Living Flowers: Adventures in Ikebana

By on July 27, 2017

When my family arrived in Japan in the autumn of 2015, the kids started their schooling at Saint Maur International School in Yokohama where not only kids but parents get all kinds of learning opportunities too through its Adult Enrichment Program. Cultural immersion activities offered to parents include outings like tea ceremonies in yukata and kimono, and visiting the Kiyoken shu mai factory.
In addition to these one-time outings, the Adult Enrichment Program at the school also offers weekly classes in fitness, language–Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, including Japanese cultural crafts and skills.
When we arrived, I immediately added aikido and yoga to my weekly routine. Ikebana sounded interesting but I didn’t want to overcommit, so I passed it on that first year.
Only after seeing the gorgeous arrangements that the ikebana students put together did I decide to give it a try. So in the fall of 2016, I jumped right in!
Most of us who have tried ikebana really enjoy it – but not everyone, and that’s OK! One friend gave it a solid effort for 18 months but eventually quit. “It’s supposed to relax you, but I just found it too stressful,” she explained. It’s hard to argue with that. “It’s just sticking flowers in a vase,” sniffed another friend, who you will be shocked to learn, has not given ikebana a go.
Depending on your translation, ikebana means either arranging flowers (yawn) or living flowers (yay!). Western-style (OK, American) floral arrangements seem to emphasize overstuffed vases with huge amounts of gorgeous but ridiculously expensive flowers. You stuff flowers into a vase until it’s full, perhaps adding some leaves or other filler. More is more!
By contrast, ikebana focuses on balancing the arrangement’s components with the space around them. First you arrange the stems, which are literally sticks or twigs of some kind, usually, whatever is in season. Then come the flowers, but only three flowers or so. Finally, you fill in with some leaves. The space around each stem and flower defines each element and gives the viewer ‘the chance to enjoy the arrangement’ to paraphrase our instructor.
Ikebana arrangements begin with formulas. The size and shape of the container dictates the length of the stems, which in turn dictate the lengths of the flowers. The positions of each stem and flower also begin with formulas–angles, positions to the right and left, and so on. While some people chafe against such rigid rules, I love a framework. I have always been a bit of a disaster at arranging flowers, so I enjoy starting with a a set of rules and working within that structure.
Our instructor Sakiko Kamata has taught ikebana for years. She loves teaching and sharing her skills with her students, and her infectious laugh make each class so much fun. During class, we watch a demonstration by Kamata-sensei, assemble that week’s arrangement according to The Rules, then call her over when we think we have it right. She comes over and always offers praise, then makes adjustments. Sometimes it’s a stem or two moved over slightly, or a slightly bushy leaf snipped down just a tad. Other times, it ends up a complete re-do. We, students, snap a few photos, then disassemble the arrangement and hope that we can recreate it at home.
Kristi strikes the classic ikebana pose-frown combination while contemplating whether she should move a stem one millimeter to the left. Or maybe two millimeters to the right.
In every class, Kamata-sensei praises at least one student loudly and sincerely: “Everyone, come here! It’s Kristi’s final tall vase arrangement, and look how well she did!” Or: “Everyone, look at Marta’s notebook! She is so dedicated!”. We gather around and admire the arrangement and graciously accept her compliments.

About Marta Mirecki

Marta is an expat wife, a chef, mother, and dog owner from Washington, DC and currently lives in Yokohama. She likes to eat, cook, travel, hang out with the family, and learn new things. Follow her blog at

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