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Bonsai and Tradition: The Art of Japanese Tokonoma

As you might imagine, bonsai have a place in a great many Japanese traditions and customs. One of those is "tokonoma." With this custom, originating in the late Muromachi period (14th-16th century), Japanese honor their visitors by placing the most beautiful, contemplative objects in their home into an alcove or niche, which is what tokonoma refers to.

The main features of the tokonoma include a decorative corner post, or tokobashira ; a floor frame, or tokogamachi ; wooden flooring, or tatami, usually raised a few inches higher than the rest of the room; and the upper-frame beam, or otoshigake. A traditional Japanese family would have a variety of objects on display in the tokonoma, including kakejiku or hanging scrolls, flower arrangements called ikebana, and of course, their most beautifully kept bonsai.

It is customary to change the art in a tokonoma with the seasons, or choose it special for the guest. Typically, the items placed in a tokonoma are arranged in a triangular position.

Tokonoma is very important to the formal Japanese tea ceremony. In fact, in a traditional Japanese tea house, it's common to spend a few moments kneeling and observing in front of your host's tokonoma. If you're polite, you'll talk about the objects on display 

The idea that the tokonoma is a sacred space was begun by Buddhist priests, and even today it is strictly forbidden to walk into or sit in the tokonoma. The seat closest to the tokonoma is usually given to the most important guest. When seating guests in a Japanese-style room, the correct etiquette is to seat the most important guest with their back facing the tokonoma.

These rooms always have tatami mats, which are used for a variety of purposes. If this is the primary room used to entertain or receive guests, it is called a "zashiki." However, a tokonoma can also be arranged for writing, painting, or reading. Other professional people will use the area as a work room, office, or quiet room for the family's use, excluding eating or sleeping.

The wooden pieces used to construct a tokonoma are selected from the same few trees so that the grains match. The wood is finely rubbed by hand and smoothed to give it a soft glow. The walls are often made of plaster, and are tinted to a slight gold in order to complement the wood.

Japanese calligraphy is often used to beautify a tokonoma, and you can use it to create an elegant bonsai display in your home.

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