Find spiritual enlightenment in the ancient Japanese art of flower arrangement
I I play (and lose) a floral version of Jenga. First, I pick up a single flower stalk from a bunch of cuttings and stick it on a spike at the bottom of a shallow dish. It’s harder than it looks. After standing for a millisecond of taunting, the rod spins slowly but inexorably like a clock hand, before picking up speed and tilting to a horizontal position. And repeat.
My encounter with the stubbornly unstable flowers took place on a recent rainy morning as I knelt in the tatami room of a small wooden merchant townhouse in a quiet Kyoto alleyway. It was the perfect backdrop to sample ikebana, the age-old Japanese art of flower arrangement that has long captivated with its wild, natural and alluring abstract asymmetry – in short, the antithesis of Western wedding flowers. perfectly balanced. And there are perhaps few better places to explore the world of ikebana than Kyoto, an atmospheric city long known as the symbolic heart of traditional Japanese culture – from tea ceremony to calligraphy (plus everything. the rest).
My class began with students kneeling in front of our teacher, Kimiko sensei – young, vibrant and graceful in a contemporary striped kimono that wouldn’t be out of place over a Paul Smith suit. She first embarked on a remarkably articulate introduction to ikebana – which has its roots in 6th-century Buddhist flower offerings – succeeding in making immediately accessible a culturally complex art form, still linked by centuries of rules and rituals.
Things soon took on a philosophical tone. Using documents and a whiteboard to scribble diagrams, she highlighted the very Japanese appreciation of the empty space between flowers – the physical gaps embodying a philosophical minimalism, also evidenced by the paintings. and Japanese architecture. She also pointed out how nature and spirituality are intertwined in ikebana – and so it is not uncommon to use dead plants, twigs or moss to reflect the transience of life itself – same.
“There is a spiritual meaning behind the act of arranging flowers,” Kimiko sensei explained. “Shogyo mujo means that everything changes, nothing lasts. These flowers allow us to enjoy the temporary beauty of nature. It is not just a technique or a skill – it is a form of inner development, of teaching. respect, control, patience, tolerance, the importance of making an effort and keeping the mind calm and peaceful, ”she added.
Then she moved on to practice; she quickly carved diagrams showing that each arrangement should be divided into three layers; how the stems should never cross and should be placed as they are found in nature; and the overall display must be in 3D. Knowledgeable – and inspired – we each received a journal-wrapped package containing a seasonal blend of aromatic green myrtle, yellow chrysanthemum blossoms, pale pink hypericum berries, and bird’s nest fern, all carefully selected for evoke a feeling of early winter. A surprisingly shallow oblong ceramic dish, edged with metal spikes into which the rods are sunk, had also been ceremoniously placed in front of us – and she told us to start.
I was struck by the instant floral jitters and didn’t know where to start. I played with the rods for a while and killed time by smelling them – as the student to my left, Annie, a sleek and likeable Singapore-based financial tech executive taking her first break after giving birth, ran in front and began to fill her dish with flowers.
Finally, I took the plunge – I picked up some myrtle, cutting the base at an angle and sticking it to a point. My moment of elation was brief – as it sagged slowly but decisively before collapsing flat. After rehearsing several times, Kimiko sensei – who is as practical as he is knowledgeable – came to the rescue of the soggy stabbing rod who was probably even more disheartened than me at this point.
She chirped showing me which side of the rod should be facing up “as if it grows towards the sun” and secured it to a point as firmly as a ship’s anchor. It was a difficult act to imitate, but the next hour or so passed in a surprisingly calm haze of cuts, pushes, spikes (and yes, watching them all fall off every now and then).
Finally, I finished (at least I thought I did – the abstract nature of ikebana made me a little uncertain) and presented the class with something more wild and wobbly than enlightening. spiritually.
Kimiko sensei, however, was unwavering kindness and politeness – complimenting my efforts before working her floral magic. Moving just a handful of slingshots, she somehow inexplicably turned the whole arrangement into something entirely natural and beautiful, and imperfectly perfect.
After an end-of-class cup of Japanese tea, I boarded the Shinkansen bullet train back to Tokyo, my concealed flower arrangement wrapped in sheets of newspaper in my lap.
At home, I didn’t even try to recreate it and instead wedged the flowers in a tall ceramic vase (from which they couldn’t escape) – and savored the feeling calm that somehow lingered, as well as the smell of myrtle, since the classroom.
Okay, I’m clearly not a natural ikebana – but top marks for the excellent teacher for being steadfastly positive and insightful with guidance, even when faced with the non-zen and markedly unbalanced.
I might not have achieved floral enlightenment, but I loved how relaxing and inspiring the whole process was, despite the rough start and a long battle with stubbornly falling stems.
My attempts at home to recreate my ikebana experience have so far paled in comparison (a bit too far from the alluring and abstract side) But on a positive note, I haven’t given up on trying.
Classes are held almost daily at Ami Kyoto and cost 5,000 JPY (£ 33), reservations recommended in advance. The course was organized by Inside Japan (0117 370 9730; insidejapantours.com), who can organize courses as part of a tailor-made trip. A nine-night trip on the Golden Road and the Flowers, including stays in Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto, as well as ikebana class, costs from £ 1,754 based on two people sharing and excluding international flights.