Tokonoma night lights


Tokonoma version 2.0 Now light is installed in the outdoor Tokonoma, finished this summer for enjoying bonsai viewing. This makes it possible to make a display in the evenings during the darker periods of autumn. Displayed is a not yet finished Japanese maple, but chosen for the autumn leaves change.

Why a bonsai should look like a bonsai

Text and photos (C): Morten Albek

After publishing a few comments are added due to a question raised at Facebook. Inserted comments to the article, edited March 14th are marked *

For years it has been discussed if a bonsai should look like a tree in nature, or bonsai just looks like bonsai do. There even is a saying that tells, “don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, but make your bonsai look like a tree”.

Japanese white pine at the Bonsai Museum in Omiya.


But that is a truth with some contradictions. Although we want our bonsai to depict a tree in nature, it is not a copy we produce. If we follow the path of the Japanese bonsai tradition, a bonsai have its own aesthetic preferences, which makes it look more like a bonsai than a natural reproduction of a tree scaled to miniature size. The Japanese tradition is making an implied image of a tree, with all the best characteristics pulled out and refined in the bonsai. Age as main factor, reflected in old bark, twisted branches, refined twigs and a root base that shows strength as basic guidelines, supported by the pot and seen as a whole.

Acer palmatum at the Bonsai Werkstatt in Düsseldorf, Germany.


Others, primarily in the west, has an approach of more naturalistic trees, that are closer to be one to one with trees seen in the environment. With less refinement, and a looser appearance. This can be argued to be a pure aesthetical preference, or the devil will say, laziness not completing the long termed task it is to fulfill and develop the final and very refined Japanese version. The aged look is sometimes lost in translation, but the style have its friends and this will surely hold on in the future too. Trees may not look as sold as the Japanese version, but with the historic background and cultural differences in mind people may look different at the same subject, and therefore acting their own way.

Japanese white pine at Daizo Iwasakis garden in Japan. The wide soft top of the canopy is typical for the Japanese style bonsai.

Japanese bonsai are very much based on the hundred of years old trees seen in the Japanese mountains. Many with a compact rounded top of the canopy, because the aged trees has reached their growing limits, and develops these characteristics. Therefore many Japanese style bonsai has this kind of soft and wide canopy, not seen as often in the western European naturalistic style. The rounded wide canopy may seem overdone by some westerners, but it is bonded with the tradition of bonsai in Japan.

 What is a traditional, or maybe better said, classical Japanese bonsai? Japanese bonsai has a very long history, and has developed through hundred of years. In a western perspective, we have only really known bonsai as they have been presented to us after the 2nd World War. That is a very short history of bonsai, only counting 60 years, give and take. That is the period we often refers to, talking classical or traditional bonsai, even though the Japanese bonsai has a far wider history. Because this is the period we see pictures from, or what is shown to us at this time.

Rather than letting your bonsai look like a tree,

you might want to make your bonsai look like a bonsai.

The Japanese bonsai very much has its style based on its history and tradition. Therefore a bonsai may look more like a bonsai than a tree.

This may sound a bit controversial, when we have been teached to look at trees, their style and appearance, learning to reflect this in our bonsai. Shouldn’t the bonsai look like a tree then? Yes, but in an implied way. Like the artist translating her/his motive on the canvas, or the sculptor who forms the vision of a human body e.g. All has its background in history and changes with time. None of it is a one to one copy of the real item, but a translated version. This also is so with bonsai. Therefore we will find varieties of bonsai styles, although it comes from the same source.

Chinese Shohin-bonsai exhibition with both Penjing style bonsai and classical Japanese style trees.

Chinese bonsai has a different cultural background, and China was the motherhood for bonsai by the way. In China Penjing (Bonsai) are shaped sometimes as symbols, and have different appearances than the Japanese versions. In modern China today, Japanese bonsai are flowing into the market, and a mixture of the Japanese and original Chinese bonsai tradition is seen a Chinese bonsai nurseries and exhibitions today. At the first large Shohin exhibition I attended in 2014, it was funny to see how both Japanese imported and styled bonsai was mixed with the original Chinese Penjing style. Even in the same display.

Chinese pot.

