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Appreciating Flowers & Plants
Feel the spirit of Japan in Ikebana & Bonsai

Appreciating colorful seasonal flowers and plants is always a pleasure in any country and culture. A single blossom of flowers can change the atmosphere of a room and often delights people.

In Japan, of course, appreciating flowers and plants is deeply rooted in people's lives but how Japanese people appreciate them goes a step beyond simply putting flowers in a vase or enjoying growing plants in the garden. It is more a disciplined art form than a simple act of enjoyment.

Ikebana and Bonsai are two major classical forms of Japanese art which represent this philosophy. Both are truly spiritual, reflecting how Japanese people love and respect nature.

The Philosophy of Flowers

Ikebana is the representation of the Japanese love of nature, tranquility and perfection. The beauty of a flower arrangement lies in its asymmetrical balance, respect for the individual flower and its harmony with nature as a whole.

The custom of placing flowers on the altar began when Buddhism was introduced to Japan by way of Korea in the 6th century. In the Heian period (794-1192), apart from altar offerings, the practice of enjoying flowers displayed beautifully in a vase also became popular.

By Kyoshin Nakano; Kado-Honnoji

The shoin zukuri style of architecture first appeared in the Kamakura period (1192-1333). The tokonoma (a small, sacred alcove at the side or end of the room for receiving guests) was an important new element in this architectural style. And flowers in a vase were often, if not always, the key decorative element in the tokonoma.

Japanese people in the early 15th century tried to give wider meaning to the placement of flowers. An earlier attitude of passive appreciation developed into a more deeply considered approach. This approach forms the basis of what we call Ikebana today.

Ikebana patterns and styles evolved quickly. Rokkaku-do Temple is the site of the birth and earliest development of Ikebana. By the late 15th century, flower arrangement had become so widespread that they were appreciated by the general public, not just the imperial family and the upper classes. This marked the beginning of an art form with fixed requirements. Rules were prescribed, and materials were combined in specific ways.

''Stop thinking too much and listen to the flowers''
Kimiko Yamamoto (Ikebana master and teacher from Ami Kyoto)

By the middle of the 15th century in Japan, Ikebana achieved the status of an art form dissociated from its Buddhist roots, though it has ever since remained entwined with its strong symbolic and philosophical overtones.

Kimiko Yamamoto from Ami Kyoto, an Ikebana master and teacher, explains that it was very natural for her to delve into the world of ikebana. Her aunt has spent almost 60 years as a practitioner and so she was introduced to the art of Japanese floral arrangement from a very young age.

Ikebana masters spend years, even decades honing their skills, usually practicing in an almost meditative state as a sign of respect for the ancient Shinto belief in which the individual respects and worships every aspect of nature. For Kimiko, practicing Ikebana is the time to go deeper into her own self, ''I feel it's like having a dialogue between me and the natural world.''

In her classes, Kimiko strikes a balance between the practical and philosophical elements of ikebana. It is true that flowers are appreciated in all cultures. Their exquisite colors and textures and their gentle scents enrich our lives and brighten our moods. But, Ikebana is more than just flowers, it is a depiction of nature, the four seasons and the ebb and flow of life.

In arranging flowers, the main focus is not on the flowers themselves but rather how to create empty space in balance with other elements. It is to interpret a whole scene; living trees, fallen leaves, dead branches, and to bring balance in unbalance to create harmony. Ikebana can be translated as ''to make flowers live.'' Traditionally, in the practice, as soon as each flower is cut it is going to die. In this sense, Ikebana is the art of making dead flowers live by the hand of the creator. ''To know that this creation will fade means that we will cherish it even more.''

Although there are certain standards that one should follow, Kimiko explains that there is no concrete answer as to the form of your own arrangements, ''The answer is in you, your individual aesthetic sense.'' Form is important, and much like a learning a language, must be practiced to improve, but the theory and philosophical principles; the beauty in imperfections, the connection to the natural world and a respect for its life cycle, this is the heart of traditional Ikebana.

Kimiko explains that it is easy to continue Ikebana at home. First, try to imagine which natural scenery you want to recreate. Then, try to express its patterns in real life with nature; branches, blooms, greenery. Asymmetry and negative space are beautiful and often less is more. The most important point is to create harmony and not to overthink things. ''After years of arranging, I stopped thinking too much about exactly what form I wanted to create and I arranged the flowers as they wanted to be.'' Ikebana truly is art in bloom.

With Kimiko at Ami Kyoto, you can also take lessons in traditional Japanese calligraphy, and tea ceremony from 3,000 yen. Details of the menu and pricing can be found at their website.

Ami Kyoto: www.whattodoinkyoto.com

*For an Ikebana class, please book by 17:00 one day before you wish to attend the class. Walk-in accepted if a seat is available for tea ceremony. Calligraphy class requires a booking at least two days before.

Creating Enlightenment Peace through a Tree in the Pot

Bonsai are potted miniature trees carefully styled to achieve an aesthetic figure. Though the original concept of Bonsai was brought to Japan from China, a distinctive style of this art form has been developed in Japan over many years. Bonsai is a very artistic and philosophical hobby which touches people’s hearts.

