I love Bonbai and no I didn’t spell it wrong! The art of Bonsai when applied to flowering plum trees is apparently called Bonbai and THE place to see it is at the annual Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition.
It combines two of my great loves in Japan, the zen art of bonsai and the seasonal bloom of ume. This show began in 1952 and is now a regular annual event held in late winter to early spring. While it’s been a highlight on Nagahamas calendar for many years it seems that it’s international popularity is limited and fairly recent. The hosts were very welcoming but seemed a little surprised to see two obvious foreigners arrive and insisted on taking our photo in front of the prized 400 year old tree.
On this trip we’d also traveled to Tokyo to see the esteemed Kokufu-ten bonsai show and it has to be said that was an incredible experience for anyone who enjoys the art form. The Bonbai show in Nagahama was a last minute addition to the itinerary but in all honesty I enjoyed my visit to Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition even more than the far more famous show. While Kokufu-ten shows magnificent bonsai it is extremely formal, there are no cameras allowed, and it’s housed in a multi-story city building. You are required to progress through the displays in a set sequence and once we’d purchased our ticket no one interacted with us at all. The Nagahama Exhibition was almost the exact opposite. The Bonbai are displayed in the historic Keiunkan, a traditionally styled wooden building set in delightful gardens that were beautifully dusted with fresh snow. You are allowed, even encouraged to take photos, and to take as long as you want to wander through, returning again to your favourites. No one spoke much English and we didn’t speak much Japanese but there was clear communication on how much the show was enjoyed and which were the favourites. One lady even took me back to show me her contribution to the show.
The hero of the Nagahama exhibition is a tree believed to be over 400 years old but there are all extremes here, from the tiny Shohin bonsai to blooming trees over 2 metres high. In all there are around 300 bonsai pots that belong to Nagahama city and are displayed in turn so you won’t always see the same thing. During our visit there were a good quantity out for display, I think maybe 80-100 plants each staged and displayed to its best advantage.
The timing of our visit wasn’t ideal but was fixed around other festivals and events around the country. We were there in early February and a couple of weeks later would have been preferable. Of course with many plants not in full bloom the structure of the tree can be seen more clearly and there were still plenty of plum blossom to enjoy. I later learned that if you time it right the “Night Bonbai” from mid February is an optimal time to go and also enjoy the beautifully lit garden.
In addition to the show take time to appreciate historic Keiunkan, the wooden building and gardens are a treat in themselves. They were built in 1887 as a guest house for the Emperor Meiji. The views framed from the windows out over the garden are beautiful.
Nagahama has become one of our favourite towns to day trip to from Kyoto. If you have time you might also enjoy exploring the castle and park, Lake Biwa, Kurokabe Square and the delicious food available in town. The Nagahama Hikiyama Festival held in April each year is also a great experience.
When, Where and Other Bonbai Details
Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition is held annually, while it varies by a few days each year it runs roughly from the 10th January to the 10th March.
Entry is Y500 and you have the option to enjoy tea and sweets upstairs at additional cost. Sipping matcha overlooking the same gardens once admired by an Emperor isn’t something I get to do every day!
If you live in Japan and keep bonsai yourself there are some incredible bargains for purchase as you leave, unfortunately for international travelers you just have to admire them and accept that you won’t be getting the bonsai stock bargain of the century.
Take a JR train to the Nagahama station and use exit towards the lake and castle. Turn left as you leave the station, then take the first left and walk up past the canal to Keiunkan, it isn’t very far maybe 5 minutes and I was walking pretty slowly on those icy footpaths.
Nagahama station is about 35 minutes from Kyoto by train with a switch at Maibara.