Also pots are exchanging hands from Japan to China, as economy grows in China. That means that valuable Japanese pots goes to China, as well as chinese collectors buys back original antique Penjing containers that were sold to Japan years ago. In the west a lot of bonsai pots are produced because we have a rich tradition of pottery. This also influences the style of bonsai, when trees are combined with another style of pot, developing another presentation of the bonsai art.

Bonsai in the modern times are influenced by artists that are are inspired by a variety of impressions from around the world. Even without travelling anywhere, because the Internet make the access to photos and video easy. There is a risk of the overall picture getting muddy, if we do not understand the history of bonsai. Bonsai will develop and we will search for new ways, or cling to tradition, but it is important we to know the background of it all whatever way we choose.

It is of importance to know on which shoulders we stand. It is only by knowing what was before, we can move forward and develop what we are doing. If we do not know the heritage of bonsai, on what experience shall be then build? It will be like shooting blindfolded into the air, hoping to hit something, and often even not knowing when we hit.

* My wife is an experienced painter. She paints modern paintings, but wouldn’t be able to do her artworks as she does, without having a art history to lean on. It gives a huge advantage to know what was before, being able to succeed moving forward.

Grow the new bonsai in respect of the old and the history from which it derives. Without we may loose the grip and produce something that is lost in translation, and devalue the importance of bonsai as art.

Penjing at the Shanghai Botanical Gardens, China.






Bonsai photos from many countries

Today I added bonsai photos from Europe, Brazil, China and Japan to a new photo section. From travels, workshops and demonstrations, visits at bonsai nurseries and private. Enjoy the photos.



Shohin display workshop

Photos from the my recent workshop at the local club Vestjylland in Denmark, dealing with Shohin Bonsai display. Photos: Hans Jørgen Nielsen, Bonsaiværkstedet.
‪#‎photos‬ ‪#‎shohin‬ ‪#‎bonsai‬ ‪#‎bonsaivaerkstedet‬ ‪#‎denmark‬ ‪#‎display‬


Celebrating Torben Pedersen.

Torben Pedersens 60 års fødselsdag blev fejret for nogle dage siden. / A few days ago we celebrated the Birthday of Torben Pedersen who turned 60.


Torben er medstifter og bestyrelsesmedlem i Shohin Bonsai Danmark. Udover bonsai dyrker han kampkunst i stor stil, og er uinderviser på højt plan. Fødselsdagsgæsterne fik både opvisning og personlig udstilling af bonsai og Suiseki. / Torben Pedersen is co-founder of Shohin Bonsai Danmark, but also a very keen martial art enthusiast and instructor at heigh level. The guests were entertained with both martial arts and Torbens personal exhibition of bonsai and Suiseki. 

Mini-bonsai (shohin) exhibition in China

The 2nd Mini-bonsai exhibition September 2014 in Changzhou Qinxin Garden was an experience and a surprise to me. I had not expected something like this when I was invited to China to be part of this event.


At the exhibition I counted about 130 Mini-bonsai displays and many of high quality. Shohin- or Mini-bonsai, are growing rapidly in popularity in Japan, and in the west too. But clearly also in China, who can now make an event like this, showing the best of Mini-bonsai although still having a very short history of this type of bonsai. Not at least set up against a more than 1300 year history of bonsai in China.

Mini-bonsai has a different perspective than normal larger bonsai. Where large bonsai are displayed by themselves to show the beauty, strength and elegance of the tree, Mini-bonsai are focused on showing the beauty of the season too. This is done by displaying two or several trees together in a harmonious display, where flowering trees are important in summer, fruit bearing trees in autumn, and as deciduous trees do in winter, bringing out the feeling of the season.


Shohin and Mini-bonsai are poetic displays, bringing joy to the viewer. So when I have put all the technical stuff aside, not looking on trees pointing in the right or wrong direction i.e., and just look at the displays, joy is the word that came in to my mind first. The playfulness and purity of the shown displays is still what is filling me with happiness after watching the exhibition. Something I also noticed in the faces of the many guests attending the event.

