Ikebana (生け花), comprised of the kanji “ikeru” (meaning “to arrange”) and “hana” (which means “flowers”), literally translates to "arranging flowers." However, when combined, the kanji more accurately translates to "making flowers come alive."
Ikebana dates back to the Sui and Tang dynasties in China and was brought to Japan by immigrants. Initially, the flower arrangements were created by Buddhist monks and presented as ritual offerings. The art form transformed into its modern version during the artistic renaissance of the Muromachi period (1336 - 1573) first spreading to the aristocratic class and then to the general populace.
It was during this time that ikebana was known by its more traditional moniker, “ka-dō”, meaning "the way of flowers." Together withcha-dō (the way of tea) andkō-dō(the way of incense), these practices made up the three traditional Japanese arts known as “the arts of Japanese refinement.”
Today, it is said that there are more than 400 schools (styles) of ikebana—each with its own design philosophies and aesthetics. Though clear rules governing the art of ikebana have been passed down by masters for centuries, there is still plenty of room for creativity and freedom of expression.
For those wishing to practice ikebana on their own, it is recommended to take a course from an ikebana school to fully appreciate the art form. However, it is also possible to practice ikebana at home by following a few simple steps.
Most ikebana compositions express a theme. These themes are typically focused on the seasonality of the plants and materials used.
Through working with nature, you will likely begin to notice how each plant has unique qualities. Some plants are stiff and prickly, while others drape elegantly. Highlighting these qualities is key when conceptualizing an ikebana piece.
Ikebana is a very accessible art form in that it does not require many tools. The four main components required in the creation of an ikebana piece are as follows:
- Kazai (natural plants) — Natural elements such as flowers, leaves, branches, and other plants are the most essential components. While it is important to be aware of the seasonality of each component, choosing budding branches and flowers which have not yet bloomed can add interest and variety to compositions. In certain schools of ikebana, the use of paper, rocks, or even metals is also allowed.
- Kaki (vase) — The vase is often as integral as the natural elements in ikebana. The size, shape, and color of a vase can add visual interest and emphasize your piece.
- Hasami (scissors) — Ikebana masters use specialized scissors which can cut through branches and stems cleanly. It is important to regularly cut the part of the stem which is submerged to prolong the lifespan of your composition.
- Kenzan (base) — A more sustainable alternative to the flower foam seen in many modern floral arrangements, kenzan are flat pin pads which serve as the foundation to most ikebana arrangements. Also known as “flower frogs” as they sit in the water, kenzan allow stems to be placed at any angle.
It is important to remember that the vase, flowers, and other elements should be harmonious and contribute to the expression of your theme.
Once your theme is set and all of your materials are gathered, it is time to start creating your arrangement. While, as previously stated, design philosophies differ between ikebana schools, there are a few conventions which are generally adhered to.
- Space — While western flower arrangement is often said to be an "aesthetics of addition," ikebana is conversely referred to as an "aesthetics of subtraction." In ikebana, the empty space in an arrangement is often as important as the elements. It is believed that space serves as an amplifier and highlights the individual components.
- Balance — Asymmetry is a key component of ikebana. Ikebana masters often utilize triangles or varying heights to create illusions of movement.
- Direction — Ikebana differs from western floral arrangements in that the direction in which an ikebana composition is viewed is basically fixed. Traditionally, ikebana works were placed in an alcove known as a "tokonoma," though today pieces can be seen in entranceways and window fronts. Nevertheless, ikebana pieces have a distinct "front" which highlights the main focal piece of the composition.
Just as important as the act of creation is the appreciation of an ikebana piece.
When viewing ikebana, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate time—not only the time it took to create the masterpiece but also the preciousness and finite time of nature. An inherent and ironic aspect of ikebana is the honoring of life through its destruction.
As is the case with the other arts of Japanese refinement, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the art of “making flowers come alive.”
About the author:
Kimberly Matsuno is a professional content writer and editor from the US. Having spent several years living in the Japanese countryside, Kimberly holds a particular fondness for Japanese culture and cuisine—particularly anything made with shiso. You can view more of her work at kimberlymatsuno.com.