Taking care of Bonsai takes years, thus demanding much more involvement for the practitioner and requiring a much bigger commitment physically and emotionally compared to growing plants in the garden or pots in general. All sorts of trees that can be grown in a small container are used as Bonsai. The most popular varieties are pines, maples whose leaves change their color in autumn, flowering trees, like the cherry and plum, and fruit-bearing trees, like quince and persimmon.

© Yasushi Ichikawa

Various techniques such as the trimming of roots and wiring are employed to keep the trees small. The trees have a life of their own, of course, and grow in accordance with the laws of nature, so they can never be completely controlled by human beings. Humans can't force nature to become what we want but can only appreciate the dignity of each living plant and treat them with love and respect.

The most important point is to try to ''guide'' them into becoming the figure they would have taken if grown in nature. However, some intentions are always prevalent: this balance is the most difficult and thus, the best part of growing Bonsai. Unlike other works of art, there are no such thing as ''finished'' Bonsai as long as the trees are still alive and growing; they must continue to be tended to on a daily basis.

''Bonsai is a Little Enormous Tree with a Life and Philosophy''
Hitomi Kawasaki (Founder of GENDAIBONSAI JAPAN)

Upon meeting Hitomi Kawasaki, it is extremely difficult, or almost impossible, to imagine her profession. This stylish young lady is a true Bonsai specialist who has been in love with Bonsai since her teenage time.

A young 18-year-old Hitomi first discovered Bonsai completely by chance when, on the daily bus ride to her school, she saw a poster of a Bonsai exhibition. ''I just thought it might be interesting as I noticed that I had never had a chance to pay attention to Bonsai before, though it is recognized as one of the Japanese cultural forms.'' Guided by her instinct, Hitomi went to the exhibition alone. Then, a lifechanging moment struck her as she stood in front of a distinctive 300-year-old black pine tree Bonsai.

© Tetsuya Hayashiguchi

''This is it!'' She had no knowledge about the craft, but somehow Hitomi immediately knew that the Bonsai was a sacred existence. ''I felt that the black pine tree Bonsai was connecting heaven and earth. It was just a mystery for me how such an old tree could fit in a small pot while generally a 300-year-old-tree is so massive.'' Her heart was struck with the mystery of nature and she was immobilized for quite a while. She still remembers the impact today and since then has described Bonsai as ''Little Enormous Tree.''

Bonsai has now become popular all around the world and is perceived in different ways in different cultures. The form has thus become free and versatile, such as by using both local and succulent plants. For Hitomi, Bonsai must fulfill the following three principles: 1) Respect to nature, 2) Propagation of life into the future, and 3) Fulfilling the ‘Little Enormous Tree' philosophy.

Although Bonsai is a form of nature, it is not simply an imitation of it. ''Be more pine tree than a real pine tree.'' This is a primary philosophy of Bonsai. One must understand and interpret the concept of ''What a real pine tree should be'' and try to express this on a Bonsai in a small pot. ''Nature reprocessed by human beings- this is the most interesting part,'' Hitomi believes.

Today, Bonsai has become of universal interest and there are a huge number of fans and practitioners. In earlier times, practitioners outside Japan just followed and copied the Japanese style. ''I find it very interesting to observe how Bonsai has been developed and interpreted in different parts of the world, even evolving into an American-style and British-style, reflecting once again that the world is large and diverse,'' Hitomi concludes.


Hitomi will join the 38th Japan Bonsai Exhibition in Kyoto (largest scale Bonsai exhibition in western Japan) in November and provide a guided tour.

GENDAIBONSAI JAPAN: www.gendaibonsai.com

38th Japan Bonsai Exhibition: November 23-26, at Miyako Messe, 9:00-16:30; 900 yen; Hitomi's tour starts at 14:30 every day (free of charge)

Ikenobo Ikebana Spring Exhibition & Rokkaku-do Temple Illumination
Exhibition of over 1,000 ikebana arrangements by teachers and students of Ikenobo School at the Ikenobo Headquarters (April 13-16; 500 yen). Rokkaku-do Temple will be beautifully illuminated by lanterns in the evening (April 13-15; 18:00-21:00)

Pretty Sakura Bonsai in Your Room
''Kyo-Sakura'' Bonsai series (4,900 yen-13,000 yen) produced by a flower shop, Omuro. Bring a great spring pleasure to your room with pretty Sakura blossoms.

Displayed and sold at Flower Shop Omuro, on their website and Ninna-ji Temple from the end of March through April. Omuro: Open: 9:00-17:00; http://kyoto-omuro.jp/

Meet Spring Plants & Flowers at Kyoto Botanical Garden
At Kyoto Botanical Garden, visitors will feel soothed and relaxed walking the quiet gardens, so pleasant with an abundant variety of plants and flowers spread around the vast site. The greenery area consists of a cherry blossom grove, rose garden, western garden, a conservatory, and many more sections.

The conservatory is the biggest in Japan displaying the largest number of plants including tropical flora of Baobab and tumbo tree. The Bonsai collection is a must-see with around 80 pots of a variety of Bonsai exhibited. From mid-February through April, spring flowers will start to bloom. Beginning with the blossoming of plum flowers, then progressing through crocus, daffodil, camellia, tulip and cherry blossoms.

Admission: 200 yen; Additional 200 yen for the conservatory; Open: 9:00-17:00 (last entry by 16:00); Conservatory 10:00-16:00 (enter by 15:30).