Finding spiritual enlightenment in the ancient Japanese art of flower arranging

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Finding spiritual enlightenment in the ancient Japanese art of flower arranging

Everything you need to know about visiting Kyoto View Article I am playing (and losing) a floral version of Jenga. First I pick up a single flower stem from a pile of cuttings and stick it on a spike at the bottom of a shallow dish. It’s harder than it sounds. After standing upright for a taunting millisecond, the stem slowly but inexorably rotates like the hand of a ticking clock, before picking up speed and flopping into the horizontal position. And repeat. My encounter with stubbornly non-standing blooms took place one recent rainy morning while kneeling in the tatami mat room of a small wooden merchant’s town house on a quiet lane in Kyoto. It was the perfect backdrop for acquiring a taste of ikebana, the centuries-old Japanese art of flower arranging that has long seduced with its wild, natural and alluringly abstract asymmetry – in short, the antithesis of neatly balanced Western wedding blooms. And there are perhaps few better places to explore the world of ikebana than Kyoto, an atmospheric city long famed as the symbolic heart of Japan’s traditional culture – from tea ceremony to calligraphy (plus everything else in between). My class kicked off with students kneeling opposite our teacher, Kimiko sensei – young, dynamic and gracious in a kimono with contemporary stripes that would not look out of place on a Paul Smith suit. She first embarked on an impressively articulate introduction to ikebana – which has its roots in sixth-century Buddhist flower offerings – managing to make a culturally complex art form still bound by centuries of rules and rituals immediately accessible. Stems should not cross and be positioned as you would find them in nature Credit: getty Things soon took a philosophical tone. With the help of some handouts and a white board for scribbling diagrams, she highlighted the very Japanese appreciation of empty space between blooms – the physical gaps embodying a philosophical minimalism, as echoed also in Japanese paintings and architecture. She also emphasised how nature and spirituality are intertwined in ikebana – and so it’s not uncommon to use dead plants, twigs or moss in order to reflect the transience of life itself. “There is a spiritual meaning behind the act of arranging flowers,” explained Kimiko sensei. “Shogyo mujo means everything changes, nothing lasts. These flowers enable us to enjoy the temporary beauty of nature. This is not just a technique or a skill – it’s a form of inner development, teaching respect, control, patience, tolerance, the importance of making an effort and keeping your mind calm and peaceful,” she added. Then she moved on to the practical; she quickly etched diagrams showing that each arrangement should be split into three layers; how stems should never cross and should be position as found in nature; and the overall display must be 3D. Suitably briefed – and inspired – we each received a newspaper-wrapped bundle containing a seasonal blend of aromatic green myrtle, yellow chrysanthemum flowers, pale pink hypericum […]