Spotlight: Omiya Bonsai Museum (Tokyo)

The Omiya Bonsai Museum has long sat near the top of my list of things I still needed/wanted to see in Tokyo. It kept getting overlooked in favor of more eating (I plan EVERYTHING around eating 🙂 ) but when some of my clients mentioned a great interest in bonsai, I decided it was about time to pay it a visit.

Go. It’s so worth it. Even if you know nothing about bonsai, as I sure didn’t, you won’t regret the visit.

Omiya is not exactly a traveler’s hub and the bonsai neighborhood really revolves around the tiny stations of Toro and Omiya-koen. The banner site is, of course, the Bonsai Museum. You’re greeted when you first walk in by a gorgeous bonsai representative of the season (on my visit in March it was a perfectly-pruned plum tree).

A terrible photo but a beautiful tree
A terrible photo but a beautiful tree

From there, go ahead and check in with the incredibly friendly (and on my visit, perfectly fluent in English) front desk staff to pay your admission and get the detailed audio guide. There are informative panels in English in the exhibit portion of the museum but if you want to learn a bit more about the individual bonsai exhibited outside in the courtyard, you’ll need the ¥300 guide.

The exhibit is beautifully laid out, with descriptions of the various types of bonsai punctuated by actual bonsai of each type. There’s a bit on the history of the craft and a display at the end showing how bonsai is arranged in traditional Japanese alcoves. It may sound a bit dull to non-tree-lovers but I was surprised how interested I was.

The courtyard, full of bonsai
The courtyard, full of bonsai

Outside, a display of the day’s bonsai is at the back of the courtyard, the only bonsai you are allowed to photograph in the museum. On the over side of the bamboo fence, you can enjoy the absolutely impeccable gardening of another two dozen or so miniature trees arranged around a minimally landscaped patio area. For an overview of the entire scene, you can go up to the second floor balcony (pictures allowed from there).

From the bonsai museum, you can get a map of the local bonsai nurseries, open every day but Thursday. Feel free to wander in and check out the specimens on display at each one. Many of these nurseries don’t necessarily sell the trees you see, but “caretake” them for families, business, ryokans and high-end restaurants. They might rotate out different bonsai to their establishments depending on the season. Mansei-en, the closest nursery to the bonsai museum, is the oldest of the half dozen or so you can visit and it currently boasts an American apprentice. If you happen to come across Adam on your visit, feel free to ask him anything about bonsai.

Bonsai close-up
Bonsai close-up

Again, Omiya is not exactly somewhere you just “stop by” – you need to make a point to fit it into your schedule. But if you have even a passing interest in bonsai or gardening in general, I think this is a stellar way to spend half a day in Tokyo. An added bonus: The White Fox is just a few train stops away.

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