Cultivating Art

Cultivating Art

How does an English teacher in Japan become a bonsai master? American Adam Jones reveals all.

Nestled on three acres of picturesque cedar and bamboo woodlands in Ibaraki Prefecture is a garden of tiny trees.

Amid them strolls Adam Jones, the only American bonsai master in Japan to run his own garden.

This month, he welcomes Members to the grounds of Tree House Bonsai, which he opened in 2018, as part of a tour organized by the Club’s Connections group.

The Pennsylvania native began his bonsai journey in 2011. As a young English teacher in Japan, he stumbled on Manseien in Saitama, one of the top three bonsai gardens in the world. The allure of the miniature masterpieces, cultivated over decades and even centuries, was impossible to resist.

Eventually, Jones convinced the garden’s owner, Takahiro Kato, to take him on as an apprentice, or deshi. During his intensive, five-year apprenticeship, Jones immersed himself in the ancient art form that involves pruning, manicuring and manipulating a plant into something aesthetically pleasing.

“Real bonsai is so far beyond what any of us have in our head of this little plaything,” Jones, 39, explains. “It’s like, oh, this is art.”

Jones describes his apprenticeship as a “trial by fire.”

“They just handed me a tree and said, ‘Wire this tree [but] don’t cut too much and don’t use too much wire’,” he says of those testing days.

At the heart of the traditional tutelage system in Japan is dedication and patience.

“You’re working something like 75 to 80 hours a week and you get three days off a month,” Jones explains. “It is entirely up to the opinion of your teacher when you are done. You have no control over your time. You have no control over your personal life. You have no control over anything.”

The commitment is exhausting, but to relinquish control in the pursuit of a passion makes the experience all the more rewarding, Jones says. Finally, in 2018, he was certified by the Nippon Bonsai Association.

Now that he operates his own garden, Jones acknowledges the enormity of his mentor’s influence.

“I have nothing but the highest level of respect for the man that taught me,” he says. “I am impressed with who he is and what he has done. It’s incredible.”

As a bilingual bonsai horticulturist, Jones relishes sharing the beauty and tradition of his vocation with both Japanese and non-Japanese visitors to his garden, as he’ll do later this month.

“[Club Members] can experience what a bonsai garden looks like and how to work on the highest level of trees.”

Bonsai Clinic
October 31 | 10am–12pm

Words: Kiana Cook
Top image of Adam Jones: Donna Beeman

October 2023