Friday, June 28, 2013

How did you fall in love with Japan?

 The title of this blog--ikebana opens door to Japan--points to what seems to be a mystery in my life. Until 2010 when I first became aware of ikebana, I had only a slight acquaintance with Japanese arts. I knew a little about anime and origami, which I had learned from my son's interest in them. I knew a bit more about haiku and renga because I'm a poet and have written and published haiku (most recently in Lifting the Sky, Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, published by Dos Gatos Press ( this year). But when I began to learn about ikebana, first in general, and then more specifically as a student of the particular style and tradition known as ikenobo, suddenly I was hungry to learn as much as I could about Japan, its history, and its culture. I was astonished by my own insistent passion and really didn't know where it came from or where it would lead.

The result is that not quite three years later, I've read many books about Japan, have traveled to Japan once, and am progressing in the study of Japanese flower arranging and of the Japanese language itself. Why? I still don't know the answer to that, but I'm not letting that stop me. This has been an exciting journey so far.

I sometimes wonder if others have had the same experience, to fall in love with a culture you have no prior connections to. I live in the arid landscape of New Mexico, unimaginably distant from the green island nation of Japan. The Albuquerque Journal (  ran a story this past Sunday (June 23) of just such a person as I've wondered about, a woman who has had an experience similar to mine. (I don't know her except through the article.)

Her name is Hispanic, Anita Gallegos. She also fell in love with Japan, only it lured her through a different doorway---the martial arts. From there she, like me, began to study Japanese history, culture, and language. And then--taiko drumming. According to the newspaper she "came to love the symmetry, discipline, and choreography of taiko drumming." Almost the same could be said of me, but for me it would be "the asymmetry, discipline, and sculptural form" of ikenobo ikebana.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons, taken by Oiwake 2012
If you are reading this blog, you must have an interest in ikebana or Japan or both. Do you have a story similar to ours? If so, please share it in the comments section below.

Friday, May 31, 2013

What I Did Wrong--Lessons in Ikenobo and Editing

Yes, you're right, on the left is the same photo I put up last time. My last post was about the flowers pictured in the photo but not really about the arrangement itself. Now I've had the benefit of my sensei's comments on the arrangement.

He complimented my choice of material, noting that the delicate lines of the columbine and honeysuckle were appropriate for a half-moon container. The honeysuckle offers the kind of gentle curve traditionally suited to this particular type of shoka design. I was pleased that he approved of the plant materials, because that selection is of prime importance in creating an appealing arrangement in a container with such a bold, black form.

However, what I didn't manage to do successfully was to give the pleasing lines their due emphasis. He pointed out the blob of green honeysuckle leaves at the far right, which obscured the lines. In his edited version of this photo, he erased most of that distracting patch and said he probably would have removed it all if he had been actually working on the arrangement instead of a photo of it. Alas, I never even noticed that bunch of leaves until he pointed them out!

He also erased the tangle of criss-crossing columbine stems inside the moon. I should have clipped those with an eye to simplification.

Finally, he pointed out what he called the "staircase regularity" of the opposite leaves on the longest, the shin honeysuckle stem. He said that a Japanese teacher would run his/her fingers along a section of that stem and remove the leaves from it, leaving a bare bit of stem to emphasize the line and introduce an interesting  randomness into it.

As a writer I can see the similarity between editing plant materials in an ikenobo arrangement and editing words. A writer wants her line of thought to be clear, not obscured by a patch of unnecessary words. She wants to eliminate or break up boring repetitiveness. She wants to reduce distractions and cleave to the main point.

I'm a novice flower arranger, learning how to edit.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Local and healthy-for-you flowers for ikebana, Part 1

Columbine and honeysuckle from my garden
I had no idea I might be breathing in pesticides when I bought and arranged a bunch of roses, until I read Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart. I learned in reading it that some growers, florists, and floral designers are very concerned about the environmental and societal effects of  importing cut flowers that have been heavily dosed with pesticides and then are flown and trucked long distances to finally reach the arranger.

Then I learned from reading Debra Prinzing and David Perry's book, The 50-Mile Bouquet, who some of those growers, florists, and floral designers are. Prinzing and Perry write about some who grow cut flowers on sustainable, chemical-free farms in California and the Northwest and sell to local markets and flower arrangers.

