There are five basic bonsai styles, with many variations.
The first five are the foundation for all other shapes. Included in the list below are the Japanese words for each style.
If you are a beginner, there is no need to memorize them. However, you will frequently see them used in many bonsai exhibits, demonstrations and literature.
Bonsai shapes illustration by early Japanese-American bonsai master John Naka.
1. Formal Upright – Chokkaan
This style is defined by the perfectly straight trunk line. The branches likewise are often more severe than on other shapes. Another defining asset is that it tapers all the way up the tree.
Finding material to use in designing such a bonsai is not always easy. Look for plants that have this straight trunk in nature. The larch, some species of juniper and pine, as well as the tropical Tamarind fruit tree (shown here) are just a few trees that usually grow erect.
The second basic bonsai shape is much less formal.
2. Informal Upright – Moyogi
This style has a softer look and is less severe than the ‘formal’ upright shape.
Curves and bends should have the look of something that would actually happen in nature. One of the major goals, is to place branches on the outside of curves, whenever possible.
The top of the tree (referred to as the apex) is positioned directly over the center of the base of the tree. This helps to make the bonsai look upright, as opposed to leaning, as in the next style.
3. Slant – Shakan
The bonsai should never look as if it will fall over. This style is not as easy as it may look.
In extremely slanted versions, it’s not unusual to prop the tree with a rock when it’s first styled. The rock will be removed once the roots stabilize. Slanted trees are also good for creating more advanced bonsai styles called “windswept.“
4. Cascade – Kengai
The most frequent analogy used for this tree is — “cliff hanger.”
In fact, that’s almost the only way this style could grow in nature.
The growing tip of your chosen plant should extend below the bottom of the container. Juniper is perhaps the most popular plant used for this style, but there are many others that will work.
Another species in the same style may look very different.
5. Half or Semi-Cascade – Han Kengai
Very similar to the “full” cascade. However, this shape hangs
below the lip of the container, but does not extend below the bottom of the pot.
In some exotic looking semi-cascades, a branch often extends almost horizontally to one side.
More Basic Bonsai Styles
The above descriptions are the basis for creating the five basic bonsai styles in the Japanese manner. To continue reading about styles … go to More Bonsai Styles.
Where to Go From Here
Also read about Chinese ‘bonsai’ (penjing) – very different from Japanese bonsai.