I often hear the term ‘Cookie cutter’ thrown around from time to time when people are talking about Japanese bonsai. For those not familiar with the term, I believe it relates to people suggesting that certain bonsai seem to come from the same mould and or ‘cookie cutter’ which produces similar or same bonsai. Personally i think that the term often is applied by those who havent really got a good understanding of what is actually out there in Japanese gardens and nurseries.

Now there are a lot of mass-produced bonsai in Japan that are grown to a rough formula but these trees are not a good representation of bonsai in Japan as a whole. On the other hand there are a lot of trees that can seem similar at first glance on benches in nurseries throughout Japan but closer inspection reveals quite dramatic differences.

Cookie Cutter?

What was one of the biggest surprises to me when I first visited japan was the huge amount of irregular styles and forms of trees that by no means could be classified as what some people dismiss as ‘cookie cutter’. In fact most of the nurseries I have visited were full of unusual and or ‘different’ bonsai. I know that when you look through various exhibition books you see some unusual trees, but its only when visiting the nurseries that you actually get a clear idea of just how many irregular bonsai are being grown.

During my last trip i met with Peter Tea at Aichi-en and he explained what his Oyakata Mr. Tanaka had explained to him about unusual trees.

He said that unusual bonsai would always be worth less than ‘standard or correct’ trees during the developement stages. Once the trees reached exhibition standard however, the unusual tree would suddenly become much more valuable. There are many correct bonsai in Japan and most nurseries could sell you one. Unusual trees on the other hand are one offs and if a customer wants to buy one they must pay accordingly as they cannot simply go next door to get something similar.

Strangely we don’t get to see many of these types of trees in western magazines or literature instead these forms are associated with European and American yamadori. I was certainly surprised to see so many when I first travelled to Japan. Now I find that they are the trees that I gravitate towards when I arrive at a nursery.

Below are a few interesting trees that i saw during my travels that didn’t fit the mould (some of them look like they totally broke the mould!) I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Dramatic movement.

A close-up of the twisted movement.

A very angular exposed root style.

I wonder if this tree was grown or collected?

Black pines shouldn’t have shari? Well this one does.

I think you will agree that it works very well in this case.


A very non-conforming Nebari for a non-conforming tree.

Read more about this strange trident HERE.

Bunjin, Semi-cascade or a combination?


I like to look at trees such as the above and think about what they must have looked like pre-styling. Material such as this requires a high level of creativity to style into a well-balanced image and often results in trees that really stick in your head. I know that it is these types of trees that I always spend the most time in front of.

So next time you are out and about evaluating future material keep an eye out for the unusual, you never know, you might get yourself a bargain!