. has a course to arrive as a greater bonsai nation. I look forward to the journey, and hope you are all onboard to tackle the challenge and seize the opportunity. I’m excited to you see you all at the GSBF Convention in Santa Clara, October 2010 to begin another chapter in American bonsai!