I also learned by reading that some ikebana arrangers in Japan are also worried about the health effects of working with pesticide-laden flowers, only this time I found it in a work of suspense fiction by Sujata Massey called The Flower Master.

All this reading got me, a novice ikebana flower arranger, interested in the movement toward local flowers grown in environmentally sensitive and healthy ways. In addition to the above three books, which I enthusiastically recommend to flower arrangers, I have another reason for wanting to use local flowers: I've been passionately interested in native plants of the Southwest since the early 1980s. It would make a lot of sense, then, to use locally grown and native plants in my ikenobo ikebana arrangements as much as possible.

However, if you have read any books on Japanese flower arranging, you know that the exquisite arrangements you see in the illustrations in books or magazines are often composed of plants that are not easily found where you live. Plum trees don't come into bloom in New Mexico in time for New Year's arrangements. Moss-covered Japanese apricot and Camellia japonica, shown in a recent photo of an arrangement in Ikebana International's magazine, don't show up in my local florists' shops all that often. But even if they did, I'd know they traveled a long way and used a lot of resources to get to me.

So the solution is to learn how to find, grow, and adapt flowers from your own garden or from local growers to the classic Japanese ikebana styles. The arrangement I did above used New Mexico native columbine and a non-native honeysuckle that grow in my pesticide-free garden. The bonus thing I learned in doing that arrangement was that both those plant materials lasted a long time in the hangetsu container.

My next entries on this subject will be about finding suitable natives and learning about local flower growers.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bonsai chrysanthemum--new information since last post

 One of the pleasures of posting a blog is that I can learn from my readers. I posted in my most recent entry the above photo taken in a hotel lobby in Kyoto last fall. I couldn't tell much about it except that it was a potted plant that extended beyond its pot on some sort of frame. It was very smooth and compact. One of my readers, my ikenobo teacher, "Dan Dell," sent me this information about it: "The yellow mum you saw as a mound is actually a very special kind of bonsai style that is commonly seen in the fall in Japan.  That is a single chrysanthemum that is meticulously cultivated and pruned into shape and then is forced to flower for display.  There are whole festivals in cities like Imbe of this kind of horticultural practice.  Really interesting and special."

I was delighted to learn what I had seen, so I'm sharing that information with readers, along with another photo I took of a similar plant (there were actually many of them) displayed in October on the grounds of Osaka Castle.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Flower arranging in Japan now--some views

Welcome to a florist shop in Kyoto, October, 2012. I was traveling in Japan, and of course, because I love plants and ikebana, I was attracted to flowers and floral arrangements I happened to see on the way. This shop is located in the Nishiki  Food Market and has a bountiful array of flowers available to choose from.

This is an arrangement in the Granvia Hotel in Kyoto Station. Not exactly your typical bouquet of flowers in a hotel lobby. The floral designer's information sheets can be seen on the table, but unfortunately for me they were written in Japanese, so I can't tell you anything about her. Below on the right you can see the arrangement from the side. The long stems have been woven together into a kind of fence with the flowers inserted into it in water tubes.

To the left you can see another arrangement in the lobby at the same time--this one apparently a potted plant. As far as I could tell without being able to touch, the plants were growing in a pot hidden below the mound of leaves and yellow flowers and then attached outside the pot to a frame extension. It was perfectly smoothly trimmed.

I had never seen anything like either of these floral designs, so I photographed them to share with you. Please comment if you have any remarks.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Struggling with Shoka

What you see below is my current assignment. My teacher asked me to do an arrangement of spring branches, in this case, crab apple. The assigned form is shoka shofutai, or classic shoka. What you don't see below is the mess. I started on Monday; this is Tuesday. The floor is covered with spilled water, crab apple petals,  discarded branches, and pieces of my confidence. Yesterday I thought I had it finished. Funny how I think that until I need to photograph it to send to my teacher (see earlier post about an unusual way of studying ikenobo). As soon as I look at what I've done through the lens of my Canon, I suddenly see glaring problems I hadn't noticed before.
Now here's where the mess really starts. I have what I think is a completed, photographable arrangement, the water is all nice and clean as it's supposed to be, the stems are all lined up shoka-proper as best I can manage, BUT omg, all of a sudden, it looks absurd. So I have to start pulling out stems and replacing them with new ones, and the petals shower down all into the water and around me, and the stems I think I did manage to place correctly now fall over, and everything's all wrong.

