‘Ikebana is often translated to Japanese floral art or flower arrangement,’ says Tomoko Sempo Yanagi, an ikebana professor and the chairperson of Ikenobo UK & Ireland, ‘But, in my view, ikebana isn’t just an artistic arrangement of flowers and plants, the practice is as spiritual as it is technical.’ Tomoko, who was born in Japan and is now based in the UK, has been practicing ikebana for more than thirty years and was trained at the oldest school of ikebana, known as Ikenobo.
Dating back to the 7th century when Buddhists started offering flowers at temple altars, ikebana was later formalized in the 16th century by emperors and aristocrats. The practice also has roots in the ancient Shinto religion – a belief system that conceives ‘god,’ or ‘spirits,’ as residing in natural phenomena such as trees, flowers, and wind. Today, the art form is practiced by professionals and amateurs alike. At its core, ikebana involves carefully selecting plants and flowers to create a form that honours natural characteristics when placed in a new environment.
For Fumiya Yamamoto, a florist and researcher living in the Nagano Prefecture of Japan, the paradox of ‘killing flowers’ to use them in an ikebana arrangement creates a tension in the practice. ‘It takes a great deal of determination to take the life of a flower,’ explains Fumiya, who studies how ancient, flower culture intertwines with divinity, transcendence, and metaphysics. ‘In a way, my flowers are a form of prayer.’
‘Influenced by Zen Buddhist thought, ikebana is about cultivating contentment,’ says Mayu Arai, an ikebana teacher offering classes at her atelier in Shizuoka. She is trained within the Ohara school of ikebana, one of three major schools of ikebana among hundreds. ‘It’s about using familiar flowers to create a small landscape that expresses the natural beauty of gardens, mountains, and fields.’
‘There aren’t any rules about which plants have to be used,’ says Tomoko Sempo.
For beginners, she suggests trying the Moribana style of ikebana, which takes on a freer approach while still respecting rules such as asymmetry. Typically, this involves three main types of materials (branches, leaves, or flowers), each with a distinct function in the arrangement, alongside a few supplementary plants.
While traditional ikebana involves using a spiky device used to hold flowers in place called a kenzan, it is entirely possible to experiment without one. Fumiya Yamamoto, for example, focuses on the Nageire style of ikebana that is characterized by spontaneous designs and does not use a kenzan.
Finally, keep in mind that one of the core philosophical principles in ikebana is about reflecting on the changes in seasons and the impermanence of nature. ‘Each ikebana flower arrangement incorporates the present as flowers currently in bloom; the future as flower buds that will open in a couple of days; and the past as naturally faded leaves or slightly dead-looking branches,’ adds Tomoko.
Experiment from home or join Tomoko Sempo Yanagi for one of her online courses from London.