Living Flowers: Adventures in Ikebana


When we arrived in Japan in 2015, the kids started their schooling at St. Maur International School that autumn. In addition to educating the young’uns, St. Maur gives parents all kinds of learning opportunities through its Adult Enrichment program. Loyal martayaki readers may recall past blog posts about tea ceremonies in yukata and kimono, and visiting the Kiyoken shu mai factory.

In addition to one-time outings, Adult Enrichment offers weekly classes in fitness, language–Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, and more–and Japanese cultural crafts and skills. When we arrived I immediately added aikido and yoga to my weekly routine. Ikebana sounded interesting but I didn’t want to overcommit, so I passed on on ikebana that first year. Within a few weeks I saw the gorgeous arrangements that the ikebana students put together, and I decided to give ikebana a try the next time around. So in the fall of 2016 I jumped right in!


Most of us who have tried ikebana really enjoy it–but not everyone, and that’s OK! One friend gave it a solid effort for 18 months but eventually quit. “It’s supposed to relax you, but I just found it too stressful,” she explained. It’s hard to argue with that. “It’s just sticking flowers in a vase,” sniffed another friend, who you will be shocked to learn has not given ikebana a go.

Depending on your translation, ikebana means either arranging flowers (yawn) or living flowers (yay!). Western-style (OK, American) floral arrangements seem to emphasize overstuffed vases with huge amounts of gorgeous but ridiculously expensive flowers. You stuff flowers into a vase until it’s full, perhaps adding some leaves or other filler. More is more!


By contrast, ikebana focuses on balancing the arrangement’s components with the space around them. First you arrange the stems, which are literally sticks or twigs of some kind, usually whatever is in season. Then come the flowers, but only three flowers or so. Finally you fill in with some leaves. The space around each stem and flower defines each element and gives the viewer the chance to enjoy the arrangement, to paraphrase our instructor.


Ikebana arrangements begin with formulas. The size and shape of the container dictates the length of the stems, which in turn dictate the lengths of the flowers. The positions of each stem and flower also begin with formulas–angles, positions to the right and left, and so on. While some people chafe against such rigid rules, I love a framework. I have always been a bit of a disaster at arranging flowers, so I enjoy starting with a a set of rules and working within that structure.


Our instructor Sakiko Kamata has taught ikebana for years, as outlined in this Japan Times interview. She loves teaching and sharing her skills with her students, and her infectious laugh make each class so much fun. During class we watch a demonstration by Kamata-sensei, assemble that week’s arrangement according to The Rules, then call over Kamata-sensei when we think we have it right. She comes over and always offers praise, then makes adjustments. Sometimes it’s a stem or two moved over slightly, or a slightly bushy leaf snipped down just a tad. Other times it ends up a complete re-do. We students snap a few photos, then disassemble the arrangement and hope that we can recreate it at home.

Kristi strikes the classic ikebana pose-frown combination while contemplating whether she should move a stem one millimeter to the left. Or maybe two millimeters to the right.

Every class Kamata-sensei praises at least one student loudly and sincerely: “Everyone, come here! It’s Kristi’s final tall vase arrangement, and look how well she did!” Or: “Everyone, look at Marta’s notebook! She is so dedicated!”. We gather around and admire the arrangement and graciously accept her compliments.


Kamata-sensei reviews Kristi’s work

A hidden perk of ikebana: the kids dig it. Both Tessa and Cy immediately notice when I come home with a new arrangement, and they always give positive feedback, even if it’s clearly not their cuppa. “This is so beautiful!” one child will eagerly enthuse one week. And another time, the other may offer slightly more guarded praise along the lines of “No offense, but this is not really my favorite….but you did a really good job, Mama!”.

Tessa even tried it out herself. She picked the following flowers and vase and arranged them herself. I showed this arrangement to Kamata-sensei, and (surprise!) she praised it as well.

Tessa’s beautiful, simple arrangement

Every March we ikebana students set up our latest arrangements outside the school’s library for several days, and both kids came home the first day of the exhibition telling me which arrangements were their favorite. Cy mentioned a beautiful arrangement inside a log-shaped container that caught his eye, and it was one of my favorites too. When I told my friend Maria how much my son loved her piece, she paused, took a deep breath, and said, “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much that means to me.”

The Ikebana Exhibition assembly gets underway….
….and the finished arrangements

Another friend’s high school-aged son also shows remarkably strong opinions about her arrangements. Every week she and I go home and re-create our arrangements, then send each other photos of the results. I always ask about her son’s reaction, and he does not hold back. “I really like this one, Mom!” he might enthuse. Or another week: “It’s so very….symmetrical.” Or even: “Why is it so swept off to one side? It looks like [a bad combover of the current U.S. Commander in Chief].” Note the disdain for both overly symmetrical and overly asymmetrical arrangements.


I also enjoy the mix of parents that ikebana draws. Some of the class members have practiced for years, and their arrangements reflect their dedication. Sometimes I find it awkward to chat with someone with my terrible Japanese and their not-so-great English, struggling to find something to say. But standing in front of a stunning arrangement makes it easy, because it doesn’t take much to say “This is so beautiful. You did a great job!”. I know, it sounds corny–but it’s true. During the last class of the year one of the advanced students completed an arrangement with mushrooms and gourds. MUSHROOMS! It was insane, and fabulous.

Mushrooms. MUSHROOMS!!!

Japan has a well-earned reputation of being a shockingly expensive place to live in or visit, but here’s a secret: flowers are surprisingly cheap, and abundant. Even the humblest blooms from the grocery store can shine in a classic, minimal ikebana arrangement. My friend Jeannie said it just right: “I love that you can buy just a few flowers and make it so beautiful for so little money.” She’s right. The flowers, stems, and leaves for a killer ikebana arrangement can cost as little as 1000 yen, or about $8.50 USD.


I’ve never been a particularly skilled painter or artist, so classes like painting ceramics or Japanese calligraphy don’t really appeal to me. I see the lovely plates that the participants create and immediately realize that the rather sad plate that I would likely create would end up getting shuttled from one house to the next and hopefully, mercifully broken somewhere along the way.


But ikebana’s so different! Instead of A Thing that I have created or painted and secretly hope gets smashed by the movers–ikebana is A Skill. When I eventually move back to Washington, DC and wish to create a little slice of Japan in my home, I will. I’ll buy a few flowers, then probably cut a few stems and leaves from the trees in our tiny city yard. I’ll assemble an arrangement that will hopefully make Kamata-sensei proud, and enjoy it as long as it lasts.

Look who completed the Ichiyo School of Ikebana Primary Course!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s