Living Landscapes

                After World War II,  Japan faced severe economic difficulties and few could afford traditional bonsai activities. In this setting Toshio Kawamoto developed an innovative form of tray landscapes he named "Saikei." Inexpensive young plant materials and common rocks were used to create beautiful scenes at modest cost.  They were ideal for beginners as the arrangements could be immediately enjoyed while training continued.

                Toshio authored several books that are now out of print. He visited Hawaii in 1972 enroute home from headlining the International Bonsai Congress 1972 in Kansas City, Missouri. He was accompanied by his Hawaii-born English-speaking assistant Tom Yamamoto, who was part of the American Occupational Forces and who had retired in Japan. They introduced saikei to Hawaii and provided the conceptual foundation that was used to create several of the landscapes featured at the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center.

Saikei 1 1991.jpg (16926 bytes)


        Tom demonstrated at the Kona Fuku-Bonsai Center in November of 1991 as part of public presentations, assisted by Michael Imaino.  By then, Toshio had retired and Tom was taking over as the head master. Lava rocks had been picked up along the road in Kona and very young Dwarf Prostrate Junipers (Juniperus squamata 'Prostrata') were used.

Saikei 2 1991.jpg (16467 bytes)         Tom's lecture-demonstration covered the entire saikei concepts of rock and tree placement and the use of muck to create vertical "walls" between rocks to contain the media.  Moss covered the muck and the large amount of media provided excellent growing conditions. 

        Tom Yamamoto and Toshio Kawamoto are two outstanding members of the "World War II" generation.   Once enemies, their love of bonsai made them friends and they generously shared their knowledge!  Mahalo Tom and Toshio!

                Sometimes saikei is later taken apart and the individual trees trained into individual traditional bonsai. At other times the arrangement continues to be improved. In 1994, the Kona Fuku-Bonsai Center was forced to close and all bonsai were brought back to Kurtistown.   In those difficult years of struggling to rebuild the nursery and to survive, the saikei received minimal care only when time allowed.  But they continued to develop well.

                At the Bonsai Day on September 14, 2002,  about 11 years after the saikei was first created,  we were able to commit the necessary time to do a long planned restyling.   The individual trees had developed well, but they were growing tightly above each other and raising concern that shading would cause branches to die. 

                Horizontally, the arrangement was okay and the original pot was to be reused.  But the arrangement would be "stretched vertically" to give each plant more room to develop.   Aside from the greater vertical spacing, the concept of the original arrangement was to be preserved as a tribute to Tom Yamamoto and Toshio Kawamoto.

Saikei 3 2002.jpg (16217 bytes)


      1. We repeated Tom's saikei introductory presentation regarding rock and plant placements and explained our plan to substitute taller rocks to create a taller vertical arrangement to utilize the same plants and pot. The bottom of the tallest rock had been cemented to provide a stable base.

Saikei 4 2002.jpg (15975 bytes)       2. Fuku-Bonsai developed a "non-soil Keto-tsuchi muck" made up of dried spaghnum moss, volcanic pumice dust, and thickened cornstarch as the binder.  One-third cup of cornstarch and 1 cup of water is vigorously stirred and boiled until the cornstarch thickens. When cooled, about 1/3 of each component is mixed together to form the desirable consistency. For a stickier muck use more cornstarch. For a drier muck use more dust.  For stronger vertical strength, use more spaghum moss.  It works, but may smell a bit a week or two later.
Saikei 5 2002.jpg (17387 bytes)     3. While Michael mixed the muck,  Fuku-Bonsai nursery supervisor Edison Yadao started taking apart the original arrangement and started combing out all media from the roots with a root hook. It was necessary to remove as much media as possible so the root mass would be as compact as possible. 
Saikei 6 2002.jpg (17094 bytes)     4. As the media combed out from each tree, the root system was wrapped with aluminum foil to prevent drying out. When all media was collected, it totaled about 7 1/2 gallons. If properly planted,  young saikei trees are very healthy and part of attractive arrangements while being developed as future bonsai.
Saikei 7 2002.jpg (15015 bytes)     5.  Michael had the responsibility to set the placements of the trees and he tried to place them in their original locations, but higher. Masking tape and wire were used to hold the plants in place and adjustments were made. Each tree was positioned to emphasize the maximum number of good features with the best trees placed first.  Lower quality trees were placed in the back.
Saikei 8 2002.jpg (18326 bytes)    6.  The taller trees were used standard rock planting techniques.  As trees were secured, media was dibbled between the roots. Muck was sparingly used to bind the media and served as a base for the moss covering.  A large amount of spaghnum moss was used in the top areas and down through the root systems. This would allow water to penetrate from the top and down through the root systems without washing off the decorative surface moss.
Saikei 9 2002.jpg (21423 bytes)     7. For this type of work, an "open U-shaped funnel" holds the media while a bamboo dibble forces it into openings. Note that trees and rocks are temporarily tightly tied while the media is placed.  After completion, the visible ties are removed and if properly done, the arrangement stays together with no visible ties. 
Saikei 10 2002.jpg (16729 bytes)     8.  The work takes a lot of time.  When we stopped for lunch, wet rags were wrapped around the root masses. It's good to have water spray bottles to keep dampening the roots. At this stage, while the finished appearance is very evident and there was still a lot of work yet to do.
Saikei 11 2002.jpg (20747 bytes)     9.  After completion the next day.  This view of the same general area as photo #7 shows the arrangement from the back and side.  The roots of the "island" tree are not visible from the front side. "Cliffs" seem to drop straight into the "sea."   The rounded river pebbles are a nice contrast with the colors of the rocks and moss.

Saikei 12 2002.jpg (37199 bytes)

                Twisted junipers precariously clasp an island and cliffs as the ocean swirls below.  Much of the front view has pebbles while the right and half of the back has moss to suggest land.   The photo was taken the day after the restyling was complete. 

                The concept of saikei has proven to be valid, durable, and ideal for beginners.  It produces great results which improves with age.  In establishing the general design of this arrangement, Tom Yamamoto created vivid mental pictures of the scene that he envisioned.  This made it easy to modify but retain the original design concept. "Windy Seashore" will continue to develop and honor saikei masters Toshio Kawamoto and Tom Yamamoto and serves as a link to Michael Imaino and the friendship between Japan and Hawaii.

*** Return to Fuku-Bonsai Home Page
*** Return to FBnews 5 (30th Anniversary Issue)
        PO Box 6000 (Olaa Road), Kurtistown, Hawaii 96760
        Phone (808) 982-9880;  FAX (808) 982-9883
        Email:     URL:
Fuku-Bonsai Inc. 2002