Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year, Japanese style

In Japan the New Year is greeted with celebration and good wishes, just as it is in the USA, but the displays and decorations are quite different. Instead of having New Year's symbolized primarily by champagne glasses, Times Square, and confetti, in Japan one sees floral arrangements known as kadomatsu. Though these arrangements differ greatly in size, color, and ornamental additions, they traditionally include three plants--pine, bamboo, and plum (branches). If you google the word kadomatsu and then look at the images a search will bring up, you can see the enormous variety of the kadomatsu displays.

"According to Iwao Nagasaki, curator of textiles at the Tokyo National Museum, many patterns that first came from China...acquired unique meaning to Japanese over the years." The Chinese thought the grouping of these three plants "just symbolized the innocence of three good friends in winter: bamboo, which never breaks, the pine, which stays green all year, and the plum, which blooms while it's still frosty. One thousand years after the pattern entered Japan...this trio of plants became auspicious." * In other words, this popular arrangement of the three plant friends in Japan has become a physical, floral wish for good fortune in the coming year, particularly for strength, longevity, and the ability to flourish in spite of adversity.

The arrangement you see above is my first attempt to put these three plants together in a shoka design (a particular type of ikenobo arrangement) especially for New Year's. The bare stem to the left is ornamental purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera). If I had access to plum branches in Japan, they might already have burgeoning buds on them in that milder, moister climate. Unfortunately, here in drought-stricken, high-altitude New Mexico where the temperatures are well below freezing, the plum is just a branch with buds waiting for warmer days still a month or two away. The plant in the center is a cold-hardy bamboo I grow in a container, located right now on my back porch with a furniture blanket wrapped around its feet. It's a Fargesia 'Rufa.' I've trimmed many of the bunches of leaves off of it in the interest of a more sculptural shape, one of the techniques of ikebana. The plant to the right is pine, an ornamental that was planted in my neighborhood, not necessarily native.

A traditional kadomatsu arrangement is usually placed outside the door of a home or other building. The plants are often arranged in a rustic-looking container with a special rope called shimakezari and a shide design attached. So, my three friends above are arranged in a container that is a hollowed-out mulberry branch from my yard (I always save some of what the arborists remove from my trees). A neighbor who is a woodworker hollowed enough of the tough wood out so that I could use it for an ikebana container. I've wrapped natural twine around the container several times and hung my own crudely homemade version of shide, a zigzag design often found on Shinto shrines and other places or objects sacred to Shinto. The result is an ikenobo ikebana version of a New Year's display that is older even than ikebana itself, a display that extends a millennium back into Japanese history and the introduction of Buddhism into the country.

I like the idea of beginning my new year with such an ancient tradition rooted in the natural world. Happy New Year to you!

*This quote comes from Singer, Jane. (1995). "Meaningful Motifs: Japanese Patterns and Designs." Ikebana International Vol. 39, No. 2: 8-16.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What is a tokonoma and why does it matter?

This blog is about ikebana; the process I, a novice, am going through to learn an ancient and complicated art form; and the simultaneous process of becoming fascinated by and learning about Japan.

When you walk into an American living room, you are likely to notice first a fireplace and mantel or a conversation area with couches and chairs around a coffee table or maybe a giant TV screen or, at this time of the year, seasonal decorations. If you were to walk into the traditional Japanese counterpart of a living room, you might first notice the tokonoma. One of the very first things I learned about ikebana is that it is placed in the tokonoma, an alcove in a room in a Japanese home or in a teahouse.

The photograph below left shows such an alcove. I took it of the Sekka-tei Tea House near the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. A tokonoma is intended for the display of art--usually a scroll, and to the left of the scroll, an ikebana arrangement. Unfortunately I don't read Japanese, so I don't know what the plaque to the left of the scroll says, but it is located where one would expect to find an ikebana design. Note the natural wood post on the left side of the alcove; it's called a tokobashira. It's made of nandina wood.

The image to the right is entitled "Guest room in Hachi-Ishi" from Japanese homes and their surroundings by Edward S. Morse, first published in 1886. Again, you can notice the alcove with its hanging scroll, ikebana arrangement, and tokobashira. (I'm indebted to Wikipedia Media Commons for making this image available.)

