Ben Oki Scholarship Recipient Michael Shelly (Unedited)

I want to first start off with what an incredible honor and privilege it is to step foot on the gardens at Mirai. I’m tremendously grateful that our class has the opportunity to benefit by learning from Ryan’s experiences not only in Japan under Mr. Kimura, but as he’s evolved to form his own style and solidify his methods.

Some may say that Mirai doesn’t follow rules, breaks the Japanese mold, is rogue, (insert whatever comment or criticism here)… but I think the most important thing to consider is that Mirai begins everything with the same question… “What are we trying to accomplish?” This always determines the current approach to the tree in terms of horticulture and design with the intent of always producing the very best and healthiest tree. The tree can transcend a mold if you let yourself go there. I think this is where Mirai is going and what has attracted me to want to be a part of it.


This was the 2nd of 3 intensive weekends over 2018 at Mirai centered around Junipers and this class began much like the first one did, discussions and lecture around the foundations of horticulture. The premise always being that the tree should have and maintain ultimate health to become their very best bonsai. Without this, your wiring techniques, bending techniques, grand design ideas, etc. all become irrelevant. You can’t continue to evolve the design of a dead or sick tree. Health and horticulture are always first and this effectively will help to dictate the design.


After we reviewed the essentials and foundations, we moved to structural wiring techniques. Ryan demonstrated on several Hollywood juniper branches that were secured to our turn tables and then let us practice. We each did 3 branches and he reviewed and provided feedback each time on how to fix mistakes we made.


After learning the wiring techniques, we moved to raffia. He addressed the intricacies in number of strands relative to branch size, how to apply raffia with minimal to no knots showing, the physics of bending, and where and how the compressive forces act on a branch. Feedback was given after each attempt and the class definitely improved each time.

We then discussed different Native Juniper species and their respective traits, what gives each one value, what their deadwood is like, how the deadwood is created by the natural environment, and most importantly, how each one of them smells differently. This part was absolutely fascinating as they are all distinctly different. The most interesting thing is comparing the native species to the domesticated varieties where the smell is uniform and lacks any real nuance.


As we moved from techniques and understanding nuances, next came design principles. This is where, at least for me, my eyes were opened to see what a tree is doing. We reviewed trees in various Kokufu books and had to find trees that were Harmonious, Tension-filled, Dynamic, and Ambiguous in their designs and explain why we thought that. Try looking at a Kokufu tree and determining where the defining branch and apex go, it’s harder than you think. It helped us set the intention of “What are we trying to accomplish?” when looking at a tree when we approach the initial styling.


Next came what Ryan termed the “Bonsai Vortex” effectively taking a tree from an initial styling phase to a refined phase. He showed us examples in his garden of this but more importantly, how to take (at least in discussion) a tree that is already refined to the next level. Understanding this is critical as the last thing we want to do is take a tree from a refined state back to an initial styling phase. We need to try and promote the advancement of age and the ancient when possible as our trees become highly refined.


The final exercise came with each person in the class sketching out harmonious, tension, and dynamic designs with raw material that we were going to style in class. Base, Line, Features of the trees were beat into us like akadama dust. Ryan reviewed each tree with the class and we all had input, asked questions, and a decision was made to design based of off objective principles: best base, best line, best features. As Ryan likes to say, serendipity prevails when you design this way meaning that 90% of the time, the best tree comes forward.


I brought up a tree that was acquired at Bonsai-a-Thon to design and directly applied the raffia and wiring techniques that we had been learning over the course of 3 days. Ryan helped confirm the initial design after discussion and then I got to work. He answered questions as I moved along and assisted with the more advanced techniques when needed. After about 5 hours or so, the initial styling was complete and it’ll be another 12-18 months before the secondary styling is applied to the tree.


All in all, much like the first intensive weekend, it was an incredible 3 days full of objective principles, hard work, and incredible camaraderie.


I can’t thank California Bonsai Society enough for the grant, my first teacher Fred Miyahara for pushing me to be better, and of course, Ryan Neil and Bonsai Mirai for the incredible experience. I’m very much looking forward to the evolution of not only my tree, but my bonsai practice.


Michael Shelly

July 2018

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