Learning to Be a Lady

Ikebana 生け花 Class at Ikenobo // Tea Ceremony 茶の湯 at Sumiya Ryokan

Ikebana and tea ceremony are two of the fundamental pillars of Japanese high culture* and any person wishing to be considered refined (one of my top wishes, actually) should be trained in both. Though both originated as men-only activities, both became a requirement for women to master before marriage; a bit like reading french, painting and singing in a Jane Austen novel. Both arts- let’s call them arts, because it sounds nicer and is more accurate than ‘cultural activity’- have their ancient roots in Buddhism and have evolved over hundreds of years. But let’s start with…

Ikebana: Japanese ‘Flower Arranging’

On Thursday I spent the day at the headquarters of Ikenobo, which is the oldest and the leading school of ikebana. This was one of those days when I get annoyed that there aren’t more synonyms for AMAZING in the English language. Brilliant, fantastic, wonderful, outstanding, incredible, stupendous and stunning are not enough to describe how amazing this day was! I was really looking forward to doing this class but uncertain about what I would think (I’d never seen ikebana in real life before and it sometimes looks weird in photos): now I am a devotee to the most evangelical level.

I could try to give you a detailed history of the evolution of the art but instead I recommend you read about it here (or if you prefer wikipedia, here) and I’ll just do a brief outline of what I consider to be the most significant points, for the generalists and busy people of the world.

The important thing to note is that this isn’t really like flower arranging as we consider it in the West. We think of flower arrangements as decorative things- life enhancing of course- but no great significance. Ikebana has a great deal more to it than that.

Firstly, the art form evolved from devotional worship: from decorating the alter and the statue of Buddha in temple. At Rokkakudo Temple they were particularly known for this from its very founding in the 6th Century. At this point, branches or plants weren’t offered in any arranged way, just laid around. Over the centuries, the idea of placing the flowering branches in earthenware/metal vessels evolved and by the middle of the 15th Century, the monks of this temple were placing flowers as well as branches in vases in a deliberately arranged way. The method and styles then evolved in tandem with developments in Japanese architecture and with the tea ceremony- all are interlinked- but all the improvements and knowledge built up regarding flower arranging were led by monks and were part of the Buddhist life. The head of Ikenobo school has always been the head monk of Rokkakudo Temple (even today) and the Buddhist philosophy behind the art is still very important to the study of ikebana.

Secondly, the concept of space is almost completely reversed in ikebana. In western-style flower arrangements, we use plants to fill up space: we want to fill the whole room with colour and fragrance. In ikebana, plants are used to create space. The shape of the space in the arrangement is just as important as the plants themselves. This concept of space as a powerful thing with its own form can be found across Japanese art and particularly in garden design.

Thirdly, there are a lot of rules! Anyone who’s heard a little about ikebana will probably have heard about the strictness of the rules and the specific styles which you can’t break away from. Well, it is precise to an almost scientific degree but it’s also not restrictive at all. There are three main styles in Ikenobo’s ikebana**: Rikka, Shoka and Jiyuka. Jiyuka or Free Style is a modern form which has no rules, except that it should look good! It’s the most varied and exciting of the styles, in my ignorant opinion. Rikka is the oldest style and is quite full, contains many kinds of plants and often uses lots of clever tricks to manipulate those plants into different shapes/forms.

Shoka is both the most simple form of arrangement and the most confusing, because it has loads of rules and there are also a lot of different types of Shoka, each with different rules. There are two main types: shoka shufutai and shoka shimputai. Shoka shufutai in turn has three types (isshuike- using one type of material, nishuike-using two types of material & sanshuike-using three types of material) and each of those three types can be either hongatte or gyakugatte, depending on the design of the tokonoma. Regardless of type, shoka shufutai is always comprised of shin, soe and tai (plus mizugiwa); soe should always face the shimaza or yo, whereas tai should face the kamiza or in. Shin should face its front surface to yo but bend back towards tai. Confused? Yeah. Well- don’t worry about it, it makes much more sense when you see examples! Have a look at these (I have stolen these photos from the internet because mine were terrible)…

So,  thus far I have reeled off a load of facts and I haven’t at all explained what it is that I loved so much about the day, and why I am so impressed with ikebana. Well, there are five main things that I found amazing (apart from all the history and the philosophy which I haven’t detailed but is also really interesting).

