Ikenobo-style Flower Arrangement

August 16, 2007

by Tomoya Hirao; Yoshimi Morino; Yuki Fukuhara

Japanese style flower arrangement is one of the famous cultural traditions of Japan known around the world. We call them ikebana. Generally, all Japanese flower arrangement styles are lumped together as ikebana but we cannot say they are all the same. In fact, today there are many different schools and groups of ikebana. They arrange flowers for different ideas, purposes and reasons. Ikenobo is one famous school. It is in Kyoto. Its history is long and its style of arranging flowers and purpose are both quite interesting. What is ikenobo, how is it different and how did it start?

What is the difference between other systems of flower arrangement and Japanese ikebana? Flowers are generally known as the symbol of beauty around the world. Flower arrangements are popular in the world. Many people stick flowers in vases to wreath their rooms, houses and other places. Flowers are one of the most popular interior decorations but Japanese ikebana has a special meaning. It is not only for interior decoration but it also has a natural meaning.

Originally, ikebana was only done by monks or men and it was thought of as a spiritual practice. They arranged flowers for the gods and in order to clear their minds. They gave more meanings to flowers and created ikebana as a high cultural practice. In Japan, people do not say “arrange flowers”. They say “hana wo ikeru”. It means giving life to the flower. When Japanese arrange flowers, they make them look more beautiful but they also try to feel nature. They arrange flowers to recreate nature in miniature to see individual flowers which have been left behind. Ikebana is like one of the ways to communicate with nature. Over time, the ways and styles have changed but there is still the basic idea of ikebana.

There is one famous episode which illustrates the idea of ikebana. It is a story of Rikyu (famous tea master in the Azuchi period) and Hideyoshi (the ruler who controlled Japan during the Azuchi period). One day, Hideyoshi heard that Rikyu’s garden had beautiful morning glories which covered the whole garden. He asked Rikyu to have a tea ceremony while looking at those beautiful flowers. Rikyu accepted the order and told him the date to come but Hideyoshi arrived to find all of the flowers cut down and gone. Hideyoshi got angry, but when he entered the teahouse, there was a beautiful flower arranged on the dim floor. This single blossom surprised Hideyoshi and reminded him of hundreds of other morning glories which had been cut down. This was not just a single blossom, but one that reminds us the existence of hundreds of others. In this way, Rikyu attempted to make invisible flowers real through the visible.

As ikebana has its own idea of arranging flowers, ikenobo has its own idea, purpose and reason to arrange flowers, too. Their idea is to express peace through flowers. When they arrange the flowers, they try to arrange them so they show the image of a peaceful life. The flower arrangement got popular with common people in the Muromachi period. First, people tried to arrange them for the interior decoration of their house by using beautiful flowers but they also arranged them to show something. At that time, there were many wars. So, many rulers had their own areas, fighting each other to become the leader of Japan. People were tired of those wars and wanted a peaceful life. So, they arranged flowers to show the peaceful life in their design. Ikenobo accomplished this new style of flower arrangement. Predecessors of ikenobo respected the idea of peace and tried to express peace with flower arrangement. Of course, there are many other styles in ikenobo flower arrangement but this idea is the basis of them all. They thought that trying to think about the appearances of field flowers and greens is a respectable action. They also thought, without the distinction of flowers and greens, you could see a peaceful life in the arrangement of flowers.

As time went by, flowers were not only a religious offering, but people also began to arrange them for decorating rooms or personal appreciation. Then, people who are good at flower arrangement came out to the public places. Flower arrangements were created by Buddhist monks of temples as offerings. Most of those great flower arrangers were Buddhist monks. They contrived ways to arrange flowers, the combinations of many kinds of flowers, the balance and proportions of flowers and vases, and made the many bases of ikebana. Ikenobo appeared from the temple Rokkakudo in Kyoto and grew up there. Ikenobo Senkei, a patriarch of Ikenobo, had a good skill of arranging and he became famous in the samurai class. He went to a lot of samurai houses and made many beautiful flower arrangements. In books which have been written during this period, there were many stories about how he impressed a lot of people with flowers. After him, a lot of his followers made ikenobo more sophisticated and popular. Sometimes they got invited to the houses of court nobles to arrange flowers so that people recognized ikenobo as a highly qualified flower arrangement. One of his followers, Ikenobo Sen’no, formulated the ideology of ikenobo and wrote a book about the ideas and styles of ikenobo, and Ikenobo Sen’ei succeeded after him and made the book popular. Later, flower arrangement became popular in the samurai class and studied as part of the general education for that class. Then, flower arrangement spread to all parts of Japan, exchanging styles between Kyoto and other areas.

Even though flower arrangement got popular, ikenobo artists are still special. They are not like other artists of flower arrangements. They arrange flowers based on their ideas, purposes and reasons, and give life to flowers. Ikenobo artists arrange flowers to show the peace in them. Ikenobo artists put flowers in vases, arrange them, give life to them and show a peaceful life in a little nature.

If you want to see some ikenobo flowers and about learn ikenobo, there are some places that you can visit. There are three schools in Japan, Ikenobo College, Ikenobo Cultural School, both in Kyoto, and Ikenobo Ochanomizu School in Tokyo. You could ask for further information there. Sometimes artists display their flowers in some of the department stores in Kyoto. You could visit them and actually look at those flower arrangements.

Here are some pictures of flower arrangements by ikenobo students at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

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