wabi 150x150 Frank Wazeter InterviewToday we are very pleased to present an interview with Frank Wazeter who has also been known as Frank Xavier for a long time on aquatic forums.  Mr. Wazeter is with Aquarium Design Group out of Texas, which is also the US office of Aqua Design Amano of Japan.  He holds many roles between the multiple associations but Chief Marketing Officer ADG/ADA-US is most likely the most accurate title for the gentleman.

We are talking today with Frank about wabikusa.  Frank is one of the most knowledgeable Americans on the topic.  He has been passionate about wabikusa, Iwagumi and minimal aquariums in general since he first came to the hobby.  Some of you may remember the Iwagumi Cubed / i3 project which was a fan and educational site on the topic of Iwagumi.  It has since been wrapped into the ADA banner and the content is now integrated there.  Frank has been working directly with ADA since November 2009 as part of the i3 project but was hired and became part of the core team in August 2010.

We appreciate Frank taking some time to chat with us about wabikusa.

Shango Los for TankGeek.com: Thanks for sitting with TankGeek.com, Frank.  Having seen how this topic is treated on the aquarium forums, I think it is important that we start with a definition.  Would you give a rough definition of paludarium and how that relates to wabikusa?  So often these terms are used interchangeably.

Frank Wazeter: Well, to be honest, paludariums and wabikusa are completely different from one another. In fact they are so different that it would be pretty much the same as calling an aquarium tank a paludarium tank – where certainly you could use an aquarium tank for a paludarium, it’s primary purpose isn’t as a paludarium.  On the hobbyist side, paludariums pre-date wabikusa and have been part of the ADG repertoire since before it’s existence. Paludarium layouts are actually one of Mike Senske’s (owner of ADG with brother Jeff Senske) favorite style. If you look back in the early years of the AGA aquascaping competition you’ll see almost universal domination of that category by Mike.

A paludarium is simply a layout that’s half full of water and half full of dry “land” (when I use half, that’s not an approximation, it could be 75% water, 25% water, so on and so forth. The important thing to note is that it contains both a water feature and a land feature.

Now, wabikusa is an ADA trademarked product name that is comprised of easily portable, roundish mounds of soil that are heavily planted with any number of variety of plants from one species to practically uncountable and range from carpet to stem plants and even echinodorus (swords) and cryptocoryne.  The popularized setup for a wabikusa, and the “ADA Wabikusa tank” (not the official name, it’s official name is ‘waterfall’) that features a mostly open aquarium with glass panes acting as ‘stages’ to hold wabikusa on (so the filtration output is at the top and flows down the panes of glass creating a “waterfall” and the input is at the bottom ‘aquarium’ portion), and an area on the bottom to hold water and fish has been intrinsically linked with wabikusa because in Japanese stores they use these aquariums to store wabikusa for purchase, and in fact ADA also uses them primarily for wabikusa display

That kind of aquarium is a paludarium

So it’s easy to see how the connection between paludarium and wabikusa was made and reinforced over time.  Some hobbyists in the USA special-ordered the Do!Aqua waterfall aquariums and created their own wabikusa to go on them.

TankGeek: So the defining point of wabikusa is that it is a self-contained unit of substrate and plants and that unit can be moved around because it is not rooted into the aquarium.wabi4 150x150 Frank Wazeter Interview

Frank Wazeter: Correct.  Essentially, wabikusa is simply a “plant ball” and…

<At this point, ADG lost power and Frank had to go sort that out.  He was back just a few minutes later.>

Frank Wazeter: Sorry, the wabikusa is indeed the ball of soil with plants – what I meant to say was that it could be used immersed, as part of the water “aquascape” or emmersed as part of the “land” portion of a paludarium.  I think it’s actually a lot simpler than people are making it out to be – we Americans have a tendency of over-complicating things.

TankGeek: OK.  I get that.  Thanks for taking the time to really drill down on this.  There is ALOT of confusion over the issue since this vocabulary is so new and it is often used incorrectly on aquarium forums.