So what can we western practitioners of ikebana learn from this?
We can recognize that ikebana was intended to be a prominent feature in the decor of the room where guests were welcomed. It had a special place of honor in the home or during the tea ceremony. It was considered an art form. I think this helps us to understand better how ikebana has developed and the importance it has in its native culture.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Flower arranging with children

 Ikebana International (, the international organization of people who love the floral art form given to the world by Japan, has recently been emphasizing the importance of teaching ikebana to children. Like other art forms that children learn when young--such as painting, working with clay, singing--ikebana can imbue youngsters with appreciation for beauty and for their own creative abilities. They can also learn to really see the world of plants around them, not just their colors but also their sculptural organic forms.

At Thanksgiving, when I visited my son and daughter-in-law and two young granddaughters in California, we did what I hope will continue whenever we're together--make a flower arrangement. In the first photo above, I'm in the garden with my older granddaughter, Skye, age 2 1/2, selecting flowers to cut (Grandma's in charge of wielding the scissors, of course). California weather is conducive to lovely flowers all year, so we had no trouble finding pretty ones that Skye liked even in November. Then we went inside to put the flowers into a container that my son, her daddy, had crafted some years ago. I didn't want to use a kenzan, too sharp for little fingers, nor did I want to use oasis, so I crumpled up a bit of plastic mesh and put it into the container so that we could insert the flowers into it. We also gathered some leaves. Skye actually put the flowers into the container as she wanted, and the second photo shows me trying to insert some leaves that she also wanted but whose stems were too short. We had fun doing the arrangement (actually she did two, as we had flowers left over), she was very proud of them when we finished, and they graced the Thankgiving dinner table. Not ikebana yet, but a beginning pleasure in selecting and arranging plants.
The photos are courtesy of Laura and DeLesley Hutchins.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A day in Kyoto, beginnings of ikebana

Japan, October 2012. I had a day to spend as I wished in Kyoto. I wanted to see two places important in the beginnings of ikebana and its particular, oldest style known as ikenobo. One of those places was Ginkaku-ji or the Silver Pavilion (pictured below), one of a group of buildings constructed as a retirement home by Yoshimasa, the 8th Ashikaga shogun (1443-1473). How it came to be called the Silver Pavilion when it is not silver at all is another story, but it is important in the history of Japanese culture for several reasons, only one of which I mention here. (I urge you to read Donald Keene's book, Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion to learn much more). AshikagaYoshimasa was a complete failure as a shogun, but he had good taste--in buildings, paintings, gardens, and flower arrangements--which greatly influenced the development of Japanese culture.

The Japanese people had always admired and valued the beauty of flowers and other plants and had made floral offerings at Buddhist temples (see previous 11/9 entry on Nikko), but it was not until Yoshimasa's time that flower arranging had come to be considered an art form. Yoshimasa enjoyed several arts, and his palace at Higashiyama (the location of the Silver Pavilion) was decorated with floral displays.

According to Donald Keene, the "oldest surviving account of someone arranging flowers at the court is dated April 20, 1476." It was then apparently called "standing" rather than "arranging" flowers and was probably done in the rikka style, an early form of ikenobo invented by Senkei in 1462.

Friday, November 9, 2012

I haven't written in this blog for a while, and the image above helps to explain why. I took the photo on October 26 at Nikko, a World Heritage Site a few hours away from Tokyo. The building shown is the entrance gate to the Haiden of the Taiyuin-byo Shrine. Surrounding the buildings are tall Japanese cedars. This building is only a single part of a very large grouping of spectacularly adorned shrines and temples set  appropriately in a magnificent mountain forest. I chose this particular structure for this blog entry because of what I saw but could not photograph inside it. A guide who spoke only Japanese took the waiting group inside the Haiden, where we sat on tatami mats and listened to him. Since I couldn't understand what he was saying, I looked around the large room where we seated. On the ceiling above were a multitude of golden dragons. In front of me on the left and right of the guide, probably a Buddhist cleric, were sculpted metal flower arrangements, perhaps bronze. The one to the right appeared to be a lotus arrangement, often seen in Buddhist temples. But to the left was an arrangement that appeared to me to be a rikka design (or at least similar to a rikka), one of the oldest styles of ikebana design. I was pleased to see the large flower arrangement sculptures in such a sublime setting. Ikebana originated hundreds of years ago from floral offerings in Buddhist temples.

