The freestyle Ikebana arrangement I made in class.

The formal and minimalistic Japanese art of Ikebana has always fascinated me. It’s so very far from the English blowsy, romantic style of flower arranging passed onto me by my mother. Although, with Ikebana’s reliance on creating a structure at the beginning of the arrangement, and the importance placed on colour, line, form and function, it has something in common with the work of Constance Spry.

This story features advance coverage of a event which which can be booked for a fee.
It also contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase.  (All current paid projects are always fully disclosed. )

Ikebana’s history goes back more than 550 years. Originally displayed by emperors to showcase their sophistication, the Japanese art of arranging flowers has since evolved into a meditative practice for ordinary people.

In its essence, Ikebana is a floral art form where blossoms, branches, leaves, and stems are removed from nature and placed in a new environment. Rather than simply recreate the shape a flower had in nature, Ikebana aims to creates a new form. Whilst minimalism is at its heart, each arrangement depends on the artists’ interpretation or mood for its final form.

Practitioners believe that Ikebana explores the frictions between the visible and the invisible, permanence and ephemerality, and luxury and simplicity. Within the creative process itself, serenity and energy represent opposing forces which are harmonised through Ikebana.

Ikebana arrangement by our class instructor

Last week I was invited to Japan House in London by Funny How Flowers Do That, the marketing arm of the Flower Council of Holland, who have partnered with Tomoko Sempo Yanagi, a professor with the Ikenobo school of Ikebana to run a series of meditative floral workshops. ( You can find details on how to book at the end of this post. I highly recommend the class, and it’s amazing value.)

We started our class with instruction in a tea ceremony (this won’t be part of the public class.)

Tea and cake eaten, we moved onto the flower stations where Tomoko explained the basic symmetry behind one of the three styles of Ikebana, SHOKA.

Shoka shofutai is an asymmetrical style that focuses on the inner beauty of nature. It draws inspiration from the cosmos – shin, soe and tai – heaven, earth and human. The arrangements are often triangular, based on three lines that unite in a vase to reflect life’s perpetual change and renewal.

There are two other Ikebana styles:

The second is RIKKA. Rikka’s origin lies in the 16th century and its structure has informed many modern interpretations. Often translated as “standing flowers”, Rikka is formed through seven to nine parts. Each part brings together contrasting but complementary materials in a single vase symbolising mountains, earth and water. They all come together to reflect and express the beauty of a natural landscape.

The third is FREESTYLE: Freestyle has no set form and is the most recent style to emerge from Ikebana’s long tradition. It reflects personal expression rather than following traditional structure, and therefore has become a popular, contemporary expression of the art. Free style is broadly divided into a naturalistic and abstract style. Both styles use flowers in new ways yet respect the beauty and essential qualities of each material. Flowing from the artist’s inventiveness, each arrangement is unique in the effect or mood it evokes.

At each station we found a vessel, a kenzan, and a pre-picked selection of flowers with which to practice.

A kenzan? you ask…

Essentially, you cannot practice the art of Ikebana without a kenzan. The metal pincushion sits in the bottom of the bowl or vessel and secures the flowers and foliage in an upright position. I hadn’t seen one of these for years: known as flower frogs in the UK, my mother was given a box of them by the florist who did her wedding flowers in 1967; I remember them sitting in the laundry room when I was little. But over the years the use of Oasis gained in traction and they weren’t used so much.

Now, with such a focus on sustainability in floristry, I think we’ll start to see kenzan (does this word take an S in plural?) being used more in traditional floristry, not just for Ikebana. You can buy them here if you would like to try. They start at around £2.

We were attempting our first Shoka arrangement, using pussy willow for shin, soe and tai – heaven, earth and human, the three lines that unite in a vase to reflect life’s perpetual change and renewal.

Above: This was my attempt at Shoka: you can see the groupings of three.

We were then encouraged to try a second arrangement using a different grouping of flowers. I thought I was using Shoka principles, but Tomoko said, AH! You are attempting Freestyle…She also moved my third calla lily so that one could see the beautiful yellow stamens inside, pointing out the importance of showing off the natural beauty of the flower to the onlooker Equally when I was confused about how to use a very leafy branch of mimosa, she simply stripped off most of the leaves, and it became obvious how it should be used. It was a good lesson in not looking at the obvious.

However, I fear I need a LOT more practice…

I will leave the last words to Tomoko Sempo Yanagi:

“Flowers are not only beautiful, but they could reflect the passing of time, and how we respond to an ever-changing future. There is beauty not only in an open flower but also a flower’s bud which holds the energy of life as it opens toward the future. Together with flowers, humans are vital parts of nature and our arranging ikebana expresses this awareness.”

Ikebana arrangement by our class instructor


Taking place at Japan House London – the cultural home of Japan, housed in a listed art deco building – Tomoko will embark on an introductory talk and live demonstration, educating on the history and philosophy of this flower-arranging method before guests are given time to themselves to create and arrange in free flow. Specialised Ikebana florists will be on hand to support guests with their practice and offer advice on how to balance the shapes and length of each arrangement to achieve true Ikebana style.
Mindfulness will be a key component during the workshop, with guests encouraged to admire the beauty, shape, textures and colours of each individual flower of the arrangement. Classical Japanese string music will play throughout. All consumers will keep their own creation.

Where: Japan House London, 101-111 Kensington High St, Kensington, London W8 5SA
When: Saturday 8th February 2020, 14:00 – 16:00 Cost: £20
Link to buy tickets here.

All proceeds will be donated to Tomoko Sempo Yanagi’s school, Ikebana World.

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