Firstly, the skilful techniques and tools used to create the arrangements are brilliant! In hundreds of years, a lot of really clever tricks and tools have been developed.  (Although actually, the ikebana hasami (secateurs) are bloody hard to use, I don’t like them!) For example, instead of an ugly block of oasis, the flowers are securely held in an elegant rinzen- which is a really heavy block of metal with spikes coming out of it- or a bundle of straws, or even neatly held with sticks.

In the photo above of the Rikka arrangement that the Sensei demonstrated to us, you can see a bough of pine at the top, right? WRONG! That’s actually a dead stick with pine pinned onto it in exactly the way sensei wanted it to be- but totally invisible. Genius. However, you’re not allowed to use pinning, splicing or wiring in Shoka, only bending by hand- which is much more difficult than it sounds. Sensei demonstrated making a Shoka arrangement to us using a pile of Cornus mas branches: he bent and twisted them far enough that they crunched but didn’t snap until it was the most elegant bit of dogwood I’d even seen. Matt said (and I think it’s a perfect analogy) that it was like a chiropractor straightening out a spine- it certainly sounded like that! Bending but not snapping wood to the perfect shape is a very difficult skill.

Secondly, the study of form and space is on such a small scale is both fascinating and invaluable for understanding design and object (plant/tree/path/rock) placement on a larger scale. This is hard to explain other than with an example… After examining the Rikka arrangement and watching Sensei make a Shoka and a freestyle arrangement, we got to try a making our own freestyle arrangement. This was really fun, although I was really nervous! After we’d finished, both Matt and I had produced acceptable- not ugly but not particularly interesting- arrangements. Sensei sat in front of each of our work in turn and in both cases, moved two things. Just two. Just a little bit. And then suddenly: both of our arrangements moved from being mediocre to amazing! Really, really amazing. He just moved two things! Mind. Blown.

Thirdly, I really like the fact that all or any bits of plant material are used. Ikebana aims to present real nature, so it is considered better to include leaves that are a bit marked or nibbled or browned and flowers that are just in bud or are going over: whatever is needed to express the season or the mood of your piece. Much better and more beautiful than seeking plastic perfection. However, I will note here that some of the choices of plant combinations really jar with my gardener’s instincts. I can’t help but think about the fact that a gerbera would never naturally grow in the same place as Solomon’s Seal!

Lastly (and mostly): it looks incredible. It’s really powerful. This is is hard to explain because it’s all about looking, and it’s hard to show you because ikebana does not photograph well, even for much more skilled photographers than me. I think this is because all of the power and the presence of an arrangement is in its depth, the distance between the elements within it and the space around the arrangement. None of these things can be photographed! So please believe me when I tell you that though an ikebana arrangement looks interesting or elegant or fun or funky in a photograph, in real life it is as affecting and powerful and moving and emotional as a great painting or piece of music.

Suffice it to say, I am in love with ikebana.

[By the way, did I mention? There’s a branch of Ikenobo in the UK, and there are apparently some really good teachers and I’m going to be back in the UK in October, so….]


Tea Ceremony 茶の湯

Well, if you think ikebana is complicated- it’s nothing compared to Tea Ceremony!  A professor at ALPHA told me that she has been learning tea ceremony for eight years and she still isn’t any good at it. Eight years. It’s only a cup of tea! Not even very nice tea, at that. But luckily for you, I haven’t learnt any of the rules so I can’t tell them to you: you don’t need to stop reading in despairing confusion

Aside from all the rules and ceremony, the concept of tea ceremony is actually quite hard to understand because we don’t have anything equivalent in UK culture. It doesn’t really make sense that there would be all this fuss about a bit of foamy green sludge! But tea ceremony is about more than making some matcha. Its origins are murky to me (I’m sure google has the answer) but I know that one of the main originators of the modern tea ceremony was a Buddhist monk called Sen no Rikyū, who was a leading figure in the Edo Period and really influential in japanese culture and architecture and politics- until he was killed by the shogun for being too important. Or something like that.

Essentially, the ritual has a lot to do with purification of self, the art of hospitality, thankfulness & appreciation, simplicity, honesty of spirit. A lot of really nice things. However, the main reason I’m interested in tea ceremony is the influence it has had on gardens and architecture. It really demonstrates the significance of the tea ceremony that specific buildings and gardens were built simply for the purpose of performing it.