Since this blog is entitled "ikebana opens door to Japan," the next several entries will be about my visit to Japan. Without my interest in ikebana, I never would have learned so much about Japanese history and culture and then wanted to go there. Ikebana truly opened the door to Japan for me.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Photo by Becky Schnelker
The sunlight is always intense in dry, high-altitude Albuquerque, even as autumn begins to cool down the air. One of the things people new to this area notice is that you can feel chilly in the shade but step into the sun and suddenly it's hot. On the first day of fall, a group I belong to, Ikebana International #41, put on an exhibition of arrangements at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden. The garden was busy with visitors out to walk around outdoors in the company of their kids and phones and also enjoy the coleus, caladiums, and chrysanthemums on display. But they were getting pretty warm by the time they arrived at our exhibit room. It was air-conditioned, shaded from direct sun for most of the day, and lined with massive Chinese stone statues keeping their cool. Quiet Japanese flute music floated in the room. In front of the statues on tables with black cloths were our flower arrangements. People would hustle  in the door, and you could see them stop, take a breath, and relax. Children wanted to touch the flowers. I wondered how often they even get to see real flowers (especially flowers like lemon yellow calla lilies or pastel pink ginger blossoms)  up close now that our world is so full of fake flowers. Some visitors passed through quickly, but others stopped and looked closely and asked questions. One woman asked me, "How is icky baana different from any other flower arrangement?" I thought it was the best question I was asked all day and tried to explain (see Sept. 3 blog post for more about that).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This morning on NPR's Morning Edition I heard a story about microbrewing beer in Japan, in a brewery that used to specialize in sake ( The following quote caught my attention: "Making sake is like judo or flower arranging – you're judged by how well you stick to the rules; there's no margin for improvisation."

First, note that the speaker, a Japanese brewer, refers to flower arranging (ikebana) in the same sentence with judo, and that alone tells you something about the place of flower arranging in the culture. But it's also important to note that he refers to the rules of ikebana, a facet of the art that is off-putting to some.

Whereas sake makers are breaking free to produce microbrews, people taught to follow the rules of whatever style of ikebana  they learned are now free to produce floral arrangements called (what else?) free-style ikebana.

So if you think you wouldn't like to learn ikebana because it has strict rules, please know that freewheeling, free-style arranging is available to all. But here's another side of the story: I actually prefer, as a novice ikebana and ikenobo practitioner, to learn the rules. They don't feel like restrictions to me. I feel that I'm learning how to put into practice an aesthetic I admire. How can I learn to produce a design that looks like ikenobo? By learning the rules behind the appearance. After I learn them well, then I'll be free to free-style.
I kept noticing a dog poop stink in the vicinity of my studio where I do flower arranging. At first I kept checking to see if one of my Chihuahuas had made a deposit, but then I realized what I was smelling. It was the lingering scent of the flower I had been arranging in one of my nicest china bowls. I had decided to try to create an arrangement with a Stapelia flower. I think they're gorgeous, but they stink. They intend to. They attract dozens of eager flies, instead of hummingbirds or bees, to my porch where the plants are in bloom. They do look a bit like rotting meat, I suppose, with reddish-purple veins and hairy edges.  But even more they resemble large starfish. That was what attracted me to them at first, and the friend at whose home I saw them was kind enough to give me two plants, which have multiplied. The arrangement I did with the Stapelia is what is called free-style ikebana, i.e. it doesn't follow any of the rules. More about that and what it has to do with sake and beer in the next blog. Meanwhile, I should say that I was wasn't pleased with the arrangement that resulted, but it was definitely unusual.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

..."the basic aesthetic values of the Japanese, including naturalness, simplicity, suggestion, and perishability...
still another of these basic values, irregularity or asymmetry..."

