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Japanese Aesthetics and the Garden

Ikebana

Ikebana (literally ‘flowers kept alive’) is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. As in most gardening styles, ikebana attempts to distill the essence of the plant(s) in the arrangement. Less is more and natural angles and forms are crucial. Ikebana also has ancient roots. There are many schools, of which the most popular are Ikenobo, Sogetsu and Ohara. Only Ikebono dates to within the SCA period, founded by the Buddhist priest Ikenobo Senkei in the 15th century. He is thought to have created the rikka (standing flowers) style. This style was developed as a Buddhist expression of the beauty of nature, with seven branches representing hills, waterfalls, valleys and so on arranged in a formalised way. The present 45th-generation head of the school is Ikenobo Sen’ei. Among the priests and aristocrats, this style became more and more formalised until, in the late 17th century, the growing merchant class developed a simpler style, called seika or shoka. Shoka uses only three main branches, known as ten (heaven), chi (earth) and jin (man) and is designed to show the beauty of the plant itself.

Another old form of ikebana is nage-ire (thrown-in flower), first developed by the great 16th century tea master, Rikyu for use in the tea ceremony. Only the simplest of containers was used, often made of bamboo and only one or two plants. For the sedate atmosphere of the tea room, only an unpretentious, even simplistic arrangement would do. Anything else would distract the guests from quietude. Often the arrangement would be the only artwork on display in the tea hut.

Ikebana arrangements may be of a single blossom or of several different kinds of plants. Usually three types is considered the tasteful maximum. Containers may be of wood, lacquerware or ceramic and are usually quite simple so as not to detract from the flora. Often the container is designed to hang from a wall. Ikebana arrangements change with the season with different styles and plants being traditional for different times of the year. Chrysanthemums, for example, are an Autumn flower (obviously since this is when they bloom. There is in fact a traditional chrysanthemum festival in September). Cherry blossums, young bamboo shoots and other grasses usually suggest Spring.

A related apocryphal story:

The regent Hideyoshi heard that the morning glorys in Rikyu’s garden were in full bloom. Right away, he arranged to vist the master for a tea ceremony. Upon arriving, he walked through the garden only to discover that all the flowers were gone. Furious, the warlord stormed up to the tea hut determined to scold Rikyu for a prank. Upon entering the hut, he saw one perfect flower on display.