For Japanese people, appreciating the beauty of nature is an important part of life, and so it is not surprising that this is why the unique art form of flower arranging – ikebana – was born.
What is true about Japanese gardens, is mostly also true about flower arrangements: The artists aim to find order in the chaos of nature, expressing complex and profound meaning by arranging natural elements such as flowers.
There is a whole world to discover, and you can start here, with our brief guide about Japanese flower arrangements.
- Ikebana began thanks to Buddhist influence and the appreciation of flowers and plants.
- The main developers of ikebana are the shogun Yoshimasa and the painter Sōami, who established ikebana as an art.
- Every element of the composition, even the smallest one, is important to convey the meaning intended by the artist.
- Precision, attention to details and sensibility are some of the most important characteristics of people practising ikebana.
- Visit the house of a master to learn the basic principles of ikebana.
How everything began
Plants are important in the Shinto religion, and a long time ago the aristocracy established the pastime to admire plants and flowers. When Buddhism was introduced in Japan, people started offering flowers to monks, and such monks introduced the basic principles of arranging flowers.
Ikebana developed slowly, and the first schools began to appear at the end of the 15th century. Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun, was a patron of this art, and he even abdicated in order to fully dedicate himself to his artistic inclinations. He established that all the flowers offered to gods should not be placed loosely, but instead should be carefully arranged.
Thanks to Sōami, a famous painter friend of Yoshimasa, the concept of representing the three elements – heaven, earth and human – was introduced. During the 16th century, the art developed thanks to nature lovers, and it was divided into its two main branches: rikka and nageirebana. Rikka was simpler, while nageirebana was more decorative.
The art of flower arranging reached its highest level during the 17th century. The rikka style became extremely popular and then started to decline; while the other style, nageirebana, took the name of ikebana.
The oldest ikebana school
You can find more than 1,000 different types of ikebana schools around the world. Every school is guided by an iemoto (founder or Grand Master of a certain art).
One of the most famous schools is ikenobō (founded during the 700s AD). This school started with the construction of one of the oldest Buddhist temples of Japan, Rokkaku-dō. The priest in charge of it, spent his life arranging flowers. Ikenobo literally means “the priest of the pond”, and that name was used by the emperor to indicate all the priests specializing in flower arrangement.
The first teachers and the first students of the schools were Buddhists. With time, other schools were born, and ikebana became part of the Japanese culture.
What does ikebana look like?
Ikebana arrangement can be seen like sculptures: line, form, and color are extremely important. To Japanese people, many flowers have a symbolic meaning and are associated with a certain time of the year. For example, artists will use Japanese plum branches around New Year, chrysanthemums in autumn, Japanese iris in spring.
Artists can trim the branches, giving them odd shapes, even making them unrecognizable. The plant limbs are arranged to sprout in different directions. However, the most important things are balance and harmony. The materials the artist uses are important, but even more important is the way he/she arranges it.
Some basic principles
Ikebana is a way to bring nature and humanity together. The stems and the leaves are often emphasized, and lines, shapes, and forms are the most important things.
Ikebana can also be seen as a minimalistic art. The structure of many arrangements is based on a scalene triangle: its three points represent heaven, earth and humanin some schools, or the moon, sun, and earth in others.
The vase is also important. The artist will pay attention to the surface of the water (always exposed) and to the surface of the earth. The idea is to represent a complete growing plant. Flowers also try to express the current season. They will be grouped differently according to the time of the year.
As said above, there are many different schools, and thus there are many different styles. The styles evolved and were appreciated also by common people, not only by the aristocrats.
The oldest styles were characterized by a tall central stem accompanied by two shorter ones. When the aristocrats began to build magnificent castles, the styles started to be more complex. The rikka style, developed by Buddhists to express the beauty of landscapes, is characterized by nine branches, representing the elements of nature.
The chabana style emerged along with the tea ceremony and it emphasizes rustic simplicity. Nageirebana doesn’t follow a strict structure: its asymmetrical arrangement usually is shaped as a triangle. The shōka style consists of the three parts mentioned above (heaven, earth, human).
The newest style, jiyūka, is a free creative design which is not confined to flowers; any plants can be used.
How to start
As every other art, ikebana can be practiced by both amateurs and professionals, and, if you want to succeed, it is extremely important to learn the basic principles first. Precision is the most important value of ikebana, and beginners start by learning some basic technical skills along with the basic etiquette of keeping your work station clean and neat.
What beginners have to learn is how to bring out the inner qualities of the material they are using.
How to make a basic arrangement
Preparing a basic arrangement is not extremely difficult. The artist will start by adding water to a shallow container and then places the kenzan – a small object to keep the flowers in place – inside it.
The artist then chooses the branches he wants to use (usually two) and a flower. Stems are measured and cut so to have a precise length and, one at the time, they are fixed on the kenzan (usually, they are not fixed straight, but inclined at different angles). At the end, the artist adds other stems to hide the kenzan and fill empty spaces in the arrangement.
These are just the basic principles. They can be repeated over and over to get different shapes and effects.
Flower arrangement experience
Visiting the home of a Japanese master is a unique opportunity to get a first-hand experience of how flower arrangements are made. You can find tours in a lot of cities, and we guarantee you that you will love the experience.
The tour will begin with the instructor explaining to you why Japanese flower arrangements are unique, why they are different from those used in the west. Then he/she will also introduce the symbolic meaning of the main flowers and how they are used to symbolize the current season. Then comes the fun part.
You will be shown a flower arrangement, and you will have the opportunity to try to recreate it. The instructor will help you step by step, giving you advice, and tell you all the little secrets you need to know to recreate this beautiful work of art.
Learn flower arranging with Asia Highlights
If you like precision, if you like flowers, if you like to create something unique, then you will love ikebana. Visit Japan and learn how to make beautiful flower arrangements under the guidance of an expert! Our professional staff will plan your trip step by step, and everything you will have to care about are the flowers before you.