Quoted from Japanese Culture, 4th ed. (2000), by Paul Varley.

This quote says much about ikebana. Imagine, fellow Americans, valuing "perishability" instead of buying fake flowers. The ikebana arrangement won't last long, and this is a good thing. We must really see, enjoy, and experience it at this moment. The constant recognition of the brevity of living beauty...

For example, in my arrangement above, I use a Datura branch (from my Albuquerque garden) with one full bloom and several buds of different sizes. Normally a Datura bloom opens in the evening, stays open for moths to pollinate it overnight, and then wilts the next morning. Behold, perishability. I managed to keep it from closing long enough to create the arrangement because I cut it on a rare rainy day and immediately placed it in a dim room in water. Also, please note if you can see them, the tiny insect holes in the leaves. In Western-style floral design, these leaves would be considered rejects. In ikebana, on the other hand, the holes signify the season, late summer, when insects are very busy chewing leaves. The season, itself perishable, is extremely important in ikebana, just as it is in Japanese haiku. You might also note that the design is not symmetrical, and the plant materials are simple, just two plants--Datura and snake plant.

Monday, September 3, 2012

How could Japanese flower arranging be so different, you may wonder, from the Western style. After all, flowers are flowers, and you just try to place them attractively in a vase, right? Well, no. If that's all there were to it, there wouldn't be anything called ikebana and the (at least) tens of thousands of people around the world practicing it.

Please keep in mind that this blog is being written by a beginner. So I have no answers about anything. All I offer are some observations about various aspects of this art form (and yes, ikebana is an art form). I hope they will be of interest to other floral designers. Also I'm sure that many people can (and will) argue with my observations.

  • Western flower arranging is, when compared to ikebana, relatively uncomplicated. Sure, one can study it and learn different styles and types of floral design and develop certain skills over time. But it is nowhere near so articulated and complex as ikebana, which has spiritual connections both to Buddhism and Shinto, as well as being part of a distinctive Japanese aesthetic.
  • Western flower arranging plays a completely different cultural role than does ikebana in many respects. For instance, if you read a book (for Westerners) about Japanese society, ikebana is likely to be mentioned or even discussed at some length. If you read a general-audience book about Europe or the English-speaking nations, flower arranging will likely not be mentioned at all.  Ikebana is one of the distinctive arts that developed hundreds of years ago in Japan. It has thrived and been widely and continuously taught. Western flower arranging is more of a commodity today, more the product of a business than an art, or a competitive activity for a relatively few hobbyists. 
  • Western flower arranging is more about color and profusion, while Japanese flower arranging is more about line and restraint. One of the things I love the most about a beautiful ikebana arrangement is its representation of sculptural line and space. 

  • Western flower arranging tends to emphasize flowers, while ikebana--especially some forms of it, such as ikenobo--emphasizes branches and foliage as much or more than flowers. Some of the classic forms of ikebana, like rikka, resemble small trees more than they do bunches of flowers. As a tree lover, I find that very appealing. For instance, the top photo above is a rikka design I photographed at the Ikenobo Ikebana Society office in San Francisco. The design below it is a Western-style design I created for Laura, my daughter-in-law, when she gave birth to my first granddaughter, Skye.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Getting started

I had studied basic Garden Club-style Western flower arranging and had entered some New Mexico State Fair competitions and done pretty well. I wanted to continue learning more about flower arranging within the camaraderie of a group, but I had already taken the available class twice. I was looking for a new class or club or something... Then a couple of people recommended that I join the Albuquerque Ikebana International Chapter (#41). It meets, they told me, every month, and you have an opportunity then to create an arrangement along with others and learn a whole new way of arranging flowers, the Japanese way. Well, I had no particular interest, I thought, in learning Japanese flower arranging per se. I wasn't even sure what it was. I just wanted to keep learning about floral design and to do it with a friendly group. So I started attending the meetings, and soon I joined. That was two years ago. I've come a long way in learning (though perhaps not so far in skill), and when I opened ikebana's door, I unintentionally discovered Japan.

All photos on this page were taken by Peggy Atencio and are used with her permission.