Words by Kaylee Dugan
Photos by Sarah Gerrity
The National Arboretum is one of the few spots in D.C. that still feels magical. When you see places like the Carnegie Library or the Washington Monument everyday (or close enough), it’s easy to overlook them. They stop making your head turn. You stop reaching for your phone to grab a picture. You even get annoyed at the people who take up space to stare at them. Places like the Arboretum are a stunning reminder of how lucky we are to live in a city like this. A city filled with high quality free programming. A city filled with beautiful parks and museums and sculptures and monuments that you can visit whenever the hell you want.
That is especially true of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Situated behind the visitors center of the park, just off of the traffic filled New York Avenue entrance, the museum is a love letter to one specific thing…. Tiny trees. Featuring Japanese, Chinese and North American bonsai and penjing (the Chinese art of miniature trees and landscapes, which predates bonsai), it’s an oasis within an oasis. If you thought the National Capitol Columns were beautiful and serene, get ready to be slapped in the face with relaxation.
The museum was founded in 1976, when the Nippon Bonsai Association gifted 53 bonsai to the United States in honor of the Bicentennial. Since then, the collection has grown and expanded to include the Chinese art of penjing, the newer North American bonsai and the delicate tropical bonsai, which transforms hulking banyan trees into shrubs that are no more than a foot high. We stopped by for the rededication and reopening of the Japanese pavilion, which brought together bonsai enthusiasts from around the world, folks who were there when the first bonsai were gifted in the 70’s, as well as brand new donors and students of the art form.
The Japanese pavilion was under construction leading up to the rededication. Hoichi Kurisu, an acclaimed Japanese designer had been redesigning the pavilion based off of the spatial concepts of Shin, Gyo and So gardens. The result is breathtaking. The winding path that leads you from the courtyard of the museum to the bonsai makes you feel like you’re stepping out of bounds and entering a secret garden, and the bonsai themselves are gorgeously arranged and styled. Before this, I would have sworn up and down that I had no interest in the art style, but the entire pavilion was dazzling. Every time you turned a corner there was something to catch your eye, whether it was a specific tree or the way a group of them had been arranged. You could see the attention to detail in every aspect of the pavilion.
The Chinese and North American pavilions are just as spectacular, and it’s fascinating to see the different styles so close to each other. The Chinese pavilion doesn’t have that gorgeous winding walkway, but it does have a pond and a little garden right in the middle of the pavilion, which makes the exhibit feel wilder, like you’re in the middle of the woods.
As I left the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, I was already planning my next trip back. Whether you’re showing family or friends a part of D.C. they wouldn’t normally get to experience, or you want to do some solo exploring, I can’t recommend this museum enough. Take some time to play tourist in your own city. You never know what you’ll find.