Bonsai Confidential - Bjorn Bjorholm - Eisei-en Nursery
Updated: Feb 15
After a string of successful Bonsai potter interviews, I’ve decided to switch gears from the potters to the masters, in a new segment I'm calling "Bonsai Confidential". Like my Potter's Spotlight series, I hope to have various Bonsai artists drop by the blog for interviews. And who better to start our series than the fantastic Bjorn Bjorholm! Readers of the PLB blog know that I’m a student of Bjorn’s at Eisei-en here in Nashville, so when I heard Bjorn was starting up a new online platform, I knew I had to interview him. In our conversation we discussed 2020, snapping branches in Japan, becoming a dad and of course, his new subscription learning platform, BonsaiU. What follows is our (slightly) edited exchange. I hope you enjoy!!
PeaceLoveBonsai: Good morning Bjorn! I appreciate you letting me interview you for the blog!
Bjorn Bjorholm: Sure, no problem, looking forward to it.
PeaceLoveBonsai: So let's start with 2020. I mean, gosh, what a year. What’s been the biggest challenge for you in 2020?
Bjorn: Sure, well our business model revolved around the education aspect of the school we have here at Eisei-en. We had to cancel all the classes this year and that’s probably 90% of our revenue. We’ve had to figure out a way to stay afloat. We shifted away from teaching, at least in person, to more online business. We started the online shop back in April when we realized that it was gonna be awhile before we can get classes going again. We started selling pots and tools and trees on the website. That has been pretty good and it has kept us afloat for the year and allowed us to basically break even. Which is, you know, about as good as you can hope for, I think in a year with a pandemic.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Have you found a chance to work on projects that you may have pushed off? Or work on trees of your own?
Bjorn: Yeah, for sure. The main thing was getting the nursery organized and set up properly. The other part was having my apprentice, Cameron, come on board. We were able to do a lot of landscaping and building projects around the nursery that I hadn’t had time to do or just couldn’t do physically by myself. The garden has really transformed in the last nine months since the pandemic started. In addition to that, there’s been more time to work on my own material, especially in the summer. We don’t have as many people interested in having us work their trees in the summer because it’s so freaking hot and humid here. That gave me time to work on the trees around the garden. I’ve got my trees and many of the garden trees which are going up for sale. As soon as the weather changed and it got below like 65 degrees, everybody started contacting me to work on their trees. I’m actually super backed up with client work right now. People bring them to me, or ship them and I’ll style them up and ship them back. I’ve got probably a month’s worth of work backed up right now, so I’m just trying to catch up at this point.
PeaceLoveBonsai: This might seem like an odd question, but just stay with me for a second. You were an apprentice in Japan for many years. What happens in Japan when an apprentice accidently breaks a branch or screws up a really nice tree?
Bjorn: Sure, it depends on the nursery. Every teacher is different. In certain nurseries you can get a slap across the face, or get yelled at, or get told to go home. The first summer that I was at Fujikawa Kouka-en, I was working on a medium sized itoigawa shimpaku. It was kind of raw material, so we were looking to compress the trunk and make it much smaller. The main feature of the tree, though, was this beautiful tenjin, which is the deadwood that sticks out of the apex of the tree. Fujikawa-san asked me to stick my hands inside the tree and compress the trunk together so he could tighten the guy wire. But when I did that, I accidently grabbed the tenjin and it snapped. Basically I ruined all the value of the tree.
PLB: Oh no!
Bjorn: Fujikawa-san slowly turned and looked me in the face. His face turned purple and he very calmly told me to go home. He didn't tell me to come back. I went home, didn’t sleep all night and came back the next day. When I arrived in the morning, he had taken the tree and placed it in the most prominent place in the nursery. And he left it there for like six months, so I wouldn't forget what I had done.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Wow, that's a great story. I sort of think of 2020 like snapping a branch on a nice bonsai tree. You know, life was going along. We all had our plans, our ways, our routines. Then “pop!”, a branch was broken, so to speak, and we had to completely re-evaluate what we were doing and what the future looks like. When the branch breaks we can get mad, or turn purple in the face, but ultimately, we have to make something new out of it. Does that make sense?
Bjorn: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean we had some really cool opportunities that were coming our way before the pandemic. And they all got cancelled. We were supposed to do a commercial with United Airlines back in April. We were going back and forth, negotiating, putting storyboards together. It’s was gonna be a big production deal, then poof, it all went away.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Well, 2020 hasn’t been all bad news for you and your wife, Nanxi, right? You got some good news this year, correct?
Bjorn: Yes! We learned that we have a baby on the way.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Congratulations! It’s gonna be girl, correct?
Bjorn: Yep, it’s a girl.
PeaceLoveBonsai: So that’s awesome. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Bonsai and your parents. Did you practice Bonsai with your Mom or Dad?
Bjorn: Yeah. I got into Bonsai when I was 12 after I saw the first Karate Kid movie and I got my first tree when I was 13. But prior to that, my Dad and I had actually taken karate together for a number of years. He was into that aspect of Japanese culture and big into gardening as well. Both of my parents were. So when I got into Bonsai, he thought it was pretty cool. He and I founded the Knoxville Bonsai Society together when I was 15 or 16.
