Ikebana (Flower Arranging)

Every Wednesday at around five fifteen, I pack my rucsac with my scissors, pruning shears, a large plastic sheet, a pencil case and my notebook and head out to my ikebana lesson. It only takes about ten minutes by bicycle, and the route is quite a pretty one, through a quiet residential area. My lesson usually last between 30 minutes and 1 hour, depending on how difficult the arrangement is, and how much we have to talk about, and sometimes we have a cup of tea afterwards. It is always an enjoyable experience and leaves me feeling at-home and optimistic about my life in Japan.

 Two examples of Ohara style arrangements, from an exhibition in Tokai-mura, 2016

I started to study ikebana by accident really. I mentioned to my Japanese teacher that I was interested in learning Japanese traditional arts or crafts of some kind, and happened to admire the floral arrangements pictured in the calendar we were using to learn dates and days. As it happened, my teacher knew someone who could put me in touch with an ikebana teacher. Next week, Sato-sensei, my ikebana teacher came to Japanese class to meet me.

In brief, ikebana literally means “arranged flowers” and dates back to the earliest traditions of Buddhism in Japan, when gifts of flowers and agricultural produce were arranged by monks to be presented to the spirits at shrines and temples. Tall flowers, branches and buds were placed in fantastic arrangements in tall vases, with the stems simply resting against the mouth of the vase, as we expect in the UK. The techniques of ikebana were formalised and perfected over many years and were eventually accepted as an art form in the 15th and 16th Centuries. This was during the long period of isolationism in Japan, during which time the country had almost no interaction with foreigners of any kind.

An example showing a more traditional style of ikebana, from an exhibition in Tokai-mura, 2016

In 1853, the period of isolation in Japan ended, and the country slowly started interacting with the rest of the world again. This meant that suddenly there were many more breeds and varieties of plants and flowers available to Japanese ikebana scholars. One of the first teachers to embrace this opportunity was Unshin Ohara, who broke with the traditional ikebana schools at the time and started to use Western blooms in his arrangements. Ohara also moved away from using tall vases, instead using very shallow vases, plates or bowls, and arranging the flowers using a kenzan. The mix of Western and traditional Japanese flowers, shallow vases (utsuwa), kenzan and striking simplicity of arrangements are all characteristics of the Ohara style, which is what I practice each week in my classes.

My own containers and materials for ikebana, including the kenzan (bed of pins) 

My weekly ikebana lesson is a delight. I arrive at my teacher’s house on my bicycle, ring the bell, and wait for the cheery “hai, doumo” (yes, come on in) before walking round to the little shed at the back of the house. I greet my teacher, take off my shoes and then we sit together on the blanketed floor of the (mercifully air-conditioned) shed and catch up on each other’s weekends in a mixture of broken English and broken Japanese. Often, we barely catch the gist of what each other is saying, and have to use a lot of smiling, nodding and hand gestures to convey meaning, but it is good practice for my Japanese, and very good-natured.

The first part of the lesson is to spread this week’s flowers out on a plastic mat on the floor and discuss the names, merits, uses and season of each bloom. In ikebana arrangements, there is (usually) a subject and an object, and then a number of other “filler” stems. My teacher always looks up the names of the flowers in advance, so that I can write down both their Japanese name and their English name. Some stems are only used in certain styles or certain seasons, or may be reserved for a particular use, for example at New Year.

After we have discussed the plants that we will be using, my teacher starts arranging them according to the style that we are learning this week. At first, I spent about 8 weeks learning “Rising Form” (tateru katachi), but have now moved on to the “Inclining Form” (katamukeru katachi), although we still sometimes return to Rising Form since the spring season brings plum, peach and cherry blossom branches, which are not used for the inclining style.

My first and second lessons on Rising Form

I try to take in as much information as I can as my teacher works her magic on the various branches, leaves and flowers. She takes time to explain what she is doing, using a lot of hand gestures and a few words of English mixed into the flow of Japanese. Some words she uses every week I have an understanding of in context, but can never seem to remember them well enough to look them up and find out their exact meaning. She takes care to explain the reasons for placing each stem. Sometimes three stems are selected to form an asymmetrical triangular arrangement, or a particular branch is selected because of an attractive or unusual curve. Flowers have “faces” and should usually face upwards in an arrangement, but there are exceptions. Colour is important, but pairings don’t always seem logical to me. Sometimes bold “filler” stems seem like they would surely eclipse the delicateness of the chosen object, until I see how the arrangement comes together. Most important is thinking about the space that you create around the flowers. Much gesturing is devoted to showing the shape of space left by the interaction between branches, leaves and flowers.

More recently, my teacher has started to involve me more in the arranging of this initial arrangement, which tests my skills on remembering the correct proportions and choosing which flowers should be the focus, filler or simply discarded. After the arrangement is finished, we discuss any further points, and then I have some time to sit quietly and make my notes and, most importantly, draw a detailed sketch of the arrangement so that I could reproduce it.

Trying to include all of the relevant information to reproduce the arrangement

Once the sketching is finished, I take the arrangement apart and reproduce it from scratch. I am gaining confidence in doing this, but at first I found it very difficult to essentially create art by rote! It helps me to note that my teacher often agrees with me if I place one of the stems differently, and always highlights things which I have done well in my arrangement, so I know if I have the right idea. Sometimes I repeat the arrangement once more, just to make sure, especially if it’s a more technical one with lots of different stems and lengths and sizes and so on.
After that, we have another lovely chat and often a cup of green tea and some sweets, and discuss the flowers we’ll be using next week, particularly if there’s a certain festival coming up or when the season changes. Recently, we’ve studied New Year, Hinamatsuri (doll festival) and early spring ikebana.

When I started ikebana lessons, I was really looking for a large, sociable arts and crafts class that would give me something fun to do whilst meeting a lot of people. Ikebana did not fill that niche at all! Fortunately, I have been lucky with finding friends and meeting people, and now I am able to attend my ikebana lessons and enjoy them for their calm and instructive atmosphere instead. I love seeing the arrangements come together, and am starting to have more success with my own.

Most of all, after an hour of Japanese/English chatting about holidays and sights and seasons and flowers, I always cycle home feeling on top of the world. Not bad for an accidental hobby. 


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