Bonsai (盆栽 ぼんさい Literally: Tray Planting) is the traditional Japanese art and process of cultivating trees in small containers. The process greatly reduces the size of the specimen with the intention of having the trees mimic the aesthetics and appearance of their full grown counterparts. The art of Bonsai originated in China where it is called Penjing; it was exported to Japan through diplomatic missions of the Japanese to the imperial court of the Tang emperors during the 6th century.
Given the popularity of Bonsai throughout the world, it’s not a surprise that Bayombong also hosts a handful of experts dedicated to the time-honoured art form. One of these experts is Professor Alexander Bata, a former professor of forestry at the Nueva Vizcaya State University and local entrepreneur. Professor Bata began his foray into Bonsai on April 2017. He said that what inspired him to enter into the hobby were his love of trees and the sense of amazement he felt whenever he saw these Bonsai specimens.
Four years might seem like a short time for some, considering that many world-famous bonsai specimens are decades old… even hundreds! The oldest known Bonsai tree is in Tokyo; it is estimated to be around 500 years old! But as many artists and hobbyists can attest, there will always be challenges to anyone's artistic journey and that is true for Professor Bata as well. The professor recalls facing resistance from some members of Bayombong’s Bonsai community when he began forming his own Bonsai club; they feared that their members might join him instead. But, as the saying goes: if the devil works hard, Professor Bata works harder. Within those four years, and while managing his own business to boot, in what can be described as a Bonsai Blitzkrieg, Professor Bata participated in many different competitions throughout Luzon like in Pangasinan, Pampanga, and Baguio [Benguet]. “My proudest moment was the day I won my first Bonsai award in a Bonsai seminar and Bonsai show in Baguio city. I got hooked on Bonsai culture on that day”, said Professor Bata.
Professor Bata’s background as a forester also gives him a unique insight into the ecology of the hobby. When asked if the principles of forestry can be applied to the miniature trees he was caring for, he said: “Absolutely!”. He then continued: “ the materials [specimens] that we use in Bonsai making are those that are hunted in places that they could hardly survive the elements of nature. These tree species could not grow normally. We rescue these materials and turn them into beautiful pieces of art. We lovingly care for these small trees applying principles of forestry i.e. plant propagation, fertilisation, pruning etc.”. Researchers in Nepal are also positing the idea of using Bonsai techniques as a means to conserve endemic tree species in the region.
As an art form, Bonsai was originally intended to depict the philosophies of its time, namely Zen (禅 ぜん) and primarily Wabi Sabi (侘び寂び わびさび). Wabi Sabi is the idea of embracing what is imperfect; it favours aesthetics that promotes simplicity, roughness, and modesty; it teaches people to appreciate nature and its forces. The ancient Japanese monks saw Bonsai trees as a reflection of the ageing of nature, its life cycle so to speak. When asked if more Filipinos should enter into the hobby, Professor Bata agreed saying that it’s beneficial and also possessed therapeutic advantages [for the hobbyist]. And there is evidence to support the professor’s claim. In a study in South Africa, researchers noted that respondents who tended to their Bonsai reported less stress than those who didn’t. Perhaps the 6th century eco-therapeutic Buddhist monks were way ahead of their time.
The hobby is also not devoid of economic opportunities either. Professor Bata notes that investing some time into the Bonsai hobby can also lead to economic benefits for Filipinos. He added that in his own experience, he was able to sell some of his works for thousands of Pesos during exhibits and shows throughout Luzon.
In 2018, Professor Bata was given an opportunity to showcase his talents to a more international audience. During the dedication ceremony of the historical marker celebrating the sisterhood of Bayombong and Gonohe in the town plaza of Bayombong, Professor Bata’s specimens were proudly displayed to welcome the Japanese delegates and local dignitaries. Talk about giving someone a taste of their own herbal medicine, am I right?
Bonsai is just another example of how friendship between two nations can begin and eventually flourish no matter how small the seed may be. Before the covid-19 pandemic, Professor Bata and his colleagues regularly conducted seminars and information sessions in various locations. When asked how he felt about the event, Professor Bata said: “I would be elated if someday my Bonsais would be featured in Gonohe one day. That is my wish.”
The gallery below has some of Professor Bata's works:
Hermann, Caroll. Report on Self-Management of Mental Wellbeing Using Bonsai as an Ecotherapeutic Art Tool. KwaDlangezwa,, University of Zululand, 2020.
Joshi, Kunjani. Bonsai: A Technique for Conservation of Species. Tribhuvan University, 2009.