‘Mr. California Juniper’


Harry Hirao demonstrates bonsai trimming and wiring techniques on a California juniper with the help of Daiichi Bonsai Kai member Tom Culton at the Nakaoka Center in Gardena on Sept. 16. (RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo)




After the demonstration, Hirao, Daiichi Bonsai Kai member Ted Oka (center) and his girlfriend, Emiko Hitomi (right), enjoyed a reunion. (RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo)

Harry Hirao, a 94-year-old bonsai master, demonstrated trimming and wiring techniques to the members of Daiichi Bonsai Kai (“Number One” Bonsai Club) at their monthly meeting last Friday in Gardena.

Hirao is an honorary member of the Gardena-based club and also the founding president of Kofu Kai, an Orange County-based bonsai club.

Hirao has been known as “Mr. California Juniper” for his expertise in crafting delicate bonsai from native California trees growing in the desert mountains. He still goes to a private property in the Mojave Desert weekly to find his next masterpiece. He says, “The beauty of the California juniper is the twisted roots and the strength of the branches that have survived in the harsh weather for many years. When I go to the mountains, the tree calls to me, ‘Come and get me.’ “

During the demonstration, Hirao trimmed and wired two California junipers in one-gallon containers in about an hour with the help of club board members Tom Culton and Peter Macasieb. Club president Herb Eisenberg says, “It is great to have Harry. His passion and energy are amazing. Once I went to the mountains with Harry. He started running and called to me, ‘Come on, boy, come on.’ He was so quick.”

Hirao was born in Longmont, Colo. in 1917 and his parents were from Fukuoka. He spent his youth in Japan and came back to the U.S. when he was 16. He shared his hometown with the late John Naka, another legendary bonsai master who established the Nanpu Kai. Naka and Hirao used to work together to spread the knowledge of bonsai in the U.S.

Hirao has served in many capacities in the Golden State Bonsai Federation and in the California Bonsai Society (the nation’s oldest bonsai club). In 1981, he was honored by Prince Takamatsu of Japan with the “Ryoku Hakiju Yukosho” medal and by the Japanese Agricultural Society with a plaque for his contributions to the art of bonsai in the U.S. He is also a board member of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. and has both stones and bonsai on display there.

The Daiichi Bonsai Kai meets on the third Friday of each month at the Ken Nakaoka Community Center, 1670 W. 162nd St., Gardena, at 7 p.m. Each meeting features a bonsai demonstration and a benefit drawing, and is open to the public.



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