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.

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