Exploring Ikebana, The Art of Japanese Flower Arranging

Poste date: Friday, May 15, 2020

Ikebana is the traditional art of Japanese flower arranging, but don’t mistake it for a version of Western-style floral arrangements – there’s a lot more to ikebana than initially meets the eye. With its origins in the spiritual, and its minimalist style that focuses on shape and line, leaf and stem as much as the blooms themselves. It quickly becomes evident that ikebana can be satisfying on several levels, whether you want to delve deeper into the richness of it as a practice, or simply create aesthetically pleasing arrangements.

Ikebana History and Philosophy

"Tomo with her ikebana" by ssedro is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 6th century, so was the ritual of offering flowers at temples. In the middle of the 15th century, a priest in Kyoto called Senkei Ikenobo (so named because he lived by a lake, or Ike) became known for his floral offerings and soon other priests began to learn from him. The formal art of ikebana began here, with its roots in the spiritual life – it is significant that ikebana, which means “living flowers,” is alternatively known as kado, “the way of flowers.”

Ikebana’s harmonious display is based on three branches that represent heaven, earth and humankind. Originally there were seven branches representing a Buddhist expression of the beauty of nature, and these were characteristic of the rikka (standing flowers) style that Ikenobo is credited with starting. Ikebana quickly spread from priests to the upper classes, and by the late 15th century was frequently displayed in the tokonoma (recessed alcoves) in private residences. It became elaborate, requiring great skill, when it was also a chief decoration in many of the newly constructed castles around Japan in the 17th century. The tea ceremony appeared around the same time, and its emphasis on simplicity brought about the chabana style, which was less rigid. Over the centuries, multiple schools of ikebana developed, but modern ikebana dates from the 1930s, when changing philosophies gave rise to more freestyle, expressive forms.

Regardless of school or style, ikebana has long been practiced as a kind of meditation. For many people it is both a personal expression and a study of nature and spirituality, exploring balance and appreciating the cycle of life.

Ikebana Styles

"Ikebana, One Row Form" by Tim Buss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While there are numerous ikebana styles, nageire and moribana are two of the most prominent today. Distinguishable primarily by the fact that the former is vertically displayed while the latter is low and horizontal, they also emerged from different cultural environments, as did the freestyle ikebana of the early 20th century. All ikebana styles, however, consider the container an integral part of the design and make use of negative space, and all seek to find harmony between and reveal the essence of the natural elements they employ.


Translating as “thrown in,” nageire rose out of the chabana style that was developed for the tea ceremony. Chabana sought to enhance the beauty of the vase itself and express a purity and simplicity in keeping with the ceremony, rather than creating a skillful, decorative and heavily symbolic display, as in the rikka style. Nageire, following in the footsteps of chabana, highlights the natural beauty of each element and allows a certain spontaneity. In practical terms, the vases used in nageire are tall and cylindrical and often have a narrow mouth. The stems are inserted into the vase without a kenzan (a holder made of metal pins) and special techniques are used instead to keep them in the desired positions.


"Ikebana, Moribana, "Slanting Style"" by Tim Buss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Meiji era brought many changes to Japan and in this environment, moribana – the “piled up flowers” style of Japanese flower arranging – was developed by Ohara Unshin in the late 19th century. As Western influences poured into Japan, he upended much of what was thought of as normal ikebana practice and started arranging flowers, leaves and other plant matter in wide, shallow dishes. In this style, new and imported materials with short stems could be incorporated, reflecting an opening to the rest of the world. In the older ikebana styles, each element emerges from the vase at a single point, but in moribana the pieces lie next to each other in a flat, water-filled basin. The structure allows for naturalistic renderings of landscapes and gardens in miniature, but it is just as usual to create moribana arrangements that use the traditional three branches and spread wide or tall.


"Ikebana, Freestyle, an arrangement for Autumn / Fall"" by Tim Buss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Of course, not all Japanese flower arranging styles are bound by strict principles. As the name suggests, freestyle ikebana allows complete freedom to select the flowers that best suit the vase and then arrange them as desired. While the flowers must still be arranged in a way that best shows their characteristics, how this is achieved is open to the interpretation of the creator. It is a far cry from the oldest forms of classical ikebana, which prescribe shapes and designs and indicates how far ikebana has come since its inception more than 600 years ago. Amid the social changes of the early 20th century, free and creative expression was valued, and even modern art influenced this traditional practice in the form of an avant-garde form called zen-eibana that incorporated abstract and surrealist approaches.

Ikebana classes in Tokyo

"Ikebana Workshop" by /kallu is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If you are interested in studying ikebana in Tokyo, there are certainly no shortage of options in the city. Each school teaches the art of Japanese flower arranging in its respective manner, and each teaches several of the various ikebana styles in their own way too. Among the many schools, the three that currently dominate are Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu. The Ikenobo school, of course, is where ikebana’s origin lies, and it is based at the Rokkakudo Temple in Kyoto. While there are Ikenobo schools in Tokyo, there are also many others teaching various styles and approaches.

Ohara School

The Ohara School of Ikebana is so-named for its founder and the creator of the moribana style, Ohara Unshin. The school was officially founded in 1912 and has spread to several hundred chapters throughout Japan and the world. Its main location in Tokyo is in Minami Aoyama, where they offer English classes once a week for all levels and allow both observation and trial lessons.


Sogetsu School

The Sogetsu School was founded in 1927 by Sofu Teshigahara, who rejected the established forms and explored free and creative expression that was not held to a fixed ikebana style. Many different classes, including trial lessons and the chance to observe, are available at the Tokyo headquarters in Akasaka.


Ichiyo School

The Ichiyo School of Ikebana, founded in 1937 by a brother and sister, teaches moribana, nageire and ichiyo seika styles in a contemporary manner that encourages personal interpretations. It uses a simplified and systematic teaching method and aims to guide students closely and efficiently. Trial lessons and six courses are available at the Tokyo headquarters in Nakano.


Masashi KAKI Design Flower Design - Tokyo, Japan

WA flower design lesson by flower designer Masashi. WA means “harmony” and "Japanese style" in Japanese.

The venue of the lesson is NAGAYA (old fashion Japanese style house)in Tokyo's SHITAMACHI (same old downtown). The house is close to 100 years old.

Masashi is National Certified Guide who is knowledgeable about Japanese culture and history. You can also gain deeper insight of Japan.


Japanese Flower Arranging is for Everyone

"生け花" by ippoippo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Thanks to the rich history of ikebana, a variety of schools, styles and interpretations are available to interested practitioners of all levels – and there is no better place than Tokyo to learn and experiment with this simultaneously old and modern practice of Japanese flower arranging that blends art, spirituality and nature. With ikebana’s links to sado, the tea ceremony, you may also want to try experiencing and even learning how to conduct the ceremony.