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Going back to classic minimalistic Ikebana - the newest floral trend in Japan

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By Keiko Takahashi Kabata

Ikebana (Japanese floral art) and Sado (Japanese tea ceremony) are considered to be the two most important representative aspects of Japanese traditional art. Both are derived from Buddhist rituals, and are among the major influences on Japanese culture. They are also often pre-required lessons for brides-to-be. In many ways, Ikebana and Sado still have a firm presence in Japanese society.

The oldest and the largest Ikebana school is Ikenobo, which was established 550 years ago in Kyoto. It has been the most influential Ikebana school in Japanese history, yet the newer modern styles of Ikebana schools such as Sogetsu and Ohara also became popular during the period of rapid economic growth after World War II. Their style is freer in structure and more decorative, compared to the more strict and minimalistic style of the classic Ikenobo. The newer style evolved as a combination of traditional Japanese Ikebana and Western flower arrangement, so it fit in well with the Western-influenced modern lifestyle in Japan. In more recent years, however, whether it is due to the popularity of modern minimalism and Zen and the global mindfulness movement or not, the classic Ikebana style is coming back.

In Japan’s floral history, Ikebana was established by a Buddhist monk, Senno Ikenobo, in the 15th century, at Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto, built in the early Heian period (6th century) by Prince Shotoku, who initially introduced Buddhism to Japan. It has always been the monks’ daily activity to give flower offerings to gods in Buddhism, but it was Senno Ikenobo who gave it an artistic format. While lotus was mainly considered to be the proper flower offering in Buddhism, Senno went beyond and used a variety of flowers to express the beauty of each season, which is still the core characteristic of Ikebana. A sense of season is essential for Japanese, as it also resembles one’s life; spring is adolescence, summer is young-adult, autumn is mature, and winter is old age.

Senno teaches in his old manuscript that it is important not only to appreciate the beauty of flowers, but also to observe the flowers’ essence and their natural forms, as it teaches you the way of living. This simply reveals that Ikebana is not merely a flower decoration; it is a deep connection to the life, one’s inner self, nature and the universe. This philosophy is the same for the mindfulness movement; both aspire to help people fulfill their mental and spiritual needs rather than material ones.

The perfect example of this classic Ikebana style, showing this philosophy, is the simple one plant decoration ”Omoto,” the Ikenobo's most formal floral arrangement for the New Year. “Omoto,” Japanese rhodea, its meaning being green for thousands of years, symbolizes a long life. Ten Omoto leaves are arranged strictly based on the classic Ikebana manual. The way those leaves are arranged signifies the way each family member lives together and supports each other. Each leaf is different in length and width, resembling each family member’s different age and gender. Ikenobo chooses the most minimalistic style for the most celebrative occasion of the New Year, instead of a typical New Year’s decoration of gold, silver, and red extravaganza. Moreover, the decorative styles have sort of worn out in contemporary Japanese lifestyle; we see them less and less in hotel lobbies and office buildings and more Ikebana-style flowers in trendy shops and restaurants.

In mid-January, the annual Ikenobo Exhibition of Tokyo branch was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno. It is one of the largest Ikenobo students' exhibitions in the Tokyo area. Its 84th anniversary event was very crowded, full of students both young and old, enthusiastically waiting in line to hear comments during the “junshi” (observation tour) by Yuki Ikenobo, the Headmaster Designate. Having witnessed this exhibition, one can be convinced that Ikenobo, once treated as rather old-fashioned, has firmly retained its popularity and will probably be the influential floral style of contemporary Japan again.

For those interested in Ikenobo Ikebana lessons, please visit Ikenobo’s English official site where you can find the most information about Ikenobo. Please contact its headquarters directly, and they will let you know where you can take Ikebana lesson according to your needs. Enjoy!

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