There were clear signs of the traditional Chinese Penjing style in many displays, while others had inspiration from Japanese bonsai culture or a mixture. All put together in a professional set up with each display area divided and framed with beautiful wood carved frames. The overall impact as a visitor must be joy, seeing so many displays in one place in a so well done arrangement in the impressive Changzhou Qinxin Garden.


The opening ceremony and the way we as visitors have been received were overwhelming. The friendliness and hospitality will be remembered by us all I am sure. This kindness is somehow reflected in the way Mini-bonsai is displayed. There are many items in each display, using figures and arranging the display freely. The style is reflecting the cultural background, as it is in Japan, and as it is in my country in Europe where I have my background. The world of bonsai and Mini-bonsai will undoubtedly have its influence on how we approach and display.

We will in future not only have our own perception and national way of doing the art, but also we will be adapting what we see in a global world, exchanging not only knowledge but also aesthetical views and ideas. And not at least, and of great importance, sharing friendship in the name of bonsai.


The world of Mini-bonsai is playful and it is fun. It is also accessible to many people who will be able to find this kind of bonsai easier to access and finding it easier to achieve material less expensive than larger bonsai. Exhibitions like this are opening the eyes for more people to find the beauty and appreciate it.


Mini-bonsai in China will certainly grow rapidly in the time to come as it is all over the world. Also in Europe, where the first national Mini bonsai association British Shohin Bonsai was formed in 2005 under the name British Shohin Bonsai Association. Followed by the Shohin Bonsai Danmark organisation in Denmark, which I established this fall with Johnny Eslykke and Torben Pedersen. I look forward to see how Mini-bonsai will grow and develop the next years, in China, Japan, Korea, Denmark, Europe and the rest of the world.

View all 163 photos from the mini-bonsai exhibition at 


Shohin workshop 2 – displaying


At the Shohin workshop at the Bonsaiwerkstatt in Düsseldorf, Germany, we used the late Sunday part of the workshop to do some shohin presentations. There was a display rack available, and we used the trees already available through the workshop. So this was not a display by selected trees, but trying some displays with trees available.

It is valuable to set up some different displays, discussing sizes, directions and pot colours for practise and enlightenment. Trees were swapped to see the effect of it, and the discussions were open-minded but also influenced by personal preferences. As it should be. A display is a personal expression of the nature presented, and therefore we have different opinions about taste of colours and shapes i.e. The expression of the season is of great importance, but how we individually express this is different from each of us.

We discussed “rules” and guidelines, and I sensed that we agreed that there are few rules and much freedom to express the beauty of nature with a personal feeling. I will recommend to do this more often. Bring everything along, try different presentations with small or big changes, and discuss what works and what doesn’t.

Haruyosi shohin display

There are many ways of setting up a shohin-bonsai display. Haruyosi from Japan has permitted that I share some of his Facebook and blog content to share experiences and his efforts with shohin-bonsai. I find this kind of sharing valuable because it opens our minds for other views than the common established way of seeing and perceiving.

In this example it is tested how a shohin-bonsai display works with the items available.

Firts a test of setting up two bonsai at the main position (right) and a secondary tree (left) - afterwards changed.
Firts a test of setting up two bonsai at the main position (right) and a secondary tree (left) – afterwards changed.
It shown to be difficult because the impression changes depending on how the trees are placed.  It changes also the depth of the display how the other items are placed, and even small changes can make a great difference.
It shows – after the two trees have changed position – to be difficult because the impression changes depending on how the trees are placed. It changes also the depth of the display how the other items are placed, and even small changes can make a great difference.
Here several items are prepared, and pieces are tried in different positions to see what works best.
Here several items are prepared, and pieces are tried in different positions to see what works best.
The final display so far. The display balance is good, and what is on hand is used. There is not the luxury of choosing among a lot of trees, because we have to use what is available.
The final display so far. The display balance is good, and what is on hand is used. There is not the luxury of choosing among a lot of trees, because we have to use what is available.

This example shows how the display is set up by choosing among trees at hand. It is set up by the use of trees from a personal collection, without making use of rented trees or pots, or assistance from a nursery. It is a good lesson in dealing with a shohin-bonsai display trying different possibilities, and observing how it changes the expression by changing simple elements. Try it at home🙂