Saitama Prefecture might be known abroad for its connection to famous anime like Lucky Star and Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, but it’s better known in traditional art circles as a modern center for bonsai, the ancient practice of cultivating miniature trees. In fact, there is even a section of Saitama City called Bonsai Village that was once selected by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism as one of the 100 most scenic towns in Japan.
The prefecture has now created a smartphone game called Twit Bonsai to promote Saitama’s bonsai attractions, and although you may think pruning a virtual tree sounds like the height of boredom, the app is gaining an unexpectedly enthusiastic following.
In Twit Bonsai, you can choose from 21 different types of trees to care for. Then you can water it, clean it and even talk to it (using Twitter) to help it grow. It’s important to look after your tree tenderly and frequently, or it will wither away.
According to some user reviews, “games like Puzzles & Dragons are really popular right now, but this one is incomparably more interesting” and “as the tree grows, the background music changes as well, and it really helps clear my mind in a Japanese way.”
Anyone with an interest in Japan would have to give such an app a try, so we did.
When you start it up, a bonsai tree appears on the screen, accompanied by some traditional music. Looking at the settings, the tree was nameless, so we began by christening it The Wind Speaks. Next, from the maintenance menu, we tapped “water”. Of course, you have to be careful not to give it too much. If you are successful, a message appears, saying “your bonsai is healthy” and the status bars on the upper right of the screen advance.
If you choose the “talk” function, you can use either Twitter or Facebook to send a message to your bonsai. This is a bit embarrassing, but if you can do it, your plant’s status bars will advance quite a bit.
If you faithfully keep up your maintenance of the tree, tending to it each day, eventually your bonsai will grow to stately and elegant proportions. I am currently in the process of cultivating such a masterwork, zealously attending to my tree every day.
The app also has a soothing bonsai gallery, which has photos and explanations of bonsai, pots, viewing stones, and ukiyoe prints from the Bonsai Art Museum in Omiya, Saitama. For example, under a photo of a bonsai called Shiraito Falls White Pine, the text explains that the shape of the tree is meant to call to mind the struggle to grow on a rugged cliff despite the rain and snow.
For young people, bonsai doesn’t really seem accessible, but a smartphone application provides a novel way for them to try it out and see its appeal. It also has the distinction of being created in cooperation with the world’s foremost public bonsai museum. As the app’s explanation puts it, “Bonsai is like life” and with this app you can experience the expansive passage of time through small, everyday steps.