That year, in 1955, my father and I often drove Iseyama-san to places like an arboretum, where he taught bonsai to garden clubs. We’d unload the trunk of our car of plants. pots, and tools and help set up a blackboard and card table for Iseyama-san’s demonstration. This thin slightly built man, who lived in Berkeley, was my father’s friend and mentor. He was generous with advice and eager to pass on his knowledge of bonsai to anyone who was interested. Afterwards, we’d take him home and he would invite us into his house and then out to his garden, where he had a wonderful collection of bonsai. On occasion he would show us how to improve the shape of a tree, which wasn’t always easy for him to do.
He would take his time if he were considering the removal of a branch. He would reflect upon its proximity to other branches and its location on the trunk of tree.. He imagined its loss from all angles, up and down and sideways, and then again from another angle.
“S-o-o-h, h-m-m,” he would say with his glasses perched on his forehead. He would rotate the blue cedar, slowly, its trunk angled sharply away from the root crown and grew in a gentle spiral to its uppermost branch. The graceful cedar stood slightly more than a foot tall in a brown rectangular container.
Upon brief reflection,.he would clack his dentures, chuckle and say, “Kono shita-eda wa taisetsu ja, this lower branch is extremely valuable . . .” And suddenly, I could see its value, which I hadn’t noticed previously.
“Iseyama-san, he very good,” my father would say. “He making bonsai long time, he know what he talking about.” Not only would he teach the art of shaping trees, he wrote haiku poetry and painted, as well. .
But sometimes, the decisions were more difficult. “Shikataga nai, can’t be helped, kono bonsai no katachi wa mata kaoru, the shape of this bonsai must change,” Iseyama-san would say, rotating the tree several more times, while stepping back and stroking his chin. And then he poured my father a cup of sake, and he, in turn, poured sake into Iseyama-san‘s cup. I could only watch, since I was a novice. I didn’t count.
After several cups of sake, Iseyama-san wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, scratched his head, walked to the table, picked up a small saw (the size of a butter knife), lowered his glasses, and turned the tree slowly. He downed another cup of sake, took the cedar off the turntable, held the topmost branch with his left hand, and with several pulls of his saw, cut the upper most branch off where it joined the stem. Then with a chisel, he scooped out the cut and sealed it with tar. He then put the tree back on the turntable, and turned it slowly for viewing.
What had been the second tier of branches had become the crown. With wire Iseyama-san redirected the direction of several branches and created a new balance.. “This bonsai was getting too tall,” he said, clacking his teeth. Rotating the cedar again, he asked my father, “What do you think?”
“Yapari Iseyama-san wa jozu ja, Yes, indeed, Iseyama-san, you are an artist”