Raft, Neagari and Horai

By Carl Morrow

This article stems from a lecture demonstration that I presented to the Kai late last year and the reason I was given this topic, is because I have developed a reputation for trying out different designs and possibilities with trees - and then the editor collared me into writing down some of my ideas!

These particular styles of Bonsai are very rare in most people's collections and I think the reason for this scarcity is that these trees are very much created styles; one does not easily find them in the wild or at nurseries. The design needs to be started with plants at a young age and it takes time for them to develop a maturity and beauty. Furthermore, one often needs a lot of foresight to achieve one's aims; you need to know the final height of the tree and where you will be placing branches long before the tree may have even reached its ultimate height. These trees also take extra work and different techniques that again make them more time consuming to achieve. The skills developed from creating these trees (design, horticultural and foresight) are extremely useful when you are working on all your trees and so it is a good idea to do some experimenting with these weird and wonderfuls.

It is critically important though, to always assess the results and decide whether the outcome is credible and whether it actually looks good. It is all very well to have a tree filled with dramatic twists and bends, but if it just looks silly then you have not achieved success' This was brought home to me when I was looking at the photographs of the trees that I worked on at last year's national convention. On the one tree I had purposefully left a very long branch at the bottom of the tree ''just to be different" and it upset some people. Later, when I saw the pictures, I realised that the tree looked quite good except for that awful long, straight first branch. The moral? Do not be different for the sake of it' By the way, I hope the new owner of the tree has removed that branch by now!

I briefly investigated the history of these styles and found that both neagari and raft/sinuous styles are featured in Yoshimura and Halford's book written in 1957. These authors do not mention the horai style by name but they do refer to a coiled trunk style that could easily have been renamed the horai style. In Bonsai Today no. 4-1 there is an article that features a redesign project on the original raft style tree that was collected in 1923.

I won't dwell on the methods of how to produce the different trees; these topics are frequently covered in magazines and in most books on Bonsai. In the following sections I will be making a few observations of the styles and give a few pointers on details that I feel are necessary to achieve the style in question. It is very important for the tree to look natural and so one must seriously look at the stock tree and decide if it is a suitable specimen for the method you want to apply. For example, it would be a tremendous waste to take a tree with a beautifully tapered straight trunk and expose a whole pile of twisted and sinuous roots.

Raft or Sinuous

Some people distinguish between the raft style and the sinuous style. Rafts are trees where a straight trunk has fallen to the ground and the branches from this trunk have then become the trees. (Fig. 1). Many people say that sinuous trees are ones that have developed from a curving root that has run along the ground and sprouted suckers. This does not preclude you from using a curved trunk to simulate a sinuous style tree. I certainly feel that the informality of this allows one much more freedom to experiment with different feelings and spirit in the plantings. (Fig. 2).



In her book, Deborah Koreshoff opens the section on this style with the following quote: "Most trees spend their entire life in one spot. The seed germinates and from then on their viewpoint on the world is unaltered, save for the changing apparel of the seasons. The raft or sinuous tree has a different character. Not being content to stay solely in the position of germination, he inquisitively wonders here and there, quietly exploring and observing the world."

To capture this feeling of quiet exploration is a marvelous goal with this type of tree. There are many different images possible that can even include the use of rocks and stones to enhance the effect, but the most important features of a successful planting is that it has a feeling of depth, a sense of three dimensionality and unity among all the trunks. (Fig. 3). Many trees in South Africa grow in this way by coppicing and sending out suckers; so some wonderful effects can be achieved with indigenous material.



The English translation for the neagari would be exposed root style. This is a rather general term that can encompass many different possibilities. The roots of your tree can be roughly plaited and then rapidly developed in a large pot or in the ground resulting in a massive, knobbly trunk. The alternative would be to leave the roots separate, as they were naturally growing in the ground. (Fig. 4). It is particularly rare to see a successful example of this form because an artificially created tree often has roots that are too straight with little character. The two neagari trees that I own were naturally formed when the nursery bags in which they were growing had broken and rotted away leaving a thin layer of soil at the bottom of the bag that was sustaining the tree. This process must have taken some time because the resulting exposed roots were beautifully aged with marvelous twists and turns. A method to create literati pines that I've heard of could possibly be adapted to this situation. It involves growing the young seedlings up through layers of very coarse gravel that causes the trunks to bend and twist as they try to find a route through the soil. In the same way, one could plant the young tree in a tall pot with soil that contains lots of pebbles or coarse gravel (30 to 60 mm) that would force the roots to frequently change direction as they are growing down to the bottom of the tall pot.


A variation on this theme could be achieved using tropical trees such as figs that naturally grow aerial roots. (Fig. 5). Recent issues of Bonsai Clubs International's magazine featured trees with amazing roots extending from the lower branches and down the trunks. One of the key features that one must try to achieve is unison between the roots and the crown of the tree. It should never look as if the top part has merely been added to the root system. There should not be a clear junction between the roots and the trunk and any curves and movement should be continued up onto the trunk section and out onto the branches.



Horai trees are usually likened to a dragon with its twisted body covered with scales (bark) and spines (Jins) mysteriously obscured in places by the wild clouds (foliage). (Fig. 6). In Japan some 200 years ago, commercial growers in Honai (Echigo Province) apparently specialised in the creation of these styles and they named them Horai after the legendary mountain island of perpetual youth. One would be mistaken to think that commercial gimmicks and catch phrases are a recent invention by marketing consultants!

In her book, Deborah Koreshoff gives very comprehensive information on this style of tree. It is very easy to create a contrived effect with sharp comers and boring lines, but with feeling and creativity a very dramatic yet balanced effect can be achieved. According to Koreshoff, the Chinese favour this style due to its rugged, dramatic character, although I must confess that I did not see any of these sorts of trees during my visit to China in 1995.


When creating these trees one must always keep in mind the kind of environment that these trees would be growing in. Generally they grow in very harsh places exposed to lots of wind and snow. One very important feature is that the artist can decide how much foliage is suitable on these trees. They can either be very sparse and literati-like or they can have dense, full foliage as long as it is very compact indicating that it has been protected by the lee side of a stone or ridge The great advantage of this fullness is that it is possible to have a very rugged tree filled with feeling, drama and great action while still maintaining enough foliage to keep the tree healthy Junipers and pines are good trees to use because they are very flexible and likely to grow in the conditions that would result in trees that look like this. If the trunk that you are bending is too stiff one could try the trunk splitting technique that would allow one to bend the trunk. The other advantage would be that the tree would eventually develop a very aged and rugged bark because of the very severe scarring that occurs when this technique is applied.

It would probably be best to grow these trees in the ground for a few years to develop suitably thick trunks and more aged bark. Horai style trees are definitely long-term projects that would take quite a few years to develop into an attractive image.

The one question that I would like to pose is whether too tight a curve would result in an ugly knot developing in the future. I would say that if there were only one in the tree it would detract from it while if the tree has several tight coils at different places on the trunk then it is possible that an attractive result can be achieved. Again in this case it is critically important to have depth in the coils; they should not be in one plane. The design must contain variety and not be a monotonous series of corkscrew-like coils.

This brief overview of some thoughts on three unusual bonsai styles that one rarely sees in collections, will hopefully encourage people to experiment with them as they will certainly develop many skills that are very useful in all your other bonsai work.

Special acknowledgment to Charles S Ceronio for the line drawings copied from his book Bonsai Styles of the World (Pretoria: 1999).