On Jeju, an island off the southern tip of the South Korean peninsula is an amazing garden called Spirited Garden dedicated to bonsai. No less than 2,000 bonsai and garden trees are on display in a 10-acre green space, perfect for tranquil strolling.
There are three things that a visitor immediately learns from Spirited Garden. Bonsai originated in China–not Japan–hundreds of years ago, then went to Korea and then to Japan. Bonsai is called bunjae in Korea.
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Bonsai can be defined as the art of training and growing dwarf trees and shrubs in containers over years of work. Although the trees are diminutive, it is no small task to spend decades in caring for bonsai.
All the bonsai in Spirited Garden are native Korean trees with the oldest being a 600-year-old yew. There are also land pines, sea pines, quince, hornbeams and common camellias. Most of the bonsai are more than 100 years old.
I first encountered the garden’s delightful creator and main laborer, Bum-young Sung, chasing down a couple of fluttering ticket receipts that garden visitors had carelessly dropped on an otherwise spotless curvy path. The spry 80-year-old who refers to himself as a farmer was dressed in loose fitting Garot work clothes worn on Jeju.
Sung doesn’t speak much English but it didn’t take long before it was clear that he enjoys meeting visitors. Just don’t ask him to choose his favorite bonsai.
“I am asked this often and I respond that it is like choosing your favorite child,” smiles Sung as an employee interprets and we shared a cup of pu’er tea in a second-story small café. The café has a sweeping view of the garden.
Sung’s garden is his life’s passion. He first started working on in 1969 by clearing thistles on what was considered wasteland. He had fallen in love with Jeju Island and was driven by the desire to revive Korea’s disappearing bonsai culture and embrace the peacefulness that nature brings. Before starting the garden, he lived near Seoul and survived hardships related to the Korean War. It was not until 1992 that the garden opened to the public and today welcomes 200,000 visitors a year. Koreans make up 60% of visitors with the rest being from Europe, Asia and North America.
Bordering the garden is a tall basalt wall with stones that came from Jeju, a volcanic island. Sung envisioned and built layer upon layer of the wall mainly on his own to protect the potted trees from strong winds and storms. There are also a waterfall, two teeming koi ponds, stone bridges and black lava sculptures, found on Jeju.
As far as torturing a tree to make bonsai (wires are used to shape growth), garden signage that Sung wrote notes that a bonsai would not survive, look healthy and beautiful if it were tortured.
Concerning the monetary value of contorted little trees that are hundreds of years old, the signage says that the cost of living art cannot be reflected in an amount.
Friendly garden staff reflect the tranquil garden atmosphere. They say that the best way to view the beauty of a bonsai is stoop and look up the small trees to take in their graceful shape by looking inside the plant.
Sung said, “All the descriptions along the pathways represent what I have learned from the silent plants that I have taken care of for over the past half century. I hope that visitors not only enjoy the view of trees but also get some lessons from nature by reading those descriptions.”