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Studying the Ancient Art of Flower Arrangement in Kyoto

The ancient Japanese art of flower arranging branches out as RONAN O'CONNELL roles up his sleeves and joins the blossoming fan base.

Published on Feb 24, 2017


SOME SAMURAI ENTHUSIASTS might visit Japan to learn about swordsmanship. I'm here to arrange flowers. Wandering the quiet alleyways of Kyoto's geisha district, I'm in search of a traditional Japanese wooden home where a local woman is helping keep the ikebana art form alive.

Kyoto is the hub of ikebana, which made its journey to Japan some 1,500 years ago when Buddhist missionaries imported the practice from China. While the aim of these missionaries was to introduce Buddhism, which is now practiced by the majority of Japanese, they also taught their neighbors about preparing ritual offerings of flowers to Buddha.

Oddly, Samurai later popularized ikebana; the fearsome warriors made fabulous florists. Along with tea ceremonies, Samurai used ikebana as a means of relaxation. Japan's first flower-arranging school, Ikenobo, opened in Kyoto more than 500 years ago and is still in operation today. With art workshops becoming an increasingly popular tourist activity across Asia, ikebana is finding new fans from outside Japan, while within the country hotels like Tokyo's Keio Plaza (doubles from ¥29,000) and Palace Hotel (doubles from ¥62,000) have begun arranging ikebana classes to help guests unwind. Indeed it is the soothing nature of flowering arranging that has lured me to Kimiko Yamamoto's home, where she has led classes as part of the Wa Experience KAFU center for the past three years. The chance to slow down and indulge my artistic sensibilities is appealing. Everything from the tranquil setting to Kimiko's calm tells me I've come to the right place.

Samurai popularized the art of ikebana. BLOOMimage/GettyImages.

Kneeling on a bamboo mat in a light-pink kimono, Kimiko explains the foundations of ikebana. There is a framework of rules within which its practitioners can express their creativity. It is, she says, "all about harmony." Ikebana attempts to mimic the beauty of nature and key to this is establishing a balance between "neutral" and "dynamic" spaces, and between subtle and bold colors. "In nature we have open spaces and crowded areas with many plants and we show both type of spaces in ikebana," Kimiko says, as she begins her arrangement.

She teaches me the moribana style, one of many schools of ikebana arrangements that developed over the centuries. The word moribana means "piled up flowers" and arrangements are constructed in a dish, rather than a tall vase. The dish is split into four segments to represent the seasons.

Following Kimiko's lead, I start with a long branch of Thunberg Spirea, tilted to its side. Then I add a long-leafed Iris Ochroleuca, a pink-flowered Snap Dragon and some Camellia leaves at the bottom of my dish. It looks presentable but Kimiko explains my plants are bunched together too closely. "Remember the balance," she says, adjusting my configuration. "There is no rush. Nature is slow. Now the world is so fast, but in ikebana we create nature so we must be patient. It is an important lesson for life."

Kimiko's words resonate with me. I've been so busy I've barely had time to relax, to switch off and forget about my schedule and upcoming commitments. Yet, as I arrange my flowers, my mind clears. I focus just on Kimiko's instructions, trying to create symmetry and artful beauty. While my arrangement is not spectacular, my mood certainly is. Ikebana has a new devotee.



Catch the Bouquet
Three spots to try your hand at ikebana.

Hosted in the home of a Kyoto family, this cultural center offers an intimate experience of the art form. A teacher explains the history of ikebana and guides students step-by-step as they create their own flower arrangement. 373-26 Horiike-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto;; 30-minute demonstration classes ¥3,000, 90-minute hands-on classes ¥5,000 per person.
This large ikebana school specializes in the more free-form sogetsu style of ikebana. Its group classes give students the chance to critique each other's arrangements and learn from a rotating panel of ikebana experts who host the workshops. Classes in Tokyo and Osaka;; 90-minute beginner workshops are ¥5,000 per person, 150-minute workshops ¥9,150 per person.
Japan's oldest ikebana school offers classes only for more experienced ikebana students or for beginners looking to commit to an intensive schedule of training. Ikenobo has chapters in 33 countries, including Singapore and Thailand, and encourages its foreign students to further their learning at its Kyoto headquarters.; cost of lessons vary by class and location.




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Samurai popularized the art of ikebana. BLOOMimage/GettyImages.
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