Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, is so much more than just putting flowers in a vase. It is a disciplined art form with a long history, an established theory, and many different schools and styles. The tradition dates back to the 7th century, and is based around a reverence for nature, and the idea of bringing together nature and humanity. Ikebana differs from typical Western flower arrangement in its use of minimalism, and emphasis on different areas of the plant than just the flower. There is a spiritual aspect to ikebana, found in the act of creating art with natural materials.
Recently, I have started going to the ikebana club at my school, and I have really enjoyed it. The teacher is really sweet and speaks English well, and it’s nice to spend time with students outside of class. I’ve always appreciated the simple aesthetic of ikebana arrangements, and have been curious to learn more about the art. There’s a lot more that goes into ikebana than I had imagined, and I’ve found it very interesting to learn about the theory and techniques. I even bought an ikebana textbook (in English), because I want to continue going to the club. It’s a lovely way to spend a couple hours – playing with flowers and creating something beautiful. Especially living in hustling, bustling Tokyo, it’s really nice to slow down and appreciate natural beauty for a little.
There are hundreds of different schools and styles of ikebana that have evolved over the centuries, and the ikebana club at my school follows the Sōgetsu-ryū school. Sofu Tesigahara founded the school in 1927, with the idea that the strict rules of traditional ikebana did not leave enough room for individual expression. The basic principal of Sogestsu ikebana is, “ikebana reflects the person who arranged it.” You start with natural materials, put something of yourself into the arrangement, and the result is something special, and different from natural beauty. An ikebana arrangement is a union of nature and humanity; natural materials shaped by the personality of the person who arranged it. Two arrangements made by different people using the same flowers will be two truly unique arrangements.
Following the guidance of the teacher and my textbook, I made my first arrangement in the moribana basic upright style, the most basic structure in ikebana. The branches and flowers are fixed into a kenzan (needle point holder) in a large, shallow container. There are three main stems in an ikebana arrangement: shin, soe, and hikae. First, you decide which branch or flower should be used for each stem. Then, you cut the stems in a specific ratio to each other and the container they are placed in, and place each stem into the kenzan at a specific angle. Finally, you add jushi, or subordinate stems. Having really no idea what I was doing, I followed the directions of the textbook, and made my first arrangement. I thought it turned out pretty well, but when the teacher came to inspect, there was a lot that needed fixing.
I didn’t have enough jushi at the back of my arrangement, which is a problem because ikebana is a three dimensional composition. It matters just as much how the arrangement looks from the front as from the back. The angles of my stems were too close together, not leaving enough negative space. Ikebana is all about balance, and negative space is key. I was very impressed by the teacher’s attention to detail and ability to quickly identify what was wrong, and suggest a fix. Tiny little details that I would not normally notice, like the subtle way which a flower turns up or down at the end of a stem, or if one side of a branch is more full than another, make a huge difference in ikebana.
The teacher took a photo of my arrangement, suggested some changes, deconstructed it, and had me try one more time. This time, I focused very intently on getting the stem lengths and angles correct. Ikebana requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail, more than I usually give to anything. Before photographing my second attempt, the teacher had me clear out the water in the vase, so that it was clean and free of debris – one more small detail that I would have missed. I’ll admit, my second attempt, with the aid of the teacher, looked a lot better than my first. All of that focus does create a beautiful result.
I’ve been to ikebana club twice now, and I definitely want to continue coming back. I’d like to continue practicing and work up to some of the more advanced compositions. Ikebana is a really relaxing activity – I feel like I get into a kind of zen-state while working on the arrangements – and at the end of it I have created something beautiful. I definitely miss nature in my day-to-day life in Tokyo, so I really appreciate the opportunity to take a couple hours and work with natural materials. Plus, after club, I can take the flowers home with me. It’s lovely to have fresh flowers to brighten up my little apartment. Ikebana – you’ve won my heart!