Keiji Oshima is a man who appreciates strength and beauty…and usefulness.
A small but sinewy man in his 60s, Keiji wears his long, gray-streaked hair in a pony tail and punctuates his conversation with the high-wattage smile of someone who is doing exactly what he wants to do in life and has found a way to make it work.
He and his wife Stefani (an American whom he met while they both were traveling in Africa) own and operate the Haiku Bamboo Nursery not far from Hendersonville on the outskirts of Edneyville.
Keiji left his native Japan back in 1969 and traveled to the United States. A young man at the time, he was looking for his calling. He worked mostly as a landscaper. Then about 20 years ago in Alabama, he purchased his first bamboo plant. That plant was the beginning of what is now a thriving six-acre patch of valuable plants…and the basis of his success as a nurseryman.
Sitting at a sturdy table in his country home — every stick of which he built himself — Keiji talks about the art and business of bamboo. “It’s very, very useful,” he says, drawing out the words for emphasis. The list of things he and other craftspeople make from bamboo is impressive: baskets strong enough to carry a small pig, for example, flutes that sell for hundreds of dollars, picture and mirror frames, toys, flower vases, rakes and brooms, not to mention the edible young shoots prized by Asian restaurants. Bamboo charcoal can be used to take chemicals out of tap water, as well as to make that ordinary water into mineral water.
All of that and more (including some surprisingly soft socks made from bamboo fiber) are available through his warehouse at 20 Tuttle Road in Hendersonville.
Of course, before the bamboo can be put to use it must be raised properly. Keiji works in his nursery seven days a week, he says, “but my mind is in it 24 hours a day. If you don’t take care of it, it will be a jungle.”
It’s an attention-demanding profession. A mature bamboo plant grows rapidly and absorbs about a gallon of water per day. Rabbits and deer raid the bamboo crop for tender young shoots (which taste something like asparagus), keeping Keiji’s two rambunctious mixed-breed dogs, Jack and Autumn, busy. An ancient shotgun leans against the wall near the back door, presumably for the same problem.
Even with diligent care, he says, 70% of all bamboo dies before reaching a useable size. “All bamboo can be difficult,” he explains, “just like humans.”
There are about 1,200 varieties of bamboo in the world; only three kinds are native to the United States. American Indian craftsmen used the bamboo for baskets, he says, a craft he continues today. One of his surprisingly sturdy baskets sells for $350. His flutes go for $850. It is easy to imagine that with six acres of bamboo he’d be cranking out flutes by the dozen.
But it’s not that easy. First, you have to find just the right size and shape. Then once you’ve cut the perfect candidate, it must dry slowly for two years in a dark place to avoid cracking. So far, he’s made about 20 of the instruments and at least one Australian-style didgeridoo.
By taking part of the root structure when he cuts a flute candidate, he achieves an interestingly complex instrument that curves slightly and ends in a spray of tiny root stubs. The sound it makes is exactly the one often associated with the sound tracks from popular Asian films, a rich, slightly haunting music that seems almost like singing.
Everything Keiji Oshima makes — from his flutes to his simple but stunningly beautiful home — reflects his respect for strength, beauty and utility. Bamboo, with its many uses and its characteristic vigor, is the perfect medium for his art.
But even the most skilled artist cannot work forever. Keiji would love to pass his knowledge along to a new generation of artisans. His two adult children Joji and Miho, involved in banking and interior design respectively, aren’t interested in taking over the family business. “They saw me working too hard,” he suggests. “Every day dirty and tired. I’m looking for somebody a little crazy I guess, the next generation…somebody to take it over.” It seems unlikely that he will find someone as devoted as himself to take up that challenge.
So, to share his lifetime of accumulated bamboo knowledge, Keiji has formed a rather informal school. Students come to his home, or he goes to theirs to teach everything from growing the plant to making products like the ones he sells in his warehouse and in regional galleries. In fact, the National Forest Service has hired him to teach employees how to handle a four-acre patch of bamboo in Cherokee County.
“They had no idea what to do,” Keiji says with a huge anticipatory grin. “It’s a jungle.”