Book Review: “Minature Japanese Gardens” by Kenji Kobayashi [Tuttle]

By | November 5, 2018

I’m a pretty big fan of Japanese gardens, to the point I remade my backyard into one, so I was happy to read “Minature Japanese Gardens: Beautiful Bonsai Landscape Gardens For Your Home” by Kenji Kobayashi (小林 健二). It is published by Tuttle Publishing.

This book is a great way to learn about bonsai plants (盆栽 in Japanese) and contains over one hundred pages with a large number of beautiful, full-color photographs illustrating various bonsais, tools, and garden. The plants highlighted in this book are based on a new style of bonsai called keshiki bonsai (景色盆栽), meaning “landscape bonsai”, which was invented by the author, and involves using various techniques to simulate a larger landscape in a potted plant. For example, small stones can be used to represent water, or moss to represent bushes or even animals.

The first half of the book focuses on designing miniature bonsai landscapes, and is broken up into several categories: mountain, river/lake, forest, ocean view, and other landscapes. In this section, each page focuses on a specific design or theme, containing a photograph of an example bonsai work, a photograph of the scenery which inspired the work, and a detailed diagram about the composition, with information on how to create that type of bonsai.

The second half of the book contains a handful of chapters with information about bonsai plants, including how to display them, using everyday containers for bonsai, landscape ideas, and a final section with miscellaneous information (including watering, pest control, fertilizers, and how to make potting soil).

While Tuttle does publish many books about learning Japanese, you should know this book is not really intended to teach Japanese and focuses on the bonsai and related cultural elements. Most of the plant names are identified by their formal name (ex: “Acre japonicum”) as well as their common English name (ex: “Amur Maple”), but unfortunately their Japanese name is rarely given, except for a few places. I did learn a handful of Japanese words from this book, including shitaurai (室礼), which means “objects such as decorations and furnishings that fit out a space for a particular situation” (pg.54), and is referred to as “accoutrements”. Nevertheless, I wish that more related Japanese words had been listed.

After having published a few E-books of my own (all translations at this point), I have become pretty picky about the various elements of books. This book overall is designed quite well, with appropriate photographs, well-written, easy-to-understand descriptions, and great overall visual design. Even when reading with a picky eye, I only found a very small number of typos or mistakes, and that is to be expected with a book of this length (they are all quite minor and you probably wouldn’t notice them unless you went out of your way to search for them). One of my other minor complaints is that the picture used for the cover, while fitting nicely compositionally and thematically, is a bit too blurry and underexposed in the top part of the plant, and that bothers me especially after seeing many of the pictures inside which are more photogenic. But, despite this nitpick, I think it’s a well-designed cover (believe me, I know how hard it is to design a good cover).

Each of the bonsai plants displayed throughout the book is beautiful in their own way, and there is a great deal of thought behind their design and intent. One of my favorites is the “North American River Landscape” (in the “Mountain Landscapes” section, page 14), which truly looks like a tiny version of a forest. I hope someday I can try to challenge myself to create some of these works of art, though in some cases it can take years for plants to grow together in a natural way.

All things considered, this book is a great resource about bonsai plants for both newcomers and those experienced in this art. You can see more information about this book on Tuttle’s website here. The author has his own shop in Tokyo, called Sinajina, where he sells some of the products discussed in this book.

(Note: a review copy of this book was provided by Tuttle Publishing.)

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