Bonsai and model trains combine for unique 'bonrama' displays

February 21, 2013

By MASANORI KOBAYASHI/ Staff Writer

OSAKA--Combining the art of bonsai with model trains, Tetsuo Kawakami has added a new dimension to the art of diorama making.

A typical "bonrama" display, as he calls them, features miniature trees and a model train car arranged in a bonsai-like display on a 30-centimeter plate.

Nine years after the artist introduced his first bonrama, his works are beginning to be recognized--and sought after--as an art form.

The 47-year-old was born in Kita-Kyushu. He became fascinated with "the dynamism and functional beauty" of a steam locomotive he saw at Wakamatsu Station on the Chikuho Line, which was then operated by the Japanese National Railways, when his father took him there. Kawakami was 2 years old.

Later, he studied at an Osaka cooking school before landing a job as manager of a cafe in Nagasaki.

But he couldn't let go of his yearning for trains. In 1999, Kawakami opened model-train shop Tetsudo Shonen Sha (House for train-loving boys) in his hometown.

Simply selling model trains, however, was not enough for him, so he got into the hobby of making railway dioramas.

But Kawakami didn't quite click with the hardcore enthusiasts making painstaking efforts to scale down real trains and faithfully reproduce the originals.

"What I seek is not a 'reproduction,' " Kawakami said. "It is an 'expression' that I can freely enjoy without being bound by shapes and specifications."

Looking for hints to realize his wish, Kawakami turned to bonsai.

He made a palm-sized bonrama display in 2004, but was not satisfied with the result. He then tried a bonsai container for a diorama base, but he didn't feel that was quite right either.

To start fresh, Kawakami moved out of his hometown in 2010 to set up shop in Kyoto.

To enrich his imagination, he sat in meditation at Tenryuji temple, near his studio in the Sagano district, and gazed at the rock garden of Ryoanji temple.

Inspiration struck: He added a five-story pagoda and Kinkakuji temple to the background of his next bonrama and included red autumn leaves and cherry blossoms for the miniature trees. He chose an ordinary plate for the base to make it easily portable.

Soon, Kawakami began receiving orders for bonrama displays. He now makes about 20 each month, including custom-made ones, and his workshop is also bustling with eager hobbyists.

"Bonrama was brought to completion in Kyoto," Kawakami said. "I want people to appreciate not only the dynamism of trains, but also the fun that comes in harmony with traditional wabi-sabi (ideal of simplicity and refinement)."

Featuring a famous tourist spot and a train car, a bonrama display can capture the fond memories of a good trip.

Bonrama works are currently on display at Randen-ya, a souvenir shop at Keifuku Electric Railroad's Arashiyama Station, until the end of March.

By MASANORI KOBAYASHI/ Staff Writer
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Through trial and error, Tetsuo Kawakami created "bonrama" displays combining bonsai and diorama. The train cars seen in the photo are modeled after the ones operated by Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. Photo taken in Kyoto's Ukyo Ward. (Nanako Ito)

Through trial and error, Tetsuo Kawakami created "bonrama" displays combining bonsai and diorama. The train cars seen in the photo are modeled after the ones operated by Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. Photo taken in Kyoto's Ukyo Ward. (Nanako Ito)

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  • Through trial and error, Tetsuo Kawakami created "bonrama" displays combining bonsai and diorama. The train cars seen in the photo are modeled after the ones operated by Keifuku Electric Railroad Co. Photo taken in Kyoto's Ukyo Ward. (Nanako Ito)

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