“Don’t just think about filling space. Emptiness is essential too,” explains my kimono-clad ikebana teacher Kimiko. We are standing in her elegant townhouse in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, beside a worktop scattered with slashed stems and discarded petals. Pruning shears in hand, I’m brooding over my next move.
Admittedly, until now, my notion of flower arranging was of something rather twee — the domain of staid village fetes and arts-and-craft clubs. Ikebana, I’m realising, is nothing of the sort. As a highly disciplined floral art form with deep spiritual meaning, it captures the essence of Japanese aesthetics; a deep reverence for structure, restraint and nature.
The act of adorning indoor spaces with living flowers came to Japan with Buddhism in the 6th century, but it blossomed around the 1600s as an accessory to traditional tea ceremonies. During the feudal period, ikebana was primarily a male occupation, considered an appropriate pastime for aristocratic samurai. Only after Japan opened up to Western influences did it become part of women’s education, too.
Today, ikebana schools have proliferated across Japan, fostering in both male and female students the virtues of patience and self-reflection so vital to mastering the craft’s intricate styles and techniques. “I’ve been learning for 13 years,” says Kimiko. “Still there is so much to know.”
For each arrangement, plants are carefully selected to embody a particular season or sentiment. “In summer, we use blue, violet and white flowers to help us feel cool, or lilies that give the impression of being beside water,” Kimiko explains. “Sometimes we use dead plants to think about the past and future. They remind us that nothing lasts so that we can appreciate the temporary beauty of the artwork.”
My raw materials are a curly fantail willow, a long-stemmed narcissus and a flush of pink chrysanthemums. Kimiko has recommended that I attempt moribana — an unfussy strain of ikebana that helps beginners like me better understand the Japanese view of nature.
Bolstered by her smiling encouragement, I rather haphazardly select flowers to spike onto my metal kenzan, or frog, while trying to recall the crucial maxims on length, depth and composition. “Think how they grow in nature,” Kimiko advises. Unlike the dome shape of western flower arrangements, ikebana traditionally favours a triangular form in which three principal stems symbolise harmony between heaven, earth and mankind.
Only when I step back to finish does Kimiko graciously offer a helping hand. In a matter of seconds, she’s artfully snipped, pruned and readjusted my rather unkempt arrangement into something considerably more refined.
I eye my creation with a satisfied sense of achievement. Between its sparse leaves and stems there are contrasting colours and textures, elegant curves and disarming asymmetric lines. Call it beginner’s luck but I think I’ve created a masterpiece. Suddenly my local crafts club doesn’t sound so bad. Flower arranging… where do I sign up?
A 75-minute ikebana class in Kyoto costs Y5,000 per person.