Many folks just assume that Mr. Amano began this new offshoot of the hobby.  What is the history of paludarium in Japan and how is it migrating to the US?
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Frank Wazeter: Well, a paludarium layout isn’t specific to Japan, I think it may actually have more roots in western aquarium styles.  Paludariums, vivariums and ripariums are all bred from the same stock, or same idea.  I imagine what happened is that somewhere along the lines of the evolution of aquarium keeping, someone decided they intentionally wanted their aquarium half full / half empty and the paludarium came along.  It hasn’t been until recently that we’ve really started to see aquariums built specifically for use as a paludarium – like the Do!Aqua Waterfall tank and even from other manufacturers

What wabikusa has, by way of its ability to be grown emmersed, is sort of revitalized heavy interest in paludariums and like styles…most notably among the planted aquarium hobbyists.  Here again, you had a case where someone saw a picture of a wabikusa from Amano, thought it was cool and then sought to replicate it because of the inability to get an ADA branded one in the United States.  Aquarists then started gaining an appreciation for the look of plants while emmersed and it opened up the hobby in a big way and has become trendy.  Also, the fact that you don’t need to use co2 injection to grow a plant emmersed has added a lot of appeal to this style during an economic time where everyone is budget conscious.

TankGeek: I can see how that would set Mr. Amano up as the “godfather” of the renewed paludarium movement.  It may have been going on, especially outside the US, but it was Amano’s celebrity that was able to carry that meme to far flung places and get folks excited.

Frank Wazeter: Indeed, Amano has a unique ability due to his renowned ability for aquascaping to make something cool, popular and in vogue by sheer nature of having used it once.  Take for example Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides. This plant has been around for ages but no one ever liked it really outside of a few people here and there. No one had really heard of it. But then, Amano uses it for a few layouts and now suddenly everyone wants it.  Nobody else in the industry has that kind of draw.

TankGeek: Obviously Mr. Amano is in favor with having his name so intimately attached to paludariums, correct?

Frank Wazeter: Honestly, I don’t think he recognizes his name being attached with paludariums at all, for better or for worse. However, he has been noted to have said that wabikusa is his greatest accomplishment in all of his career, and that it more or less embodies his legacy.  Which in a brilliant way – he’s found a way for an Amano layout to live beyond himself

TankGeek: Let’s talk about wabikusa longevity for a moment.  Being so stripped down and without much water circulation inside the substrate, how long can one expect a wabikusa to stay looking fresh?

Frank Wazeter: Well, as long as it has enough water to not dry out it can thrive for years. Many of the wabikusa grown out in the ADA Nature Aquarium Gallery are three and four years old.

TankGeek: There seem to be many breakthroughs taking place right now in what ingredients aquascapers put into the soil ball of the wabikusa.  As that mix knowledge improves, I’m sure they will continue to get more stable.  Are there folks at ADG who are working on this as well or do you rely more on the hobbyists to do the testing and you harvest the best techniques?

Frank Wazeter: Well, I’ll be honest. We more or less have a good idea on how they are composed and created from the ones that we have in our possession. But for the moment we aren’t producing or trying to produce them ourselves. We haven’t really looked to hobbyists for testing and procedures on what techniques they’ve used to create them, for a number of reasons really.
We have a business obligation to exhaust all efforts on importing or providing wabikusa in an ADA approved fashion before going down any other route. So while we could say we have a very good idea on how it is done, it’s not something that we can use or share.  Besides, if ADG made ‘wabikusa’ on our own without support from ADA, we wouldn’t be able to call it wabikusa and I just can’t think of a cooler name!

TankGeek: Interesting.  Are very many trademarked wabikusa making it to the US?
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Frank Wazeter: There are a handful. We actually own 6. I’ve gotten a hold of three myself, Jeff had three, but gave one of his to his brother Mike. So currently there are five wabikusa in the ADG work space and one at Mike’s home.

TankGeek: Were there more in the container that arrived from ADA in December?

Frank Wazeter: Unfortunately, there weren’t any in the container from ADA. Customs doesn’t seem to like them very much.  While each individual component of a wabikusa is completely legal to own in every state, the mix of the plants makes the easy answer from customs to be burn them or get rid of them. I’ve lost as many wabikusa as there are owned in the United States that way.

