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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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South African bonsai dreams

May 26, 2017

Bonsai is traditional Japanese art that has long fascinated people around the world. This is especially true in South Africa, where it has taken root among an enthusiastic group.

A top African bonsai artist visited Japan last month for the first time, fulfilling a lifelong dream. We followed him on his visit to an international bonsai convention.

Crowds of people flocked to Saitama City near Tokyo last month for a major bonsai exhibition.

The World Bonsai Convention is held only once every 4 years, each time in a different location around the globe. This year, there were over 300 bonsai masterpieces. More than 45,000 people attended.

Eight bonsai artists from different parts of the world gave demonstrations.

One was Hannes Fritz from South Africa. He was selected by bonsai enthusiasts across Africa to represent the region.

We visited his hometown of Heidelberg in northern South Africa before the convention.

Local people attended a bonsai club meeting. It's where Fritz teaches his craft. He's long dreamed of learning bonsai himself in Japan. But he's never had the chance.

Fritz discovered bonsai at the age of 12. His father gave him a book on the subject that fascinated him. It wasn't long before he started making his own.

He studied the art of bonsai using books and online. His fascination has never let up. He explains what drew him to the art form, and what keeps him fascinated.

"A bonsai is never finished," he says.

"It’s an ongoing process that keeps going as long as you live. Every year, it gets better and better and better. That’s what makes bonsai special to me."

In South Africa, there are bonsai trees everywhere.

One nursery on the outskirts of Johannesburg is the biggest in Africa. It has thousands of bonsai, and many are indigenous species.

It sells up to 15,000 bonsai trees each year.

And another nursery, in Cape Town, even looks like a typical Japanese landscape garden.

It's run by a couple, who have been fascinated with bonsai for over 40 years.

"I think in my previous life, I must have lived in the east," says Gail Theron.

"Peace and tranquility," says Lionel Theron. "People enjoy them and are fascinated by them."

But how did bonsai spread to South Africa? We visited the country's prestigious Stellenbosch University to find out.

Willem Pretorius, President of the South African Bonsai Association, manages a collection there.

To answer our question, he shows us one of his most treasured bonsai.

"This is the oldest homemade bonsai in South Africa," he explains. "It was made by the mother of bonsai in South Africa, Becky Lucas, around 1940."

Becky Lucas made the art popular in South Africa. When she saw a Japanese bonsai, she felt it had the power to calm peoples' minds.

South Africa has a long history of conflict and strife, including the racial segregation of apartheid.

Some believe this has made the country fertile ground for the sense of peace and tranquility that bonsai bring.

"Japan always looks so calm, disciplined, a vibrant community," says Pretorius.

"When you have a conflicted nation, sometimes we would just like a bit more peace, quiet, respect, and more discipline than we have."

Now that South Africa has gained a degree of stability, the younger generation is drawn to the respect for nature that bonsai symbolize. Fritz is one of them.

He's particularly interested in using one type of bonsai for his demonstration in Japan.

It’s the shimpaku, an iconic Japanese variety. Shimpaku is distinguished by the “shari,” a section of trunk that has died and turned white over many years.

"Shari" depicts the tree's perseverance in the harsh natural world.

He has just one such tree. It doesn’t grow natively in South Africa, making it a rarity.

"In Japan, shimpaku came from the mountains," he says. "Those trees are very old. To be able to do that in Japan, it’s a dream come true, definitely."

In April, Fritz finally visited Japan.

The first place he went to was a bonsai garden in Saitama, to meet Masahiko Kimura, one of Japan’s top bonsai artists.

Kimura is known for creating many shimpaku masterpieces, one of which is over 500 years old.

It's a renowned work that Fritz has long admired. He's overwhelmed by the tree, which has lived longer than any human.

Kimura told him how to make a great shimpaku. He says it’s important to show the history of the tree engraved into its shari.

"The shari is the highlight of the shimpaku, so where the shari is most visible should be the front," he explains.

At the World Bonsai Convention Fritz is given the chance to work on a shimpaku that's over 150 years old. The trunk has a white shari.

With new understanding gained from his time in Japan, Fritz pours his effort into the tree.

"Bonsai in Japan are all perfect, or pretty perfect," he says. "That takes dedication, and respect. It doesn’t matter if the tree is small or big or old, you always have to respect it."

Two hours later he has created a bonsai, boldly exposing its shari. His bonsai dream is now complete.

"I’ve learned a lot," he says. "I’ll take it back with me and I can learn more. And I can be better. So yes, I like bonsai much more." Much like the trees that have captured the imagination of people around the world, Fritz's admiration for bonsai continues to grow.