Displaying bonsai

Bonsai and Shohin-bonsai can easily be put on display in your house. It is a nice way to welcome guests, or simply to enjoy bonsai yourself.

It is a Japanese custom for bonsai owners to set up a fine display to welcome and show respect for a guest, but it is not necessary to build a Tokonoma or alcove for this purpose. Simpler solutions appropriate to your house are fine. I have a simple low table in the sitting room of my house for displaying bonsai and other items. Some solutions for displaying bonsai in your house are suggested here. Whatever solution you choose, please do it so it will be to your taste.

Bonsai on display at the entrance of the house of Naemi and Daizo Iwasaki .

Open space – negative areas

Free space, or open space, as I prefer to call it, is important in bonsai display. The term often used, “negative area,” seems far more misleading than guiding. The open space in a bonsai display, or in the design of a bonsai, holds the same importance as the open space in a Japanese calligraphy scroll, or a classic watercolour painting. This open space underlines the style of the bonsai, display, or calligraphy. It brings the image to life. Without open space, the power of the silhouette and the fine lines are lost.

Open space is a third dimension, which lets the viewer create the landscape surrounding the tree in the pot. It is the fields, the mountains, or the lake behind and beside the tree. It is what extends the display, by allowing the mind to flow beyond the space of the display itself. A Tokonoma is a niche built into a room, often in the entryway, where objects are displayed. A Tokonoma is very Japanese, but keen Western bonsai enthusiasts might like to add this Japanese touch to their homes.

The traditional Japanese Tokonoma has a surface area described as one tatami. A tatami is a kind of mat used for covering the floor of a Tokonoma, as well as for other purposes. The tatami is a standard Japanese measure of 90×180 cm/35.5×80 inches.

The height from the ground to the surface on which the bonsai is placed can vary from 10 cm/4 inches up to 70cm/28 inches. These measurements vary by regions in Japan. A Tokonoma can be of closed or open construction. There are no rules for it’s exact placement, but it should be placed where it is easily seen and fits in with the rest of the room.

Often the Tokonoma has a window in one side. Light is placed at the top, casting a soft but clear light so the objects in the Tokonoma can be seen clearly. It is usually constructed of wood, with a background painted in a light colour, which shows the bonsai, Suiseki, or other artistic elements to their best advantage.

I had a vision of building a Tokonoma in my living room, to display bonsai when guests visited the house. The problem I faced was that I am living in a Western style house, not a Japanese one. I like the aesthetic values of Japanese art and culture, so I use the elements I like and adapt them to my surroundings. I hope that I can blend my fascination with Japanese aesthetics with the traditional Western and Nordic styles that are closer to my life.

The garden Tokonoma at the house of Morten Albek, Denmark.
The garden Tokonoma at the house of Morten Albek, Denmark.

Garden Tokonoma

Unusual to the Japanese traditions, but gaining a real interest when I first posted photos online with my garden Tokonoma. A garden Tokonoma allows you to enjoy bonsai displayed outside, without taking up interior space. The Tokonoma welcomes guests in the garden, and can be viewed from the inside of the house too.

Yoma-Kazari – the Western style

In my case, a Tokonoma turned out to be unsuitable for my living room. It clashed with the Nordic style of indoor design. So I chose a Yoma-Kazari as the perfect way of displaying objects, like bonsai, in the house. A Yoma-Kazari can be a table or shelf placed up against a wall, and has a more Western look. Like a Tokonoma, it is essential to have a light background in order to display items properly. The table used can be a variety of styles, but an oriental touch adds the right feeling for those who want that look. The display can hold many things besides bonsai. When a bonsai is taken away, replace it with something else, to keep it from being just an empty space.

Bringing bonsai into the house

Remember that bonsai brought in the house should only stay for a few hours. They need to be taken back outside after a short period inside, especially in wintertime, so they are not damaged by the dry air and hot temperatures of a sitting room. In the summertime it is also advisable to put the tree back on its stand or bench when not needed indoors anymore. Don’t let the tree stay indoors for more than a day.


Exhibitions demand that bonsai be inside for 2-4 days at a time. Be sure to spray the leaves or needles daily with pure water, and keep the soil and roots from drying out. Trees will require a good amount of water because transpiration through the leaves is continuous while they are inside. The water will cool down the leaves, and keep the cells filled with water.

Bonsai display at Fuchi Bonsai exhibition. Bonsai by Torben Pedersen (center), Johnny Eslykke (right) and Morten Albek (left).
Bonsai display at Fuchi Bonsai exhibition. Bonsai by Torben Pedersen (center), Johnny Eslykke (right) and Morten Albek (left).