Learning Ikebana, The Art of Japanese Flower Arrangements
Japan’s annual cherry blossom festival is iconic, but the country is also famous for something else floral: Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangements. The practice started in the sixth century when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan and has since become secular and seen as a form of living artwork. However, it’s more than creating a Pinterest-worthy flower arrangement. Ikebana is meant to be a spiritual process of bringing the outside in, and you can learn the process at schools and workshops throughout Japan.
History of Ikebana
Ikebana translates to “living flowers” and is considered an art akin to painting and sculpture. Originating with the Ikenobo family in Kyoto, Japan, Ikebana has been practiced for more than 600 years. It is a disciplined art that serves as a form of creative expression, with artists using color combinations, natural shapes and graceful lines to convey their vision.
Once Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, it became customary to place flowers before images of the Buddha. The practice evolved over time, first with poetry attached to a flowering branch. Once the samurai class was in power by the 14th century, the arrangements — which would be displayed in the sacred tokonoma alcove — became more elaborate as they were meant to show social prominence.
While Ikebana was traditionally sacred, it has since become something publicly displayed. In fact, it’s now a tradition that the arrangement is viewed from all sides. Of course, as with any craft, there are several approaches and methods used to create these floral works of art. Some artisans follow strict rules, while more modern interpretations allow for personal artistic judgment — either way, the foundation of bringing outdoor beauty to an interior space remains.
To break it down from a practical standpoint, the arrangements include several key factors: minimalism, shape, line, and balance. Based on the use of those factors, an Ikebana design is one of three standard styles: upright, slanting or water-reflecting. There are several types of Ikebana in Japan, from Rikka and Shoka to Moribana and Nageire. Contemporary Ikebana uses the foundations of the more traditional styles with a modern twist.
To understand the importance of these floral arrangements, it’s vital to understand the varieties. Plus, it can help guide you when deciding which class to sign up for while visiting Japan. Here is a quick breakdown of the main styles of Ikebana.
Rikka is considered the original Ikebana style and was meant to showcase the elements of nature in harmony. In these arrangements, trees represent mountains while grass and flowers symbolize water. An entire landscape is meant to be reflected in a single vase. Each arrangement, though unique, must follow structural rules — aka positions — developed by Buddhist monks.
While Rikka is formal in its approach, Seika is a much freer expression. The word nageire means “thrown in.” Branches and flowers are tossed into a vase, and whatever formation is created is how the arrangement stays. You’re not supposed to adjust anything. The idea is to allow the plants to fall into a natural state representing oneness with the universe.
Shoka is a simpler form of Ikebana focusing on three lines where only three types of plants are used. The artisan is meant to create a balance of these lines while considering how sunlight is represented in the arrangement. Traditionally, a Shoka Ikebana is placed in the entertaining area of a home.
This type of Ikebana means “piling up” and encourages people to look at the arrangements as three-dimensional sculptures. You’ll often notice clusters of flowers and plants in the Moribana style, arranged in a flat, shallow bowl. Many will also include foreign flowers, as this style was introduced in the late 1800s after the Meiji Restoration. This was when Japan opened to the west and welcomed its imports, including flowers.
Taking an Ikebana Class
Although Ikebana is a skill that experts master after years of practice, it is still possible to practice the craft during a visit to Japan. There are classes throughout the country that range from beginner workshops to multi-day advanced courses.
For those who want the most traditional experience, the Ikenobo school is considered the origin. While there are offshoots of the school in Tokyo, the primary one is situated at the base of Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto.
Meanwhile, the Ohara School of Ikebana gets its name from the creator of the moribana style, Ohara Unshin. So, as you can imagine, you’ll mainly learn about that type of arrangement. Since its founding in 1912, hundreds of chapters have opened across Japan and around the globe. The main location is in Minami Aoyama in Tokyo, where they offer regular classes in English for a variety of skill levels.
If you’re looking for a school that teaches a variety of Ikebana styles, then The Ichiyo School is a great place to start. Here you can learn Moribana, Nageire and Ichiyo Seika through their famous simple teaching method. Although there is a six-course option that would allow you to reach instructor status, you can opt to take a 90-minute-trial lesson to learn some of the basics.
Want something a little more modern and freeform? The Sogetsu School in Akasaka in Tokyo was founded nearly a century ago by Sofu Teshigahara, who preferred free expression over the traditional Ikebana styles. At Masashi KAKI DesignFlower Design in Tokyo, you can take a one-day class that includes a tour with a National Certified Guide.
Other options include Petals Art Studio in the Gifu Prefecture. It’s a beginner to intermediate class that teaches Ikebana flower arrangement making in both English and Japanese.
Ultimately, the Ikebana craft blends nature, spirituality and art. No matter the style or how involved a course you take, learning about Ikebana is bound to provide more insight and appreciation for Japan’s rich cultural history.