PeaceLoveBonsai: And your Dad still does quite a bit of Bonsai, right?
Bjorn: He does. Just as hobby. He was president of the Knoxville Bonsai Society for a long time. He’s probably got 20 or so trees now. My parents are actually moving here to the Nashville area, right down the road from us.
PeaceLoveBonsai: That’s super exciting! We actually moved to the Nashville area to be closer to my parents and that connection between grandparents and grandchildren is special. Not to mention a baby sitter just down the road! Let me ask you this, what would you tell your daughter, if she came to you at 17 or 18, and said she wanted to go to Japan and become a Bonsai apprentice?
Bjorn: I would probably be pretty supportive, although maybe slightly hesitant, I guess. For a number of reasons. Probably the same worries my parents had. Can you be successful at it? Can you support yourself doing it, because to be able to do that, you have to be at the top of your game. It’s difficult to run a nursery and make a living doing it. The competition in Japan is really high. But as long as she had a passion for it, I would be supportive. On the other hand, I would be worried about being a female apprentice in Japan.
PeaceLoveBonsai: That was gonna be my follow up question, are there many female apprentices in Japan? If not, do you know why?
Bjorn: No, from what I’ve seen and understand, there are not very many. Probably less than a dozen. And you don’t see many amongst the professionals either. It’s pretty much all men. Mostly old men, actually. And I’m not sure why. It’s not just in Japan, though, I don’t see many women in any of the bonsai cultures, Europe or otherwise.
PeaceLoveBonsai: That’s the second time I've discussed women in Bonsai and came away with more questions than answers. I’m definitely going to explore that more in 2021, because it just doesn’t make sense to me. And of course, we could use more women and diversity in the Bonsai world. Switching gears here, how long have you been back in the States since your work in Japan was completed?
Bjorn: So Nanxi and I were talking about this yesterday, we actually moved back in May of 2017, so it’s been three and half years.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Wow, really?
Bjorn: Yeah, it’s nuts. I mean, we opened Eisei-en only two years ago. Three and half years have flown by!
PeaceLoveBonsai: Yeah, it really has. So, I’m curious, now that you’ve been back awhile, what's your thoughts on Bonsai in America today?
Bjorn: Yeah, I would equate it to Japan in the 1980s. There was this exponential increase in quality from around 1980 to 1992. That was kind of the bubble economy in Japan, which had something to do with that increase in quality. I feel like we are on a massive upswing in the States right now. I think we are going through a shift from the “old guard”, so to speak, who were teaching pre-contemporary techniques. Techniques that were developed in the 1980s, to now more contemporary techniques that are being brought back by people doing apprenticeships in Japan. So I feel like we are 25-30 years behind Japan, I guess in terms of quality, but we are shooting up massively in the right direction.
PeaceLoveBonsai: So what do you feel like is missing from the American Bonsai landscape? What would you like to see more of?
Bjorn: Sure, well I think the main upswing has been in the quality of our native material, especially the native conifers from out West. That stuff can be taken from the mountain and be a finished bonsai in 3-5 years. That’s just an incredible turn-around. But on the flip side, there's not a whole lot of work being done on native deciduous material, particularly stuff from the eastern half the US. The American hornbeam, for example or beech or the different kinds of American oaks. I’m hoping to incorporate more of that into what we are doing here at Eisei-en. But those are thirty or forty-year projects, so it’s gonna be a bit more difficult. That’s what happened in Japan. Like the flowering apricot in Japan. None of those were interesting or very good back in the 1950s and 60s. But by the time the 80s came around, they were awesome. So we just have to start and eventually we will get to that stage (with our natives).
PeaceLoveBonsai: Do you consider working with natives to be Bonsai 101 or more Bonsai 201? I ask because early in my Bonsai journey, I set out to work with natives and found it difficult. I mean, I hardly knew how to grow the basics trees like tridents or black pines, let alone natives. On the one hand, natives are hardy, but on the other, there is not much literature or online resources to help the new bonsai enthusiast. I’m not sure if natives are good for newbies. Does that make sense?
Bjorn: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there's many parallels between the species in Japan and the species here and in Europe. It’s just a matter of knowing which category those species fall into, relative to their counterpart in Japan, that already have the information written about them. But yeah, in general, I definitely think it's good to start with some of the more general species from Japan, like your black pines and trident maples because of the abundance of information.
PeaceLoveBonsai: So when thinking about American Bonsai, I’m always interested in the history. I know you’ve come across many people and have a great understanding of Bonsai in America, so let me ask you this…in our opinion, who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of American Bonsai?
Bjorn: Like who would I consider to be the Biggie and Tupac of American bonsai?
PeaceLoveBonsai: Hahaha, exactly.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Somewhat, tell me more about him.
