A staple of Japanese and Chinese culture, the artistry of bonsai and penjing was made popular in the United States in the 1980ís with the release of the first Karate Kid film. Once a novelty, bonsai and penjing trees can now be bought in the United States at various flee markets across the country, where vendors either import the trees from their native country or create them themselves.
The rarest and most beautiful collection of bonsai trees is in Washington, DC. The National Arboretum houses dozens of the tiny trees in a beautiful, landscaped area dedicated solely to them. You can begin at the Chinese Pavilion. Walking through the gated pathway leading to the front doors transports you back in time to a tranquil, reflective period in the East. Low towering shade trees and beautiful flowers rich with scent come together in an area complemented by traditional Chinese stone and wood constructions.
Stand quietly and breathe deeply to get a full rush through your senses. When you come on a quiet day, you can hear the soothing sound of water running over rocks in the background. You can hear birds chirping. Itís a very pleasant place to steal away a few moments. If youíre lucky enough to be able to linger there without feeling rushed by other visitors making their own way along the path, you might even be able to find yourself. Itís really that good.
Once youíve made your way beyond the path and into the Chinese Pavilion, youíll find yourself in a more familiar museum-like surrounding. Pictures are not prohibited here, so feel free to take your camera and capture memories of the time you spent with the bonsai and penjing. You might even want to frame some of them.
Moving on from the Chinese Pavilion, you will find the Japanese Pavilion. Its appeal is much the same as that of the Chinese Pavilion, but unfortunately its effect is lost. Here, you will simply want to keep moving much as you would in a traditional museum.
Aside from housing the bonsai and penjing collections, the National Arboretum is also home to several other flower collections, including a beautiful rose garden just a few yards from where you left the bonsai. Itís another great place to visit while youíre there.
Plan to come when the crowds are gone, so youíll be able to take in more of the scenery and benefit from the reflective mood of the place. There is a small outdoor eating area where you can bring your lunch and sit outside to eat if you choose. Several fast-food places are nearby, so you may consider this an alternative to sitting in a restaurant. Or you could eat a big meal, and, if youíre comfortable with walking for long periods, use the walk to and around the Bonsai and Penjing Museum as your exercise for the day.
Getting there is easy by car, which is unusual for most Washington, DC, attractions. Simply take Interstate 95 to the Baltimore/Washington Parkway and follow the directions on the signs leading you to the National Arboretum from there. If you do take the metro, take the red line to Union Station and transfer to the Arboretum Shuttle bus. The trip is about 15 minutes.