Ikebana is the art of flower arranging that originates in Ancient Japan. This is practised as an art where flowers and other natural elements are placed in such a way as to embody harmony, peace and beauty.
Moribana Style Ikebana
Heika Style Ikebana
The word Ikebana itself means ‘alive arranged flowers’ or ‘giving life to flowers’ in English. This cultural activity has origins in Buddhist temples as flowers were used for offerings as far back as the seventh century. Adding leaves and other natural elements into flower arrangements is referenced as an idea from another Japanese religion, Shinto. Shintoism believed all natural elements as beautiful and spiritual, not just flowers. Ikebana became an art style in its own right during the fifteenth century as Buddhist monks began teaching others the rules of their flower arranging in order for others to create arrangements themselves. As a result, Ikebana schools were formed, each having their own distinctive flair and style. The flower arrangements became a symbol of fine art in the homes of the aristocratic. It was during this time that styles like the nageire were associated with other exclusive cultural pursuits like the tea ceremony and haiku poetry. In modern times, other art and design styles and techniques have influenced ikebana, but the fundamental principals have remained the same. The most important of these is that ikebana is still seen as a spiritual pursuit in helping merge the indoors and outdoors.
Iki: A Japanese aesthetic element which translates to ‘refined uniqueness’.
Moribana: A popular style of flower arrangement that translates to ‘piled up’. The flowers and other elements are placed in low, shallow containers.
Nageire: Another popular style of flower arrangement that translates to ‘thrown in’. The natural items are organised in tall vases.
Rikka: A traditional style of flower arrangements that translates to ‘standing flowers’. This style uses seven branches to represent natural scenes.
Shoka: A type of flower arrangement that embodies the spiritual world.
Shin: A branch that represents heaven and is an important element in shoka flower arrangements.
Soe: A branch that represents man and is an important element in shoka flower arrangements.
Tai: A branch that represents earth and is an important element in shoka flower arrangements.
Ikebana is vastly different to other types of flower arrangement in Western countries. Flower arrangement in the West consists of arranging flowers and other plant elements symmetrically in a vessel. Ikebana is fundamentally different due to its higher pursuit to develop a closeness with nature during the creation process. Here are the design elements Ikebana takes into consideration:
• Minimalism: Buddhist ideals of minimalism are at the core of ikebana. The natural elements put into the arrangements are like sculptures and should each have a purpose. For example, leaves should be chosen by how they complement with one another and with the style of the finished display as a whole.
• Shape and Line: This element also has ties to Buddhism as all shapes and lines should be placed in a natural looking position. For example, upright arrangements often made with branches that offer stiff, straight lines. This embodies a tree’s strength and rigidity. A slanting style of arrangement is made with softer elements by incorporating flowers and grasses that grow slanting down. This also gives a sense of movement and grace.
• Structure: Many traditional Japanese flower arrangements are based on a scalene triangle. The points of the triangle are usually made with twigs or branches. A popular style called shoka takes this one step further, as this style’s arrangements represent the spiritual world with its use of structure. The longest branch or flower in the arrangement is called shin, and this represents heaven. The medium branch or flowers, soe, represents man, and the shortest branch or flowers, tai, represents earth.
• Form: The final design of the flowers and other plant elements should be ‘found’ during the arrangement, rather than being planned and forced. It is said that you should find what is ‘already there’ in the flowers, branches and leaves you have chosen. A typical ikebana arrangement emphasises asymmetry and imperfection through the use of free space, uneven numbers and a minimal number of blooms.
• Aesthetics: The overall feel of the arrangement should embody traditional Japanese values. A way to describe it is iki or ‘refined uniqueness’. A style that explains this is rikka or the ‘standing flowers’ style. This style uses seven branches to make or represent the beauty of natural landscapes such as hills, waterfalls and valleys in their arrangements.
• Humanity and silence: Ikebana is said to also be an embodiment of the arrangement’s creator. It reflects the creator’s mood and personal journey with nature. A style I think embodies this is one with a moribana arrangement which utilises the shallow bowl it is arranged in as a reflective pool. Finally, while taking part in ikebana you shouldn’t speak. This process should be a meditative activity where you are only focused on the natural elements taking shape in front of you.
Fun Facts about Ikebana:
1. There are thousands of ikebana schools in Japan alone, with the most well known being the Ikenobo School, started in the Choho-ji temple in Kyoto. It has since spread chapters all over the world, and recently has grown to incorporate over 60,000 teachers in many different countries. Ikebana is still a very popular in its home country as it is practised by roughly 15 million people annually, many of which are young women.
2. While many women practise ikebana, it is also a cultural activity that was historically practised by men as well. In fact, samurai warriors would need to be taught flower arranging, as well as other important cultural activities, before being recognised as a true warrior. Currently, there are more leading male Ikebana masters than female.
3. Modern styles and techniques are changing how ikebana arrangements are put together. One such master who has embraced new styles is Techigahara Sofu who used plaster, plastic and even steel in his flower arrangements. He founded the Sogetsu School so his ideals of experimentation are practised by new students as well.
4. In addition to the Ikenobo School, two other well known schools are the Sogetsu School and the Ohara School. These two schools are more modern, each being around for roughly a century. The Sogetsu School and Ohara School were founded by ikebana masters who wanted to incorporate more popular Western elements.
5. If you do attend an ikebana arrangement class, some of the classes you would need to take are using scissors to trim different plants correctly, bending branches so they don’t break or look unnatural, selecting flowers to symbolise traditional elements, identifying the appropriate vase or bowl for your arrangement and learning how to keep your natural elements as fresh as possible.
6. There are ikebana arrangement displays where you can see experts showcase their abilities and techniques. Many of these exhibitions are about ‘friendship through flowers’ rather than competition and are known in Japan as well as other countries. There are also annual arranging competitions in Japan where masters compete. In these competitions, the masters have the same equipment, flowers and plants but should use their personal taste and experience in making different arrangements.
7. Ikebana is available for students through after school classes and clubs for those wanting to learn. Ikebana is also regularly shown through ‘how – to' videos and on Japanese TV shows. One such show is Seikei Bijin or Artificial Beauty, a drama TV series which has an ikebana master as a male character and love interest.
8. While not ikebana, a related cultural activity from Japan is called kodo. This is the traditional art of fragrance and using incense. This practise is generally learnt if a Japanese woman wishes to be considered to be refined, alongside ikebana and the traditional tea ceremony. This has another tie to ikebana as some of the flowers used in the arrangements are also popular incense scents.
9. Another Japanese cultural activity that has ties to flowers is bonsai growing. This is the art of growing small trees in particular shapes in order to showcase their beauty and natural grace. Many aesthetics found in the ikebana flower arrangements are also important in bonsai growing.
A good online resource if you wish to continue on your own ikebana journey is found at https://www.ftd.com/blog/design/ikebana. This website has a step by step tutorial to help with the skills and techniques you need to make your own flower arrangement. Because there are also ikebana teachers around the world, you may find a qualified instructor near you if you search online. Start by looking at http://www.ikebanahq.org/index.php. Finally, there are many Youtube videos and web pages to assist you if you want to practice this art at home.