Bjorn: He was one of the originals. I think he was born and raised in Japan. His father had a nursery outside of Tokyo. When the occupation of Japan (by the US) started after WWII, many of the military people wanted to learn Japanese traditional arts. So, he was one of the first teachers of foreigners outside of Japan. He eventually immigrated to the US in the late 50s or early 60s and settled on the East Coast, up in New York. He was actually Bill Valavanis’ main teacher. He was the Godfather of East Coast Bonsai. Those would be the first two, for sure. Then I’d say Harry Hirao. He was one of the first proponents of collecting our native stuff in the US. He was based out of Southern California. Some of the stuff he collected was just insane. Then the last person would probably be Warren Hill. Warren was one of the first people to learn from the Japanese Bonsai community in California. Back in the day, the Japanese Bonsai community was not really receptive to foreigners, white people or anybody else coming into their community and learning Bonsai. Warren was one of the first people to integrate himself into that community and learn from John Naka and some of the others. He eventually became the curator of the National Museum up in DC. When he retired, he actually moved down to East Tennessee. He was one of my first teachers. He recently had a stroke and is not really practicing at this point, but I always remember he had great material. So those four would be on my list.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Excellent. What about Bill Valavanis. His work with the National Show and just being a part of the US Bonsai scene for so long?
Bjorn: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I’d put Bill in there as well as Kathy Shaner.
Bjorn's Mt Rushmore of Bonsai
PeaceLoveBonsai: It’s always gonna be hard to whittle it down to four, but that’s part of the fun! I appreciate your perspective. Ok, let’s talk a little bit about your recent announcement. You’ve had the BonsaiU series on YouTube for a little while, but it sounds like you are making some big changes? Tell us about it.
Bjorn: Yeah, so I actually came up with the idea about two years ago. My wife and I were actually in Japan, we usually spend a month there visiting old friends and doing a tour and some business stuff. So while I was there, I started thinking about how we could do some sort of online learning platform. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach it. I decided at first we would do a donation-only version. That started a year ago. This year, we’ve decided to change it up a bit, and since we are not going to have in-person classed for awhile, we thought why don’t we have a membership version where we can go more in-depth. Give people the opportunity to ask me questions directly. So I can clarify techniques or give advice that is specific to where people live and the species they are working with. We're gonna start that in January of 2021.
PeaceLoveBonsai: That’s really exciting. Congratulations! I, like many, originally found you through your YouTube channel. You’ve been on that platform a long time. One thing that’s always struck me about your videos is the high quality editing. Do you have a background in video editing, or are you self-taught?
Bjorn: It's all self-taught. I consider that kind of my hobby. You know, it's so tedious, but I like that aspect of it. I don’t have any fancy equipment, but I’ve done a lot of research over the years and experimented with how to get the best quality without a huge investment in the technology.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Well as someone who has done some video editing myself, you do great work! I actually see parallels between editing videos and wiring Bonsai trees. Both are tedious, take a long time and when completed well, look awesome!
Bjorn: Yeah, that’s very true. I don't think a lot of people know all that goes into editing, like the dialog and putting clips together. If you go one or two frames too long, it can look really messy.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Will you be doing all the editing for BonsaiU or are you getting Cameron involved?
Bjorn: I’ll be doing all the editing myself. But we did start another series called “In The Workshop” and I’m having Cameron film me a bit, which I think looks nice. It has a more organic feel to it. But other than that, I’m doing all the rest myself.
PeaceLoveBonsai: So is an online Bonsai learning platform essentially an American thing? Or if I went to Japan, would I find something similar there?
Bjorn: Absolutely not. And it’s mostly because all the people who do Bonsai in Japan are like 75 years or older and they don’t even have email! So it’s definitely not something you would see over there.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Hahahaha. I see, so who is the ideal person for this subscription service?
Bjorn: Really anyone, but I would say we aren’t targeting beginners, necessarily. Although the information I present won’t be overly academic. I try to to talk, you know, in a way that isn’t over people’s heads. But we are going to present a lot of intermediate and advanced techniques. That's kind of the focus. Of course the Q&A will be meant to clarify things people don’t understand from the demonstrations.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Well, ok that’s awesome. I’m super excited for it, that’s for sure. Well, Bjorn, you’ve been super gracious with your time, so thank you for this great interview. Before I let you leave, let me ask you one final question.
Bjorn: Ok, sure.
PeaceLoveBonsai: You lived in Japan for like a third of your life, so now that you are back, if you and Nanxi are craving some authentic Japanese or Asian food, where in Nashville do you go?
Bjorn: Oh, man. So my wife is like a true foodie. And she’s kind of moved me in that direction as well. So it’s really hard to find high quality Japanese or Asian food in general here, so if we want something really good, she’ll cook it at the house. But, you know, if you are looking for some Chinese/Japanese fusion type food, there’s actually a Vietnamese place on the west side of town called VN Pho & Deli. We actually went there yesterday to have lunch. It’s good and cheap. Its one of those hole-in-a-wall type places, but family owned and operated. The people there are super nice. It's good.
PeaceLoveBonsai: Awesome, me and the PLB readers will have to check that out for sure! Thanks again, Bjorn. Wishing you all the best for 2021.
Bjorn. Same to you.