Japanese Bonsai Styles Explained


How you shape your bonsai tree is completely up to you. That is the beauty of bonsai, it may take many years before you even decide what shape it should be. Whether or not it conforms to any official style may have no bearing on your enjoyment of your tree but the styles are a useful introduction to the different things you can do with bonsai.

The similar Chinese arts of penjing and pensai have less emphasis on formal styling and their trees are often wilder looking more commonly like the Japanese broom style but sometimes styled excessively with unnatural (but still beautiful) curving trunks.

The Japanese have perfected their art and have documented precise bonsai styles to mimic the different shapes of naturally growing trees. There are 5 main styles but over 20 other recognised styles. Below is a very brief introduction to most styles.

* Informal Upright Style (Moyogi)

The Informal Upright bonsai tree grows more or less upright, but with gentle curves in the truck. The trunk starts off at an angle and usually curves gently back and forth two or three times before it reaches the top. This is the most common style and a good style to for a bonsai beginner to start with. Informal Upright Style is suitable for most species of tree, and especially suited to deciduous trees and flowering trees like, maples and elms, prunus and quince.

* Slanting Style (Shakan)

As it sounds, the trunk of the Slanting Style Bonsai is slanted at an angle to the surface, as though the tree was jarred sideways by a strong gust of wind, or knocked over in landslide or by another larger tree falling onto it, or some other similar natural phenomenon. Normally with branches on both sides of the trunk.

* Formal Upright Style (Chokkan)

The trunk is up-right and dead straight from bottom to top. The trunk should always have a visible taper with the widest part of the trunk at the based of the tree and supported by a suitable nebari (or surface root structure). In nature this style is quite common in trees growing in open flat ground, well protected from harsh winds and without much competition from other trees. A formal upright tree presents a picture of perfection, regal maturity and a timeless quality.

*Cascade Style (Kengai)

The Cascade style is easily recognized and a very desireable style of bonsai tree. It represents a tree that is growing on a cliff top or out of the side of a cliff with branches that have cascaded below the base of the tree. This style is suitable for most species, but is particularly prevalent amongst juniper, yew, pine and other confer bonsai. It obviously takes a lot of time and work to perfect the shape and it will also need frequent retraining as the tree will always try to grow upwards where possible.

* Semi-cascade Style (Han Kengai)

Like the cascade style, the tree trunk descends below the rim of the pot but it doesn't normally go any lower than the base of the pot, allowing the tree to be displayed on a table. This style represents a tree growing over riverbanks where the branches grow almost horizontally over the water surface. This style is suitable for most species, but is particularly prevalent amongst juniper, yew, pine and other confer bonsai.

* Broom Style (Hokidachi)

Generally with an upright trunk, although it can have slight curves, with branches and foliage radiating outwards in the shape of a Japanese fan or an Umbrella. They are sometimes also called lollipop trees. This style can be fairly easy to create and is also very accurate to many trees in the wild. Particularly suited to Chinese Elms but can be created with most tree species.

* Raft Style (Korabuki)

Raft Style imitates those trees that have fallen down but continue to grow with the branches on one side becoming like individual trees. Commonly this style is found in a Straight-line or Ikadabuki imitating a tree trunk, occasionally you see a more Sinuous Root Connected Style (Netsunagari) which imitates a connected surface root that has meandering around and sent out new branches.

* Group / Forest Style (Yose)

Forest Group plantings are groups of anything more than 3 bonsai trees. Sambon-Yose (3 trees), Gohon-Yose (5 trees), Nanahon-Yose (7 trees) and Kyuhon-Yose (9 trees). Forest groups usually have odd number trees as they are thought to look better and allow for easy symmetry around a focal tree, usually the largest tree. There are two general styles of Forest Groups: Yoma-Yose Style, with trees spread out evenly around the pot or slab, and Tsukami-Yose style, with trees growing outward from the center, imitating trees on a small hill top.

* Windswept Style (Fukinagashi)

Windswept bonsai trees lean heavily to one side with all branches on one side. Tree like this grow atop gusty hill sides and sea shore, where strong wind damages young shoots on the windward side, but shoots on the inland side survive and grow. Blackthorns and other prunus species make beautiful windswept specimens in the wild

* Twin Trunk Style (Soju)

Any tree with two trunks from one root ball. The two trunks split just above the soil level with one usually being subservient to the other. The crown is usually formed by branches from both trunks. An alternative of Two Trunks is Sokan Style, or double trunk, where one trunk splits just above the soil line and the two branches are treated as separate trees.

*Root over Rock Style (Sekijoju)

The tree grows over a rock with roots reaching down to the soil beneath the rock in search of water. This can happen in nature when roots reach over permanently wet rocks or when erosion removes a thin layer of soil. A variation of this style is “clinging-to-a-rock style” (Ishitsuki) where the tree clings to the rock surface, rather than ‘sits’ on it. Fig trees commonly cling to rocks and other trees. These styles take a long time and a lot of skill to accurately replicate.

Literati Style (Bunjingi)

Usually there are only a very few branches towards the top of the tree. The trunks twist and curve several times without taper, and the top often only has a sparce collection of downwards leaning branches. They are normally in very small pots for the height of the tree. This style is commonly seen in Scots Pines in the wild.

Driftwood Style (Saramiki)

The trunk is mostly deadwood. Mostly seen on junipers and yews where most of the trunk dead wood with just one or two veins running up to the few remaining branches. Parts of the dead wood can be treated with lime sulphur to preserve and often given a pale colour to the dead wood. These methods are known as Jin or Shari and can present a powerful and dramatic picture.

Weeping Branch Style (Shidare-Zukuri)

Weeping Branches or Hanging Branches style is just like that found naturally with weeping willows. The main trunk in this style can also take one of these four styles upright, informal-upright, slanting or semi-cascade style. This is a labour intensive style to maintain as the "weeping branches" will often need to be reshaped.

Root in Rock (Shitsuki)

Tree growing out of cracks and crevices in a rocks. The roots are not visible as they have grown into and through the rocks rather than over the top as in the root over rock style.

Exposed Root Style (Neagari)

The roots in this style are significantly exposed with the base of the trunk being lifted above the soil surface. The top portion of tree can be styled in most of the other styles. In nature these trees can be found in mangrove swamps, or flood plains and often on hill sides by a stream where flash foods have eroded away the bank. After being exposed to air for some time the roots thicken and harden and become trunk like.

Triple Trunk Style (Sankan)

Can have three, five, seven or even more trunks with different thicknesses. If there are three trunks of different diameters it can be referred to as a father, mother, son arrangement. Slender trunk trees, such as maples or elms are best suited for this style

The Twisted Style (Nejikan)

This is probably similar to the trees that originally came to Japan from China and is sometimes called the Dragon Style. Its still a favorite in Chinese Bonsai. The trunk generally coils around in a spiral close to the base. The Octopus Style (Takozukuri) is a variation with low coiling branches.

Landscape Style (Bonkei)

Grown in large shallow pots with rocks, water and other features used to depict landscapes such as mountains, waterfalls, lakes and the Sea. They're often planted with bonsai trees as well as other miniature plants such as mosses and grasses to create a complete landscape scene - sometimes also adorned with Chinese figurines and mud ornaments to complete the picture.

Split Trunk Style (Sabamiki)

Usually the base of the tree is hollowed out or split with branches growing from round the edges. This can appear like an ancient tree which has lost its main trunk or been severely damaged in a lightning storm.