Crash Course: Ikebana

Chances are if you’ve spent any amount of time in Japan, you’ve seen an ikebana arrangement – at a tea ceremony, at a flower exhibition, in the lobby of a posh hotel or even in the alcove of a Japanese friend’s home. These asymmetric creations bare little resemblance to the full-bodied bouquets of the flower shops back home but, as I’ve come to learn, there’s a beauty in that empty space.

Ikebana is one of Japan’s oldest traditional arts, dating back at least 700 years. There are several main styles within ikebana – rikka or shoka involves tall vases and focuses on vertical flower arrangements; moribana is a more modern take on ikebana with a low container that has a spiky stem holder called a kenzan.

An ikebana arrangement
An ikebana arrangement

Though it has evolved over the centuries, there are a few major points of ikebana that consistently apply to the practice:

  • Ikebana represents the four seasons. Don’t look for imported flowers, or lilies in December here. An ikebana arrangement reflects the season outside, but strives to make you feel “the opposite”. Confused? A winter ikebana arrangement might involve twigs and berries but is constructed to make one feel “warm”. Likewise, a summer display might sport flowers and grasses, but the hope is to bring a sense of freshness to the room.
  • Ikebana arrangements place as much value on the empty space as the space that the flowers occupy. Unlike the layered look of Western flower bouquets, an ikebana arrangement often looks lopsided. Yet that emptiness is as much a part of the artist’s design as the plants are.
  • Ikebana is a study in both the life and death of the flower. Dead branches and leaves aren’t culled from the arrangement, they’re left there to remind us of the circle of life for all living things. An ikebana practitioner may even purposefully choose non-living or dead objects to incorporate into the scene.
  • In practicing ikebana, one learns patience (at least, I hope so!) and improvement. Each set of flowers presents a different challenge and no arrangement is ever the same. It’s a constant personal challenge to find the beauty of an arrangement in each set of materials.

So, where can one go to actually try their hand at ikebana? For the answer to that question, stay tuned for the next post!

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