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Japan's 'Tree Town' sculptors make living art

SOSA, Japan -- With a deft clip here and a gentle tug there, Makoto Ishibashi sculpts trees with the skill of an artisan whose work is far more than just a job.

The heir to a centuries-old family business, he creates masterpieces that can turn a pine tree into a work of art that could fetch US$40,000.

“This tree is a woman — the leaves are soft,” the arborist says of the pine into a triangle at his farm in the city of Sosa.

“Trees are my family — they don't say what they want but they are sending messages about how they want to be shaped.

“The feeling may be one-sided, but I believe that we share something with trees, just like living creatures.”

Sosa, a small city about 100 kilometers east of the Japanese capital, has long been known for supplying many of Tokyo's expertly manicured gardens and temple grounds with trees that seem like they were shaped by the wind or the weight of snow.

That dramatic effect involves chiseling branches to twist and pull them into shape, while keeping the tree alive, a delicate technique called “nomiire.”

“Oh, it hurts? Sorry, I'll do it slowly,” Tadayoshi Udono, an expert in the style, says to one tree as its branch squeaks under the pressure.

Like many traditional crafts, the art of shaping so-called “macro bonsai” trees — cousins to the smaller and potted bonsai — has been facing tough times.

Few among the younger generation are taking up the painstaking profession these days, and some who abandoned the trade as the economy turned sour in recent years.

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Tree-sculpting experts prune pine trees mainly for exports to China and Europe at their farm in Sosa, home to many trees in gardens of the Tokyo metropolis, on Oct. 29.


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