For most of our history, we Japanese have not found beauty in jewelry. What is it that stimulated us and that still moves us to this day? It is the "passing of time".
Japanese people were touched when they saw beautiful moments that could not be kept. They attempted to share such a moment with their lover, which is why so many masterpieces of Japanese poetry mention the passing of time and the changing seasons.
Today, after a thousand years, we still appreciate the passing of time as the most luxurious thing to express the beauty of seasons. People have put their hearts to feeling and expressing the changing seasons. High-end restaurants in Japan serve seasonal special ingredients that can only be eaten in a particular season, or even in a short period of time within a season. Geisha women wear different kimono with different fibers and the patterns depend on seasons. Geisha and maiko dance in a traditional way to fully express seasonal scenes and emotions. For example, in winter, they show how much they miss her lover with the image of piling snow. Another example is that the traditional wooden house machiya has developed to get maximum comfort to live in Japanese climate which contains cold winter and hot summer with highly humid.
The spirit of the Japanese artists and creators is always to try to think about how they can express the seasons in a new way, instead of explaining with words. They want to express how beauty is the season in which we are together. For example, if someone falls in love, they might write about how beautiful is it in this spring in Kyoto. “The air is getting humid, there is more sunlight, cherry blossoms are just blooming in front of my atelier. And I really want to share this beauty with you.” I think this is an orthodox way to express love and sympathy for Japanese people.
What about the relationship between creators and guests? In most settings, they do not talk face-to-face. For example, in large restaurants, chefs and guests have no chance to see each other. When I arrange flowers in a restaurant, there is no chance for me to see the guests of the restaurant. How can those creators show their sympathy and hospitality to their guests? They add seasonal sense to their creations instead of telling their customers with words. Even when creator and guest can talk, the Japanese way is that creators should not explain by talking, as it would be bringing the mood down for creators to express their creativity in words.
Sen-no-Rikyū was a tea artist in medieval Japan. He is important in Japanese history as a man who established the foundation of the Japanese tea ceremony. He never belonged to any ikebana schools, but his philosophy has affected ikebana and all facets of Japanese culture. Let me tell you a bit about him with an anecdote.
"The story says that Hideyoshi (the most powerful general during that period), hearing of the beauty of blooming morning glories in the garden of Rikyū’s house, demands a visit. He arrives early in the morning, but no flowers are to be seen. Puzzled, he enters the tearoom and understands. Rikyū has arranged one flower for display, destroying the rest."
(Source: Handa Rumiko, "Sen no Rikyū and the Japanese Way of Tea: Ethics and Aesthetics of the Everyday" (2013)
There are many interpretations of this story. My understanding as an ikebana artist is the following.
About this story, the important thing is the background, not his creation – the arrangement of one morning glory. Everybody can arrange one morning flower. But not everyone would cut all the flowers in his garden just to welcome only one guest. This is why a picture of a painting of one morning flower cannot express this story. One flower can be beautiful, but there is an invisible message behind just one flower. Rikyū cut all flowers in his garden to emphasize just one flower. The flower was morning glory which lasts only a few hours. He arranged all of those for only one guest.
I say Japanese culture is a beautiful envelope with a shapeless letter. The message is love and sympathy and welcome. It goes beyond what you can see. Creators don't tell the message directly to their guests, they hide this message under their beautiful creations with seasonal sense. If the guest doesn't realize the message, the creation itself is still beautiful. For example, kaiseki food is beautiful, even if guests don't understand the history and don’t know any of its rules. But in each of the dishes, there is something to give guests small surprises to show the chef’s welcomeness.
Ikebana is one of those Japanese cultures. But there is an overwhelming difference between ikebana and others. All of Japanese cultures are an “expression of seasons”. Changing seasons is just a changing of day length and temperature from the Earth’s rotation. How do people feel those geographical changes? It is from flowers. Flowers bloom when we reach a specific day length and temperature, and out of blooms when it gets specific day length and temperature. It gives us a guidance that the season is moving, time is passing. Flower is the symbol of seasons which most strongly stimulate the hearts of Japanese people. That is why people arrange flowers at every important place, and why flower culture – ikebana – has been highly developed in this country.
If you have an interest in Japanese culture, I hope you will have the opportunity to try ikebana. You can try ikebana simply by choosing one flower and putting it inside a vase in the naturalistic style of nageire. Anyone can learn about ikebana and it may open a new understanding of the quaint way of thinking of the Japanese people.
This text was written by Ms Ryoko Nishimura, an ikebana flower artist in Kyoto. She has an atelier near Gion that you can visit. Her dream, one day, is to create a space, like a museum, where people can experience ikebana and its history. This is her website.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
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