TankGeek: Sounds like a missed opportunity. So many folks are geeked about them stateside but cannot buy the trademarked ones and so have no choice but to invent their own.  Do you see a unique “American” style evolving?

Frank Wazeter: There is definitely a unique spin on wabikusa in the US, but not in the way you’re thinking. Wabikusa in Japan are almost exclusively used by hobbyists there in the submerged form. Most are used as a complete replacement to planting the aquarium at all (which is a huge perk of wabikusa, Amano no longer individually plants anything, just plops down wabikusa.)

TankGeek: That probably plays to why there is so much confusion regarding paludarium and wabikusa.  Amano’s recent style of making the self contained wabikusa and dropping it in an aquascape is very convenient for aquascapers.  It would allow plants to be moved around at whim and really would allow for easy trimming and care.

Frank Wazeter: Well, that and one of the first hobbyists to ever make a comment about wabikusa, Steven Chong, created his own and created a ‘paludarium’ layout.  So ever since then, people have associated wabikusa with paludariums.
However,  wabikusa in the United States is using them in the emmersed form exclusively.  As far as missing an opportunity – I don’t think it is. We are going to get wabikusa to the United States one way or another, and have plans developed to do just that. However, like everything in this hobby and industry – it takes lots of time and patience

TankGeek: Just to get an idea, how much would a wabikusa cost if one did make it into the us?

Frank Wazeter: They cost around $20-30 USD in Japan. The cost here wouldn’t be much higher than that.  Now, this isn’t official or confirmed but in general, Wabikusa comes in three sizes: S, M and L. Now, medium and large are pretty normally named but small is named wabikusa “Karin” type. The largest one has root ball with a 9 cm diameter, mid has 6.5 cm diameter, small is around 5 cm.  Remember, these are not measurements from ADA, I’m just giving you estimates.

TankGeek: Part of your job as CMO for ADA is to help develop product that hobbyists can use to build these wabikusa themselves.  What do you see as new or in development that might excite folks like me who are looking at making their first paludarium with emersed wabikusa?

Frank Wazeter: Well, that’s a difficult question.  Really, if you are going to replicate a wabikusa, there isn’t much we can provide. -We could, of course, supply plants and we have Aquasoil, but those are individual components.  Really all you need for emmersed wabikusa is a glass container, like the Do!Aqua Plant Glass vases we carry, and some trimming scissors.  However, we will also have the wabikusa, emmersed plant specific fertilizer, called Be Bright, available for sale.  So people will be able to use a fertilizer specifically designed to help grow plants emmersed, which has farther reaching applications than Wabikusa as well. The Do!Aqua line is multi-faceted. It has all of the classic components of the ADA line but it’s also the specialty line for wabikusa and paludariums.  Really, the only thing I do to keep my wabikusa healthy under the Do!Aqua Branch Light is give it a light misting (which has diluted Be Bright in the mix) in the morning and change the water with a piece of airline tubing once a week.  I do occasional trimming, but by and large I just want the thing to grow as wild as possible.  So, a capful of Be Bright in my 500 ml spray bottle, mist/spray once every morning. Water change once a week, half fill the container with water and one capful of Be Bright and that’s pretty much it.

TankGeek: Are there any other wabikusa snippets that I wouldn’t know to ask you that you want to share?

Frank Wazeter: There is a movie called “Say Hello for Me” or Sono Toki wa Kare Ni Yoroshiku in Japanese and this movie very heavily had ADA / Nature Aquarium as part of the movie.  It was released in 2007 in Japan. Well, the main female character’s name is Karin. And there are a lot of subtle connection points associating her with these smaller wabikusa (in submerged form in layouts), so, it’s quite possible that either that character was named after the name for the “small” wabikusa or vice versa. I’d highly recommend watching that movie if you get a chance!  It is a romance but filled with aquariums and aquatic plants.

Shango Los for Tankgeek.com: Thanks for your time, Frank.  We look forward to chatting again soon.

TankGeek is very grateful that Frank was able to take some time away to be able to chat with us about wabikusa.  We are really excited about watching as the interest in wabikusa expands.  We live in exciting times when the old art of fishkeeping can take advantage of internet connectivity.