So, Tea Gardens are one of the three main types of traditional Japanese gardens (along with meditation & strolling gardens) that you can see today. The typical design includes many practical features, as well as characteristics to aid the preparation of your mental state before beginning the tea ceremony. They will always include a tea house (obviously), a tsukubai for washing your hands, lanterns, a waiting area and sometimes a place to put your swords- no weapons allowed in the tea house. There is usually a low gated arch which signifies moving into a pure space and forces you to bend humbly as you walk through it, and the path is usually uneven to make you look down and contemplate where you are going. The gardens have a Sō 草 or informal, rustic atmosphere with subtle planting, avoiding bright colours.

The tea house itself always has a simple design but can vary a lot in size. The room where the ceremony is performed will include a tokonoma with a scroll or painting and a simple piece of ikebana or bonsai. There may also be a nice view into the garden, but no really bright or ostentatious things to distract your focus. I have seen many examples of tea gardens in the gardens that I’ve visited, including Ritsurin, Kyu-Furakawa and Rikugien. They’re all over the places really! I’ve also has informal tea ceremony at several gardens, including Okochi Sanso, Toji-in, Ritsurin, Yonangu Shrine, Gyokusen-en.

As a result of these experiences (and some tips from M- thank you, I turned my cup beautifully!), I was a little bit prepared for my first proper tea ceremony on Friday. It was really fun, although actually- it wasn’t in a tea house! Not everyone can have a massive garden with a special building in it for tea ceremony, so traditionally many wealthy people in cities would have a designated room in their house instead. The tea ceremony we went to was like this, in a very prestigious and old ryokan in Kyoto called Sumiya. It is really fancy and beautiful! Luckily I knew to dress up for the occasion, so I wasn’t in my stinky jeans and old fleece.

We started off by sitting down- which took a while because Matt can’t kneel on the floor and had to have supplementary pillows and stool. I sniggered whilst the Tomoko-san and the tea ceremony master called him an おじいちゃん ojiichan (grandpa). Once that was settled, you have a conversation with the tea ceremony master. Normally only the head guest (in this case Tomoko-san) is allowed to speak, but since we’re gaijin 外人, we were allowed to talk a little too. The actual consumption bit starts with being presented with a sweet, one at a time (lots of bowing and thankfulness and specific things you have to say at this point), which you have to cut up with a cute little bamboo stick and then eat. The sweet is usually made of rice and or beans and is delicious! There are specific ones for specific seasons. Once you’ve eaten your sweet, the plate is taken away (bowing, specific things said) then you are presented with your matcha to drink, each in turn (bowing, specific things said). You have to pick it up and hold it in you right hand, rest it on the flat palm of your left hand, be thankful for it it in your heart, turn the cup 180 degrees using two movements of your right hand, drink the tea in 2-3 slurps, wipe the rim of the cup where your mouth was with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, turn the cup 180 degrees again, and place it back in front of you with your right hand before the cup is taken away (bowing and specific things said). That’s a super simplified version.

Obviously the matcha is made freshly, and there was a lovely lady in the corner whisking away using water heated from a special kettle over a special coal/wood stove that is sunk into the tatami floor. How lovely I thought, until I realised that we had to have a go at making some matcha too! It is bloody hard work, all that whisking: I thought my arm was going to fall off! I should explain for those that don’t know what matcha is (mum), that it is powdered tea. Instead of using dried leaves, steeping them in water and then draining them out- matcha tea is the ground dried leaves mixed with water and then drunk whole, so you actually consume the leaves themselves. It’s nothing like tea, really. It’s bright green and bitter, has a powdery/grainy texture and is usually thick. To combine the ground tea with the water, you have to whisk it really hard with a beautifully fine bamboo whisk, until is has a pale green foam. This is hard work! Luckily we got given a sweet as a reward afterwards 🙂 Here we are in action….

So, after all that learning, I think it is safe to say that I am a really refined Japanese lady and ready for marriage. Phew.


* Don’t ask me what the other ones are… Kabuki, painting, poetry, ukiyo-e, Noh, gardening, manga?!

** There are some other historical styles and I think also others belonging to the other ikebana schools that exist today, and more subsets of each of the main three but I don’t know anything about them! When I’m an ikebana master, I’ll let you know.



2 thoughts on “Learning to Be a Lady

  1. I’m really loving your blog Katie! Just followed you so I don’t miss any more – though M updates me too when you see her. Really glad you’re having such an interesting time! Xxx


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