By John "Jay" Boryczko (Farmington Hills, Michigan)  Journal contributing editor

                 I spent the last month getting my wild junipers trimmed and into their mobile planting tray and reviewing June’s article, I did on Saikei.  Then it hit me, I realized the book Saikei: Living Landscapes in Miniature by Toshio Kawamoto, did the same thing to me as I did to you.  The book and I started teaching in the middle of the process and did not explain how we steadily progress to compositions that are more complex.  My apologies, sorry if I lost anyone or confused the heck out of a few while on our way. 

                I found the first half of the book a little confusing, but I stuck it out to the end.  I hope you do the same.  This article should open your eyes and your mind as mine was by sticking it out to the end of Toshio’s book.  Please take the time to query saikei on the internet.  You should come across some good articles about design and the principles of saikei.   I will try in this article to cover a few saikei design principles and concepts, AKA “the basics” and we will build on those basics in later journal articles.


                Now that I am starting at the beginning, I have to mention saikei and bonsai both use the triangle theory or method.  You are after all applying bonsai techniques to the trees in saikei plantings so this should not be a very new concept.  If you look closely at bonsai compositions, you will notice the outline of the tree’s canopy resembles an uneven triangle.  This principle is also applied to forest plantings as well.  What is an uneven triangle?  The 30, 60, 90 degree triangle I used in June’s article is an example of an uneven triangle. 

                 While you are applying bonsai techniques to the trees and rocks in your compositions, the actual branch placement is less important because we are viewing a scene and not individual trees.  Here are a few other bonsai carry over “rules” or, should I say “guidelines”. 

                 Use odd numbers of trees and rocks.  The trees and rocks should also not be equal distances from each other or, when viewed from the side they should not line up with each other.  Let's apply those concepts to some simple layouts.  Keep in mind the five fundamentals, (flow, stability, scale, interest and depth) I covered in June’s edition of this Journal.




                This first planting, like in Toshio’s book will be with one rock and one tree.  We had to start somewhere and work our way to more complex compositions.  There are two ways to plant this for saikei, were the tree and the rock share the same centerline for a close view.  The other is, with the rock towards the back of the pot to simulate mountains in the distance.  For these trials, I will spare the moss and save it for the more complex compositions.  Let your mind wonder and visualize where you would put the moss to simulate green grass.

                The first of the three pictures is a top view sketch of the two element saikei composistion with the tree and the rock on the same centerline.  This gives us a close up view, almost as if we were standing at the base of the tree or at the foot of the hill with the rock jutting out of the ground.  The other two pictures use the same rock but I switched the trees in the arrangement.




                     Just like the first set of pictures, the first is the top view sketch where the tree’s center mass is along the centerline of the tray and the rock is towards the back of the composition.  After viewing these pictures, it would probably look better if the rock was not so close to the edge of the tray.  I think there needed to be some visible space between the rock and the edge of the tray, like the first set of pictures above.  An even better approach would be to have the tree and rock really close to each other off to one side of the pot --- David’s preferred planting style.  I am trying to get there myself, but not yet.




                  Now the three pieces composition laid out as it is in Toshio’s book. I have to say the three-element compositions pictured here are not inspiring to me.  So, just like in my pervious saikei articles when we have a three element composition we can break out our trusty 30, 60 ,90 degree triangle and try to make these a little more interesting.  From the last photo, you can see I moved the pieces to reflect the un-even triangle.



                  The set of four pictures here are various combinations using the three elements and the 30, 60, 90 degree triangle.  Of the four pictured here, I like the second picture the best.  The tree and the rocks appear in harmony and positioned well on the hill with appropriate scale.  However, this composition seems too spaced out and needs more components to help fill out the container.  A better option would be to place the elements closer together and off to one side like mentioned above.

                  You may recognize the trees in these photos because they are the trees from my mix and match set.  The rocks for this trial were collected the same day I collected the other rocks in my past articles.  Therefore, I thought it best for the first saikei compositions I use stones that I did not carve, just a quick tap with a hammer and chisel.  In the future, many of the stones will be heavily worked to achieve the desired shape. 

                  While these designs may seem overly simplistic, I had to start somewhere.  David reminded me why he plants along diagonal lines for compositions and not straight lines like those pictured above.  I agree totally that planting on a diagonal line gives compositions a more three dimensional appearance.  At times I may think I have done a good job on a design for a tree or saikei, a quick picture will tell you the truth.  There is something to the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” 

                  David also pointed out something he noticed in some of the pictures I sent to him while experimenting with compositions for this article.  David noticed a less that desirable planting style emerging in the photos, orchard style.  I now have a habit to break.  Orchard style is not really a style but it resembles an orchard where everything is evenly spaced and in rows just like an orchard.

                          Pictured above is my first five tree, five-rock saikei composition.  It is a little rough but I had to put my best foot forward and try.  You need to do the same!  I have spent a great deal of time trying to come up with the perfect design.  I tried so hard to get a design perfect it paralyzed me to the point I would not even try to build a composition.  Do not worry about making mistakes.  Mistakes are how you and I will one day learn to compose great compositions.  If we do not make mistakes then we will learn little.  My advice to you is try the simple compositions I have done in the beginning of this article.  They will help build your confidence and experience.


                   I know from personal experience that saikei can be a daunting undertaking.  I have admitted to the journal team, I am but an amateur at saikei and become paralyzed with executing designs.  I have not even reached the point of an enthusiastic saikei hobbyist, yet.  I have a lot to learn before I can claim the enthusiastic saikei hobbyist status.  David is willing to take us, kicking and screaming if need be, through the process of learning how to design and execute saikei compositions.  Next month, I will clean up and detail the saikei I have pictured above, explaining what it took to build it and we will then critic it.  Oh yes, there is room for improvement.  I hope all have been enjoying the summer weather.  It is getting close to the time for those of us who bring their indoor trees out for summer, indoors.  I will cover some of my prep work for the day the trees have to come in for winter.

                   Warmest Summer Regards!   - - - Jay  (



                   I hope readers are enjoying Jay as much as I am! He's really an interesting fellow that is pretty good at keeping me off-balance,  sending me some interesting drafts,  raising questions, and sending me ideas that seem to "zig", but when the actual article comes in there's a lot of "zag!"   I had the pleasure of meeting Toshio Kawamoto and his associate Tom Yamamoto (who created the original saikei that was restored in another article in this issue).  Toshio's dad was a well regarded bonsai master in pre-war Japan.  But in post-war Japan,  things were tough and there wasn't a lot of money for luxuries like bonsai.  So "saikei" was created to be a very casual form of tray landscapes that used inexpensive young plants much that Jay is doing. 

                   Jay has the advantage of Kawamoto's saikei book while mine got ruined in a flood a while back and I haven't seen a copy for many years.  I questioned Jay as it doesn't look right to see items right in the center line but Jay says that's in the book.  I must say that Jay's 5 rock - 5 tree first effort looks pretty good --- a lot better than when I was starting out quite a few years ago!  Jay and everyone else has the opportunity to start on the shoulders of the generation before and it's our hope and desire that everyone can start on our shoulders and keep improving and sharing the peaceful art and culture of artistic pot plants!   Jay's doing a nice job teaching and I think he's learning the most! 

                     He hit a wall last month when things didn't seem to fit and was happy to take a break and play with mini-bonsai.  He made a strong comeback and I'm looking forward to his next saikei journey!  Nice article, Jay!    ~~~David

*** Return to the August 2014 issue of Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
*** Go to the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
*** Go to the Fuku-Bonsai website
© Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2014