Ikebana, which stands for “living flowers”, is the Japanese art of flower arrangement, which dates back to as early as the 6th century. It is regarded not only as an art, but also as a contemplative, meditative activity.
The development of ikebana is largely credited to Buddhists because, while plants in Shinto tradition were believed to be dwellings for nature spirits and/or used to welcome spirits or deities, Buddhist priests taught people how to elegantly and meaningfully arrange flower offerings for altars. It became more of a secular activity in the 15th century, when its popularity spread to the nobility.
Today, there are thousands of ikebana schools all over the world, with Ikenobo being the oldest and largest. Despite Ikenobo being officially established in the 15th century, its style goes all the way back to the Heian era. The schools of Ohara (usually credited for being at the forefront of modern ikebana) and Sogetsu (regarded as the most liberal) are also quite popular.
Additionally, ikebana styles are no longer just confined to the basic style of using three lines to represent heaven, man, and earth. There are different styles such as:
- rikka (standing flowers), which uses seven to 11 lines to represent different elements of the universe;
- moribana, a piled-up arrangement style that uses shallow containers and welcomes the use of Western flowers;
- and nageire, a more spontaneous, informal style of arranging flowers in a vase.
Regardless of style, ikebana generally revolves around the basic principles of minimalism, asymmetry, balance (yes, despite the asymmetry), and harmony.
But don’t think for a second that ikebana is too stuffy, difficult, and full of rules! At these places, you too can learn ikebana with the help of friendly English-speaking instructors. Lessons typically start with an introduction to ikebana, which is followed by a demonstration. Finally, you’ll have the chance to try ikebana yourself. Note that reservations are required for these Tokyo ikebana workshops.
1. Ohara School
Dates/times: Thursdays | 10:00-11:30 am
Address: Minami-Aoyama 5-7-17, Minato Ward, Tokyo | Access: Aoyama-itchome Station
Phone: 03-5774-5097 (9:00 am-5:00 pm)
This is a great opportunity to learn from one of Japan’s top ikebana schools. The Ohara School doesn’t only offer trial lessons; students who want to continue learning ikebana can do so for ¥2,500 per lesson, plus additional costs for materials—amounting to a total of ¥4,000–¥5,000. Reservations must be made at least two business days in advance.
2. Sogetsu Foundation
Dates/times: Mondays except national holidays | 10:00 am-12:00 pm
Address: Akasaka 7-2-21, Minato Ward, Tokyo | Access: Aoyama-itchome Station
Phone: 03-3408-1209 (9:30 am-5:30 pm)
You can also take lessons directly from the Sogetsu school, which we mentioned earlier. In addition to one-off and trial sessions for visitors and those who only want an introduction to ikebana, Sogetsu offers classes in English for ikebana practitioners of different levels. Regardless of level, it costs ¥4,100 per lesson, inclusive of materials.
3. Meguro International Friendship Association (MIFA)
Dates/times: 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of the month | 10:30 am-12:00 pm
Cost: ¥1,500 (non-MIFA members) | ¥1,100(MIFA members)
Address: Kamimeguro 2-19-15, Meguro Ward, Tokyo | Access: Naka-Meguro Station
MIFA is an organization that aims to foster cultural exchange between Meguro’s Japanese and foreign residents; however, those not living or working in Meguro are also welcome to join their activities. At their ikebana workshops, instructors teach the Sogetsu and Ohara styles. Although lessons are in groups, the maximum group size of 10 is enough for each participant to be paid attention to. Participants can take home the flowers afterwards.
To cover the cost of flowers, participants must pay a cancellation fee of 1,000 yen if they cancel after 12pm the day before the lesson.
4. Yanesen Tourist Info and Culture Center
Dates/times: Contact organizer for details
Duration: 90 minutes
Cost: ¥5,980(individual) | ¥4,850 per head (groups of 2 or more)
Address: Yanaka 3-13-7, Taito Ward, Tokyo | Access: Nippori or Sendagi Station
Phone: 03-2828-7878 (9:30 am-5:00 pm)
Collectively known as “Yanesen,” the neighborhoods of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi in Bunkyo Ward give off a shitamachi vibe, as the area is dotted with temples, shrines, and local shops and dining areas. As these areas are not that popular with tourists, the ambiance is quite local rather than touristy. However, their Tourist Info and Culture Center welcomes foreigners to experience Japanese cultural activities, including ikebana. To book a class, fill out their inquiry form or calling them.
5. Masashi Kaki Design
Dates/times: Contact Masashi for details
Duration: 90 minutes
Address: Higashi-Ueno 3-27-6, Taito Ward, Tokyo
The friendly, relaxed Masashi prefers to call his lessons “Japanese-style flower arrangement” because, rather than just sticking to existing ikebana styles and basic ikebana principles, he prefers to use a combination of Western and Japanese flower arrangement techniques. For instance, while ikebana emphasizes asymmetry and minimalism (e.g. a maximum of three flowers), Masashi uses a variety of flowers, and not only those typically found in Japanese arrangements.
Masashi picks appropriate seasonal flowers for the theme he has in mind, but will leave it to you to arrange the flowers as you like. After the lesson, you’ll have a taste of Masashi’s hospitality, as he serves you tea and a snack. He’ll also show you around his traditional Japanese home, which also happens to be in a shitamachi (old-fashioned town) neighborhood. You can then take home the flowers afterwards.
Bookings can be made through his website.
6. Atelier Soka
Dates/times: Check website for availability
Duration: 75 minutes
Address: Hongo 6-23-5, Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo | Access: Todai-seimon-mae
Sogetsu-certified instructor Mika Otani has prepared flower arrangements for various events, as well as for movie studios, restaurants, and the like. Her ikebana experience workshop takes place at a 100-year-old ryokan (Japanese inn), and she serves tea and a snack afterwards.
The rate listed here is for the workshop for tourists, but Mika also offers regular lessons and trial lessons for residents of Tokyo. The lessons take place at different studios, so for more information, check Atelier Soka’s website for details.
Duration: 90 minutes
Cost: ¥10,000 (discounts available for groups of over 4)
Access: Mitaka Station
With over a decade of experience in ikebana, Amisui offers lessons for up to six people at a time. Taking place at her traditional home (which has a beautiful garden), lessons are followed by tea and a light snack. You can book a lesson directly on her website. As of this writing, due to some personal circumstances, Amisui’s availability is irregular and limited to weekends.
Read this post for more ideas on how to experience Japan traditional culture.
In our pilot episode, we're joined by Alvin Cheung of ABC Coffee, Hapnick, and Tokyo Keyboards