A foreign art form with a Tasmanian flair

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Ichi-ban-ii: a touch of Japan in the craft pavilions of Agfest

Tucked away in the corner of the Craft Pavillions, Noel Kemp, owner of Ichi-ban-ii, sits on a stool and lovingly trims a tiny tree.

“It’s sort of therapeutic in a way,” Noel tells me. “You take the cutting and grow it for a bit, then while it’s still soft in the trunk you can wire the shape in whatever way you want.”

Bonsai, the traditional Japanese art form of shaping dwarfed trees in tiny pots, is Noel’s area of expertise. He spends endless hours nipping, potting and pruning the delicate artworks for sale.

“Bonsai actually originated in China,” he says, chuckling. “You can wire the branches down to make it look like a prematurely old tree. You may not realise it, but old trees generally tend to grow down because of the weight of gravity, so you can make a bonsai look older by using this technique.”

I wander around and peruse his wares: a wide variety of trees and shrubs in all shapes and sizes, including Tasmanian native species such as huon pine, myrtle and banksia, as well as beautiful orange Japanese maples.

He points to a plant.

“That seed is from '83,” he says. “Many of these plants are older than you are.”

Noel’s background is in agriculture, but after visiting a small nursery in Hobart and seeing a stock plant that was used to produce cuttings, he started growing his own.  

“Most of my friends who went to agricultural college actually hate bonsai,” he says. “They think it’s cruel. But we just agree not to talk about it.”

He says he taught himself using books, but now many bonsai clubs exist around Tasmania and they often hold workshops with interstate and international visitors.

“I started bonsai in 1973, but we formed a society in Hobart many years ago and started bringing people in from the mainland, Japan, Indonesia and China, and we’ve had quite a few workshops so people can learn from them.”

It was interesting to see such delicate and refined artworks being produced just minutes after having walked past chainsaw demonstrations and wood chopping competitions.

“I’ve been coming to Agfest since 2003," he says. "I usually enjoy the most success with people buying bonsai as gifts for their mum or kids, especially around Mother’s day.”

Ichi-ban-ii Bonsai roughly translates to “the very best bonsai” in Japanese.

Having listened to Noel and hearing about the time, effort and care he puts into producing his bonsai, I am inclined to agree.

Noel’s stall is definitely worthwhile visiting, even if you do not intend on purchasing a bonsai. You can find it at Site H02 in the Craft Pavillions.