Ikebana Explained

Ikebana Explained

It is believed that for the first time the idea that flowers could be used as decoration came to Japan along with Buddhism, about one and a half thousand years ago. But about 1,500 years ago is too approximate, and art as significant to Japan as ikebana could not have been left without its founding father. And without a grandfather and great-grandfather as well. So let’s trace the history of this art from ancient times until today.


  • The birth of Ikebana and the mythical prince
  • Three lotus flowers – Ikebana in Chojugiga
  • An incense burner, a candlestick, and a vase – the appearance of a tokonoma alcove
  • Chinese vases and their collectors
  • Ikenobo Senkei and the true ikebana
  • Rikka – the oldest style of ikebana
  • Castles, palaces and grand sunamono arrangements
  • “Thrown in” flowers of Nageire style
  • Chabana – a flower of the tea room
  • Shoka: ikebana for city dwellers
  • The invention of kenzan and Moribana
  • From Moribana to Jiyuka and beyond. Ikebana today

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More to read

An old book, originally written in 1913. And as happens with old books, many historical facts described in them are not considered correct anymore and transliterations are free. 
Setting this aside, it is a very charming little book on Ikebana describing the main principles of the art and techniques used in simple words. 

  • Mary Averill “The Flower Art of Japan” (1915) 

A beautiful reprint of a book originally published in 1915 as an addition to earlier published “Japanese Flower Arrangement”. The book is aimed at people beginning their ikebana journey by teaching some basic principles of the art and talking about different vessels and flowers. Completed with beautiful drawings it’s a very quick but pleasant read.  

The book is great. It tells you the brief history of ikebana and introduces you to styles of arrangements, tools, techniques and flowers. 

The book is great, except that it was not what I was looking for. It was written for practitioners of Ikebana or people who want to begin making Japanese flower arrangements. For someone who’s not going to create the compositions, it has too many terms and too many technicalities. And all I wanted was a history of ikebana. Well, I’ll keep looking. 

  • Kubo Keiko “Keiko’s Ikebana: A Contemporary Approach to the Traditional Japanese Art of Flower Arranging” 

One of the fastest books I ever read. And one of the most useless ones. 
The author loses credibility right on the first pages as she calls chabana “another important Ikebana style”, while it is not. It is an important part, don’t get me wrong, but of Tea Ceremony education, not Ikebana.
After just 3 pages (with pictures!) of the “History of Ikebana” which is not even correct, she continues to materials. And this part is ok. Not conventional, but the book claims to give “a contemporary approach” so let it be. Then there are some basic techniques, and then there is the biggest problem of the book. Why even tell about Rikka, Nageire and Moribana styles of arrangement while most of the presented creations are freestyle (Jiyuka) which was not even introduced before? And some are borderline ikebana at all and just look like your typical florist’s flower baskets?

And here are some of the original texts you might be interested in:

  • Sendensho (仙伝抄) – the earliest book on flower arranging is dated 1445
  • “Kao Irai no Kadensho” 

This is believed to be the oldest extant manuscript of ikebana teachings handed down in Ikenobo. Dates from 1486 to 1499 are recorded at the end of the document. 

  • Ikenobo Senno Kuden 

Among several copies, this is the version that was handed down in 1537. It describes the philosophy and techniques of ikebana.  

  • Ikenobo Sen’ei Kadensho 

This manuscript was handed down in 1545. While passing on Senno Ikenobo’s philosophy of ikebana, it is noteworthy that this document shows the basic structure of Rikka.  

  • Rikka no shidai Kyujusanpei ari (Ikenobo Senko Rikka-zu) (Important Cultural Property)  

This collection includes 91 drawings of Rikka and Sunanomono arranged between 1628 and 1635 by Senko Ikenobo II, who refined Rikka. His elegant and graceful style is apparent in these works. Two drawings of Rikka by other arrangers are also included.  

More to watch

  • Core Kyoto 2×04 Ikebana: Revealing the full potential of flowers  
  • Core Kyoto 7×10 The Modern Flower: Old Meets New in Arrangement 
  • BEGIN Japanology S5EP05 Ikebana 
  • Movie Ikebana, 1957 made by the film director and grand master of the Sōgetsu-ryū Hiroshi Teshigahara, describes his school.

The film starts out quite peacefully as a regular old documentary. And it stays that way for the first 15 minutes. But then comes the cubism in red and black, skulls and total sur. So scary and yet so soporific at the same time. 

Anyway, if you really want to understand ikebana of the 50s or if you adore Picasso, do check it out. But for me, once was more than enough. On the other hand, what did I expect from a movie director who made films filled with absolute despair based on the works of Abe Kobo, as if Kobo himself didn’t have enough of it there as it was? 

  • Flower and Sword (花戦さ, Hana Ikusa), 2017 

A beautiful movie featuring Ikenobo Senko, Sen-no-Rikyu, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi as its main characters. Hideyoshi is villainous and cheeky, Rikyu is a martyr, and Senko is an out-of-this-world ikebana master. My point is – this movie is not based on actual events, but on a historical novel, so don’t take everything that happens at face value. 

Other than that, it’s a very enjoyable immersion into the world of ikebana, the tea ceremony and the art of the late 16th century. And it is in this film that you get to see the famous pine sunamono. Even two, actually. One at the very beginning of the film, and one at the end. 

Masters of the Ikenobo school were involved in creating the various rikka, shoka, and suna-no-mono arrangements for the movie. Of particular note is a very large suna-no-mono arrangement that was recreated based on a historic piece arranged in the Maeda clan residence in 1594 that took 14 people ten days to make. 

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