TWTWTW Part Three: And the winner is ….

As photography was allowed at the show,  pictures of the winning exhibits are already out there on this interweb thingie.   So for this article we thought we would take the time to explain our system of judging as well as posting the official show winners images.

I think we’d all agree that judging at a bonsai show is always a fraught experience.  In the past, judging was often left to one or two people and of course the issue of subjectivity raised its head on many occasions.

For the Spirit of Shohin event, in the pursuit of a much fairer and more transparent method of judging, a panel approach was adopted to the judging process. Under this system, individual judges nominated their top three tree/display in each of the categories.  They did not even have to rank these – i.e. there was no first, second and third “placing” of trees  – they merely had to nominate which their top three were.    At the end of the process, each judge handed back their recording sheets and the results were aggregated by an admin panel.    The tree/exhibit with the most nominations in each section then became the winner for that category.

The contingency fall back in the event of a draw between two or more trees/exhibits in any category was for the judges to make a second decision on the basis of a vote.  Such was the standard of exhibit at the show, not just one but two awards went down to the wire in this manner. This in itself indicates that the system works.

At the end of the process, judges’ individual results sheets are then signed and posted on a noticeboard for all to see, and this in itself gives the system a high degree of transparency often lacking in other systems.

While this system sounds complicated, it is in fact remarkably easy to operate and has been used successfully previously at the Shohin UK exhibition in 2015. Tony Tickle also used a similar system for Bonsai Europa in that same year.

What the system does is significantly reduce the strong element of subjectivity that you would get with a “one judge” system where almost inevitably the judging will reflect the personal taste of the judge to some extent or other.   But is it better than other alternatives being bandied around?

There is currently discussion about a points system wherein all trees are marked against a set of criteria – e.g. branch placement, nebari and so on.   The danger in my opinion of such a points system is that it could easily reduce the process to little other than a spot the fault exercise.

Let me give you a parallel: in my role as an examiner for school and college English exams we are instructed to mark up the way. By this what I mean is that we don’t take marks off for faults – we award marks for things that the students have done well on a sliding scale of how well they’ve done it.

It rather seems to me that the proposed systems of numerical judging that I have seen do the opposite – they mark down the way, taking off marks for “faults”.  And what that can lead to is the judge’s gut feeling about the tree/exhibit being sidelined and replaced by a mechanistic ticking exercise in which the overall aesthetic qualities of the tree/display are downplayed.

But back to the show.

With the quality of exhibits being high, the judges has quite a time of it in trying to make their decisions.   However, the nominations came in, were aggregated and the results were as follows:

images courtesy of Mark Cooper and Andy Jordan

Show winners:

Best Mame Display:  Ritta Cooper

Best Mame Display - Ritta Coper Red 2


Best Shohin Display:  Mark and Ritta Cooper

Best Shohin Display with awards and certificate IA4A3859


Best Chuhin Display and Best Display in Show:   John Pitt

Best Chuhin Display and Best in Show - Taxus - John Pitt Red

John Pitt

Best Tree/Pot combination:  Bob van Ruitenberg
(award sponsored by Andy Stonemonkey Pearson)


Best Shitakusa:    Andy Jordan

Best Shitakusa - Andy Jordan Red


Taiga Urushibata Award:   Mark and Ritta Cooper

Taiga Award red



Merit Award winners:

Mame Display Merit Award: Bruno Wijman

merit mame red

Shohin Display Merit Award:   Mark and Ritta Cooper

JWP  from Shohin Display Merit award red

Chuhin Display Merit Award:  Pete and Ted Goodhead




Well done to the winners and a huge thanks to all  who exhibited.


TWTWTW Part two: The Eye of the Taiga

One of the highlights for a dozen bonsai enthusiasts at the Spirit of Shohin event was the chance to participate in a workshop with one of Japan’s finest young bonsai artists, Taiga Urushibata.

With translation assistance from Maarten van der Hoeven, Taiga put in an amazing two days effort, with a work ethic that would put most of us to shame. Stopping only for dark chocolate and strong coffee, he worked tirelessly dealing with some thirty trees in the two days.

With the participants themselves representative of a fair bit of bonsai experience, it was great to hear the comments back.

One  commented that the workshop had been “worth every penny.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself. If you have a good tree to start with,  Taiga excels at refinement as was the case with me.”

Another, who had participated in both sessions, remarked:

“I really enjoyed both days and watching Taiga work is an education in itself” while another remarked that the

Taiga’s knowledge on bonsai techniques and horticulture is inspiring and one cannot help but pick up things watching and listening to him.”


