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  • Cindy McNatt

OC Register Article about Sensei Harry Hiaro

A small article about Harry when he was still alive from the OC Register December 7, 2013 by Cindy McNatt. I know many of us have missed this article and I thought it would be a great tribute to share this article with everybody once again.

Even though Harry Hirao retired two years ago, he wakes up at dawn on most days and heads out at first light. The 96-year-old man has been doing this his entire life, first as a farmer in Colorado, where he was born, and then as a gardener in Southern California. His bonsai needs tending and now he can spend uninterrupted days watering, pruning and puttering. And taking naps.

Hirao made a living mowing lawns, but he leaves a rich legacy in the bonsai community – not only for founding Southern California's first bonsai club, Kofu Bonsai Kai, in the 1950s, but also with an honor from Prince Takamatsu of Japan, a medal from the Japanese Agricultural Society, as a director of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum and for his contributions to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Hirao is famous in bonsai circles, yet those who know him best call him a mountain goat. In the cool season, he guides groups of bonsai enthusiasts on weekly treks to search for specimen California Junipers that they collect and care for as bonsai.

Jawbone Canyon in the Mojave Desert is where Hirao digs on private property traded by Mulholland for Owens Valley land during the development of the Los Angeles aqueduct.

“I'm the only one allowed to top,” he said.

California Juniper is found on dry slopes, twisting and turning in the harsh environment and lean soil with a growing rate of two inches a year. Graceful shrubs that are at least a century old are highly prized by collectors.

Bonsai (the word means tree in a tray) happened first in China around A.D. 700. Buddhist monks brought bonsai to the island nation of Japan in the 12th century, where it remained an art form of the privileged class.

The miniaturization process was prized in Japan, where so many people live in so small a space. Bonsai went mainstream there after World War II and U.S. servicemen brought them back to the states after the war.

All kinds of trees can be bonsai, including elms, oaks, pines and Japanese maples. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination.

Pots are particularly important, not only because they should complement the plant, but they also need to be strong enough to contain the roots. There are two kinds: inexpensive containers in which to raise bonsai, and pricey containers to display mature plants. Hirao's favorites are antiques from Japan.

Hirao, who lives in Huntington Beach, is considered kibei in the Japanese community – born in the U.S. but educated in Japan. That might have made him vulnerable to arrest after Pearl Harbor, but Colorado's governor refused to allow the Japanese population in his state to be interned during the war.

Still, life was hard for his immigrant family, which traded its farm-raised vegetables for fish and other supplies.

“The growing season too short,” he said. Hirao came to California to try his hand in the gardening business.

Trees dwarfed by nature are the most sought after in bonsai circles, and it is man against tree to achieve the perfect balance of top growth to container in a graceful form. Rule No. 1: There should never be a trace of the artist's hand.

There are many more rules of proportion, visual balance and scale that take a lifetime to achieve. Hirao is considered sensei (teacher), sharing principles and techniques to clubs and groups all over the United States.

Because one hobby is never enough for a fertile mind, Hirao also collects rocks from the Eel River in Northern California. Called suiseki, collectors search for rocks that naturally mimic graceful landscapes, waterfalls, shorelines and mountains. Hirao donated seven graceful Eel River rocks to the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, where they are on permanent display in the Japanese Garden.

“Popping out of bed in the morning is what keeps him healthy,” said his daughter Ilene Kutzle.

This is understandable – bonsai is in his blood. His great-grandfather and grandfather on his mother's side were bonsai masters.

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