 At this point I could give up, but what keeps me going is practicality. Today I have the flowers. If I give up, I may not be able to get more at this stage of bloom. So I have to do it NOW. I keep working to find the right shapes and insert them in the right places. I use a little strainer to remove all the fallen petals floating on the water surface (I think they're kinda pretty that way, but ikenobo says NO, the water must be clean). So I tidy up, and then I notice that I should have trimmed off some stubs of stems. I hate to touch anything again, lest it all come apart, but I take my scissors and snip off the stubs. It all comes apart again, petals raining, stems falling over. I knew it.

If you are asking yourself, why is it important to get it just so, I wonder that, too. But then I remember that I'm trying to learn how to create with a certain aesthetic. I don't have to do this. I could arrange flowers free-style and do it however I wish. But shoka, when done properly, offers a unique kind of serene beauty, and the only way I can learn to achieve that, I suppose, is by losing my own serenity in the process.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Boston Event, Part 2, Inspirations and Delights

Above is a rikka arrangement on exhibit at the Boston Ikenobo Anniversary Celebration earlier this month. (For introductory information about the event, please go back to the last post.) This rikka arrangement and the next one below were created for the celebration by contemporary ikenobo teachers in the ancient,
traditional styles, recreating historic arrangements. One of the inspiring moments for me as an ikenobo novice was simply standing and looking at these magnificent, monumental creations bringing to life an art form hundreds of years old. (It helped, too, that a fellow participant standing beside me had witnessed the construction of the above rikka and was revealing the secrets of putting together such an amazing arrangement. First stop: Home Depot.)

In fact, what made me want to learn the ikenobo style from the very beginning was seeing in San Francisco at the Ikenobo USA headquarters a rikka arrangment on display, which before I had seen only in old pictures. Their complex, sculptural, tree-like qualities appeal to me very much. I know rikka is a form difficult to master, and I'm eager to progress to the point that I can begin to learn it.

Even more inspiring to me in Boston was the full day of workshops. Because I've only been studying ikenobo for about a year, I was placed in the shoka/free-style workshop. In the morning we heard a lecture on shoka shofutai, the classic, traditional form of shoka and then attempted our own shoka arrangements. After lunch we listened to our professor from Japan, Professor Kobayashi, explain what free-style arrangements are all about and then, again, tried our best to create them.

This was a wonderful opportunity because I've been studying via email, photographs, and phone calls with a teacher in Colorado (I live Albuquerque, New Mexico). I hadn't seen shoka in the flesh (other than my own attempts), only photographs and drawings.  I had also never experienced a professionally taught workshop in ikenobo before. It was exciting to watch the carts of gorgeous flowers, some of which I had never had the opportunity to lay hands on, arriving in a corridor of the Back Bay Events Center where our workshop was to take place:  brilliant bird-of-paradise flowers, sunflowers, large satiny green leaves, and then later, stems of stunning helleconia, white orchids, palm fronds. I was nervous about what the professor might say about my arrangements as he went from table to table, looking at everyone's work, making large and small corrections, but I was also anxious to hear the in-person comments of an expert teacher from the source of ikebana, Japan.

I was also delighted by the unexpected. I knew that ikebana originated in a religious setting and has great spiritual significance. But I was surprised to find that it also includes competition and game-playing. On the first day of the celebration, the audience was allowed to see a ceremony apparently rarely performed that involved competition. It's called the mawari-ike ceremony and was established by Senjo Ikenobo in 1806 to improve skills through competition. Each competitor created an arrangement quickly, and then a judge selected the best.

Shoka arrangement in mawari-ike ceremony

The many Japanese teachers of ikenobo who accompanied Headmaster Sen'ei Ikenobo and his family to Boston definitely displayed playfulness and a sense of humor. A group of them performed a comic game for us, which reassured me that all is not seriousness in the art of ikenobo. The game involved a group of arrangements in progress before an audience. A bunch of teachers would come on stage, each bearing a leaf or flower from his or her favorite plant, and then be hit with the surprise task: use that leaf or flower for one of the named parts of a rikka arrangement not known to them beforehand. So one by one, each group would have to struggle to insert their usually inappropriate plant parts into ongoing rikka arrangements while we in the watching audience laughed at their efforts. It was very funny, but more than that, it demonstrated to me that all of us could take a lighthearted and undignified approach to their honorable ancient art form.