Ikebana is an ancient Japanese art which involves arranging flowers, conforming to very strict principles designed to create harmony, balance, and a beautiful form. Formal training in Ikebana is carried out at several schools around the nation of Japan, and overseas students may choose to study with masters of the art. An Ikebana arrangement is distinctive and sometimes quite beautiful, and it certainly cannot be confused with Western flower arrangements, which follow very different governing principles.
The very earliest origins of the tradition actually appear to have begun in China, where Buddhist monks offered flowers to the Buddha. In the sixth century, Buddhists brought the art to Japan, along with a greater knowledge of Buddhism. However, Ikebana as we know it began in Japan. Practitioners refined the art, creating several major schools including Rikka and Shoka. Practice of Ikebana is a spiritual and aesthetic art, and it is counted in the skills of many accomplished Japanese men and women; many Japanese women pursue the study of Ikebana an explore the addition of more unusual and avant-garde elements like metal and plaster.
Many women study Ikebana as part of a general course of self improvement and refinement, while both men and women may follow it as a spiritual pursuit. Ikebana incorporates many principles of Japanese life, including a high value for simple, highly symbolic aesthetics. Directions for Ikebana are very precise, dictating which flowers and plant materials can be used, and when, and how they should be best arranged. The style of vase used is also very important, as are the general aesthetics of the room where the arrangement will be displayed.
To the Western eye, an Ikebana arrangement may seem very spare and plain. However, these arrangements encompass spiritual and aesthetic values which have been refined over centuries. Each branch, flower, twig, and leaf is carefully placed, with the practitioner thinking about how it will look in the overall arrangement as well as considering its individual symbolism. Color and form are very important considerations, with many flower arrangers going through large amounts of plant material in their search for the perfect composition.
Ikebana is also a very important part of the tea ceremony, and many formal Japanese homes include an Ikebana arrangement, along with seasonally appropriate scrolls and decorations. Highly refined practitioners may have devoted their lives to the study of Ikebana for several generations, with several modern schools incorporating free-form aesthetics and other break-away aspects of this very traditional and formal field of study.