Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement): no-cost hobby to find your inner Zen

Subject to stay-at-home order due to coronavirus? It’s not easy to deal with all kinds of anxieties while you are physically confined. I have been chopping trees and bushes in my backyard, making big piles of loose branches and leaves.

I figured that I could use them to try ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangement. It’s an ideal quarantine-friendly hobby because you only need small amount of branches and flowers from your yard. You can use something like a salad bowl as a container, so no need to run to a store (which is not recommended at this point of time), and it requires zero costs. 

I practiced ikebana for a short period of time, but it was long time ago. So this was  going to be ikebana-ish arrangement, rather than authentic ikebana. But that’s fine. I still found some peace of mind as I worked on plants and flowers – it was almost therapeutic in this difficult time.  

The idea came to my mind when I was trimming a maple tree, which had lots of fresh green leaves. It’s easier to try ikebana with a plant with sturdy branches. I selected a couple of nice-looking ones from the pile.

Ikebana is an art of subtraction, and is a bit like hair cut. Once you choose branches and flowers you want to use (which are not many), you keep trimming them until you find the ultimate essentials and the right balance. The 生花 (shoka) style is especially minimalist which requires only a handful branches and/or flowers. Very material-efficient. So I tried shoka style. Its basic format is a triangle. 

By the way, although I wrote that you don’t need to buy anything to try ikebana, you need something that fixes plants together in the container. Ikebana has a dedicated tool called a “kenzan,” or spiky frog, which is a small but heavy metal dish with lots of spikes. Since it’s not something you can easily buy outside Japan, you may want to use alternatives such as small pebbles, as shown in the video below.  

The first step is to choose the main branch that becomes the “shin” of the triangle in the picture above. As I wrote, I chose maple, which has a sturdy branch. You may want to choose the one that has a subtle curve. (Get some inspiration from the pictures and videos above.) 

After I put it in the container, I tried to create a loose triangular shape by adding “soe.” I didn’t realize at this point, but my choice of the main branch turned out to be problematic, which ended up making me struggle throughout the process. 

Left: this is where I started. I have “shin,” which still has lots of small branches and leaves. I added some maple leaves and small flowers as “soe.”
Right: Then I started trimming. It’s a slow process. You need to ask yourself: “is it okay to trim this branch, or this leaf?”

As I started only with what I had, I haven’t figured out what to do with “tai.” It was a bad decision! I should have planned ahead and come up with the “shin-soe-tai” combination first, by looking around my yard. At this point, my options were limited; I looked around but couldn’t find the right one for “tai.”    

Left: I added “tai,” which made the entire thing look crowed and disorganized.
Right: I trimmed some more, then took my ikebana to a different place so that I can have a better look.

The addition of “tai” was a problem, but the larger problem was the “shin,” or the main branch; it was too tall, and the small branches were sparse but leafy. Not an ideal balance. In addition, the entire branch was leaning left whereas “shin” needs to represent energy that grow “up.” So I “massaged” it in order to make it a little rightward. It’s a technique used a lot in ikebana in order to adjust the balance. But you need to be careful because you could break the branch if you go too far.

At this point, taking out any leaf or branch is irreparable; there is no “undo” option with plants. So there were a lot of “should I take this out or shouldn’t I” moments. Since I chose a wrong branch, the decisions were even more difficult. 

It was time to adjust “soe.” I made them lower, and tried to bent the main branch to balance.  Then I start losing my concentration. So this is it! I left with a couple of lessons for the next time. I liked the Zen aspect of ikebana; it worked great to clear my mind, get my focus back and feel neutral.