You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.
I remember entering the tall glass building of the Ohara School of Ikebana in Tokyo’s Aoyama district for the first time. The smells from walking by the flower shop on the first floor and the neatly pre-ordered packages wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper and tied together with rice straw, a plant that seems to have snuck its way into the heart of all kinds of Japanese ceremonial traditions. One of the first bondage pictures I saw was of a woman tied with rice rope in the snow. Her silky red under-kimono and milky skin contrasted sharply with the harsh fibres and the icy cold. I take the elevator to the studio on the second floor. I am greeted by high ceilings, oversized windows and metal desks reminding me of elementary school, placed in front of a whiteboard. There is a prepared space for me with the pre-ordered flowers and a piece of printed paper with instructions in English. It looks deceivingly simple. The first technique is with two flowers.
Pick a container, then a primary flower two to three times the container’s width and a secondary flower one-third of the primary flower. Place the primary flower in the middle of the container and the secondary flower at 45 degrees towards the viewer. There is a pedagogical illustration of two lines at an angle with each other inside a circle. My teacher approached me carefully and asked if she might give me a perspective for inspiration. The secondary flower pulls the attention into the Ikebana, and the eyes will wander along to the primary bud, to the observer’s delight. Arranging the flowers in this way takes approximately three minutes. My teacher gently applauds me and looks enthusiastically at my arrangement. She says that perhaps you could twist and bend that branch so it gently spirals outwards, possibly removing one or two of the tiny leaves. I do it, and the whole scene changes and the flowers come to life in another light. Again applause. Then she asks if she can make another suggestion. Her hands quickly rearrange my flowers, and I feel so clumsy. Again another light, another scene. So many things that can’t be written on that piece of paper. Once done, I’m suggested to bring my flowers home to my tiny ten-tatami apartment two hours outside the Tokyo city centre so I can try again. So I do, and my neighbour, the older man who seems to love his cat and beer equally, remarks, “What beautiful flowers” when he passes my open kitchen window.
A few days later, I return to the glass building downtown—another collection of flowers wrapped in more newspaper and the same paper with the same instructions. I soon realise that I learn more from how my teacher greets me in the morning and brews tea than from her instructions about cutting leaves, shaping branches and picking flowers. There is a way of being, being taught, by being. In Japanese, it’s called Dō (道), or the way. The way things are being done. And I think this learning style contrasts harshly with the teaching culture I grew up with in Scandinavia. In Sweden, what matters is if the information makes sense if it can be validated, and how it comes from is much less relevant. In Japan, understanding who my teacher is matters because I might understand why a particular piece of information is appropriate at a specific time. Or even better, I might feel how it feels when it makes sense.
Over the next few weeks, I see other foreign students come and go. They are also greeted with the simple paper instructions and prepackaged flowers, and it fascinates me to watch how they approach the task. Some make an arrangement in fifteen minutes, snap a cellphone picture for Instagram and leave with a diploma for mastering the first technique of the Ohara School of Ikebana. Others comment that Ikebana is stupidly simple. At the same time, I watch my teacher and how she approaches different students. Some receive a perspective for inspiration, and some don’t. But everyone gets the diploma. I often contemplate the process of learning when I am teaching. What exactly is taught or even wished for by my students? Some people ask me to detail what exactly is going to happen. I get scared that if I answer in their preferred way, I will kill the magic of the forest by listing every botanical specimen therein. The naive part of me wants to simply say – trust me, I’m a careful gardener.