Group Workshops are often by their “sharing” nature both fulfilling and frustrating events, given that the leader simply cannot devote the entire time to any one individual.  I personally believe that they work best for participants who have sufficient knowledge, skill and confidence to work away on their own on a task set by the workshop leader until such time as the leader can get back round. The mark of a good workshop leader is in how fairly they apportion their time around participants and how well they set achievable tasks for individuals to do while they themselves go round the others in the group.  The consensus was most strongly that Taiga excelled in both of  these aspects and people felt that he was scrupulously fair with the time he devoted to individuals.  Additionally, many said that he most certainly could not be accused of clock watching, and often had to be prised away from trees to go and get his lunch or have a break of any sort.

One thing that participants and onlookers alike realised was the importance of pre-wiring a workshop tree to get the most advantage out of the time available.  For many of us it seems odd to wire a tree in advance of a workshop only to have it lopped off as part of the design process.  This, however, is just one of bonsai life’s little foibles and I think ultimately we all realise that it is far better to soak up that “loss” than to spend time at a workshop doing wiring.  The participants all felt that the advice to wire their trees as much as possible beforehand had been good and meant they had more time to discuss and implement the actual design of their trees with Taiga.

Overall, the workshops went extremely well and Taiga most definitely showed why he is valued so highly in Japan.  And it should not be overlooked that apart from his tremendous work rate and obvious high level of skill, he comes across as a darn nice fella – something that is quite often overlooked in importance in the razamatazz of the bonsai world. To have had someone so genuinely a nice guy and so obviously passionate, enthusiastic and inspiring about trees headline our workshops made this an event worthy of its “national event” tag.

A HUGE thanks to Taiga for headlining our show – it was a pleasure to have you with us and we look forward to meeting you again in the hopefully not too distant future.

Thanks also to Maarten van der Hoeven for his role as translator, assistant and purveyor of ironic comments and dry humour.



One of the highlights of the weekend for Taiga was his ride in Steve Hale’s splendid Chevy Bel Air.  Taiga is a great fan of Chevrolets and is currently restoring a 1959 Impala.

That was the weekend, that was! Part one

The weekend of 2nd and 3rd April saw some three dozen of the best shohin, mame and chuhin displays in Europe gathered together for the 2016 British Shohin Bonsai exhibition.

Entitled Spirit of Shohin, the event featured top notch displays from the UK and Europe – all set in the tranquil and beautiful surroundings of the RHS Gardens at Wisley. The event was visited by a sizeable number of the bonsai community as well as members of the public.

In addition to the exhibition space, we had a large representation from our trader friends.

And of course, for a few lucky bonsaiists, the highlight of the weekend was getting to work with world-famous young Japanese bonsai artist, Taiga Urushibata.

In this series of short articles, we will bring you the full picture of the stunning event.  First, some general background.

British Shohin Bonsai is the “offspring” of the British Shohin Association. Like many amateur clubs and societies, BSA was struggling to find people willing to take on committee roles. But rather than let the organisation simply fade away, an interim solution was reached whereby several of the stalwarts decided to band together to put on the biennial exhibition, first to gauge if there is still an interest in the smaller sizes of bonsai, and if so, to keep up the considerable momentum the BSA had already achieved.

If the weekend’s event is anything to go on, it is now clear that there is a huge level of interest in shohin and other smaller sized bonsai.

I have always felt that sometimes at the more conventional exhibitions, the viewers are overwhelmed by the sheer WOW! factor of large bonsai that the intricacies and delicacy of the smaller trees is often overlooked.   In my opinion it is a bit like doing  small scale modelling – it is far easier to create detail on a larger model – railway, aircraft, armies etc – than it is on small scale, and to be able to create intricate details takes a helluva lot of skill.  Shohin and Mame are akin to the 00 and N gauge of bonsai, and in my opinion are very much the living (in all senses of the word) embodiment of the maxim “less is more”.

But enough of the pseudo-philosophy and on with the trees.  Below are some general images from the show. In the next couple of articles I will focus on the award winners and the near misses.

Images courtesy of Mark Cooper.

exhibition mame displays IA4A3795 Red

A look down the avenue of Mame displays

exhibition IA4A3780 Red

Having the broader tables for the displays was a major plus and allowed the exhibits to be far better arranged.

Bruno Wijman giving advice on how to improve an exhibit IA4A3971 - Red

The event featured quite a range of displays from five tree racks to single tree exhibits.

Shohin nana-ten display - Bob van Ruitenbeek IA4A3960 Red

Stone Monkey pot exhibit IA4A3953 Red

Stonemonkey pot exhibit

Ian Baillie pot display IA4A3955 Red

Ian Bailie pot exhibit

main vendors 1 Red

We also had, courtesy of the RHS, a marvellous marquee for our vendors.

Nobu Sugiura Red

Our vendors were a remarkably international bunch including our friend Nobu Sugiura all the way from Japan.

vendors 2 Red

Traders are always a popular

vendors 3 Red

addition to a show