I Tried Ikebana Using Only My Powers of Imagination. Here’s What a 4th Generation Grand Master Had to Say.

I’m rarely spotted without at least one flower in my hair. I simply adore flowers. So, when Tokyo Challenge asked me to attempt ikebana — the Japanese art of flower arrangement — I can hardly say I was surprised. Their proposal, however, was a double-edged sword: it sounded both intensely fun and intensely frustrating.

As someone who wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until her early thirties, I had finally understood why contemplative, meditative activities had never really been my forte. I have given them a go — I even tried walking meditation as part of a previous challenge to stay healthy at home — but my brain is rarely calm, blank, or focussed on anything longer than about 30 seconds. 

Fortunately, the challenge did not involve my ability to achieve a higher mental state but rather to replicate a traditional motif from raw materials. All I needed was some focus and patience. How wrong could I go?

In the words of someone who had only known me for two days:

“There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Phoebe way to do something. What is the Phoebe way? The wrong way but faster.”

What Is Ikebana?

Ikebana, also known as kado (the “way of flowers”), is believed to date back to the 8th century, and is considered one of the three classical arts of refinement, along with kodo (the “way of fragrance”) and sado (the “way of tea”).

Ikebana reached its first peak in popularity in the 16th century as a more formal approach and rules were established. It continued to evolve into a variety of different styles and was mainly practised by men, until the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-1800s.

However, the opening of the country brought an influx of Western influences and an inevitable decline in some aspects of Japanese culture. As an effort to preserve these traditions, it was decided that tea ceremony and flower arrangement would become part of girls’ education — in particular, respectable ladies.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that ikebana began to garner international attention, and then the modern art movement of the ’70s saw practitioners adopt avant-garde approaches that allowed for more individual expression, and some outright whacky and creative designs.

The oldest style of ikebana is a classical style variant rikka, literally “standing flowers”, which originated from Buddhist floral offerings placed in vases, characterised by straight stems.

Japan’s indigenous religion of Shintoism heavily invoked concepts of animism, in which kami (or gods) were believed to be living in everything — and especially tall, straight trees. The central stem in rikka not only represented a kami dwelling but also a direct connection to heaven — a convenient ladder if you like — via which a kami could descend to earth.

My introduction to ikebana was through Ryusei-ha, a school headquartered in Ichigaya in central Tokyo. As a school, they continue tradition practising both the classical style variant seika, which is more relaxed than rikka, allowing for diagonal stems as opposed to only straight stems while maintaining a refined elegance.

However, they also embrace the evolution of ikebana through the more modern freestyle, and it was this that really caught my attention. The focus here is on “the aspects of plants”, which seeks to express the inherent vitality and beauty of plants through the arrangements.

In my understanding, this roughly translates to “how to make plants look as cool as possible.” Moreover, at Ryusei-ha, they place a unique emphasis on the expression of oneself through one’s art. Artwork should be produced through your feelings and sensibilities. 

The expression of individuality — was this my calling? I was about to find out.


Ikebana Challenge: Part 1

One week before visiting Ryusei-ha, a giant box was delivered to my doorstep. 

The contents: Several pine stems, a few chrysanthemums, a vase, a pair of shears, some thin wire, and a piece of wood.

My instructions:

Imagination Ikebana

  • You cannot Google, watch YouTube, or read books about ikebana.
  • You can use any tool in your home besides what’s included in the box.
  • Try to recreate the ikebana from the picture.

The instructions that I understood:


    • You cannot Google, watch YouTube, or read books about ikebana.
    • You can use any tool in your home besides what’s included in the box.
    • Try to recreate the ikebana from the picture. 

Feeling inspired, I decided to use all the flowers because… mottainai (the Japanese equivalent of “waste not, want not”). But none of the stems would stand up in the vase, which had a false bottom, making it very shallow.

I started hacking at the stems with the shears, before giving up and retrieving kitchen scissors to cut them shorter. I promptly lost the wire among the trimmings but found a highly useful elastic band. I threw away the random piece of wood.

Things were slowly coming together. Adding a personal touch, I tied a golden ribbon around the vase and my masterpiece was complete. I immediately sent a picture to Tokyo Challenge, unaware of my mistake.

It’s important to understand that Hiro, Tokyo Challenge’s editor, has kindly commissioned me for several articles and adventures in the past. We have even stayed in a converted school in the mountains with a cult-like drumming group. So, I think it would be fair to say he is fairly used to my “unique” approach to things.



I had no choice but to try again with what remained of my plants. But there was one major problem: how on earth were the stems supposed to stand upright?

They say that the best ideas come to people when they’re in the shower. So there I was, despondently contemplating the dilemma when I spied the solution. It was literally in plain sight.

I rushed back into my room, eager to continue my project, snipping, tweaking, and bending, and praying that I wouldn’t snap anything. Before too long, I had an image of respectability… if you looked from the front.

I then spied the side shot and promptly gave up.

Fast forward one week, and I was now sitting in front of Yoshimura Kashu, fourth-generation master of Ryusei-ha. I was feeling slightly nervous. He had seen my first attempt, he told me. It was an example of nageirebana, “thrown in flowers.” I didn’t know if I should feel smug about the fact that my “approach” actually had a name.

I can feel Phoebe-san’s originality,” he said, kindly.

However, it was time for the big reveal of my more serious attempt. Kashu glanced at the picture and seemed mildly impressed. The stems are standing up, he remarked in surprise.

“Let me tell you a secret,” I said conspiratorially. “Body sponge.”

I had grabbed a white rectangular body sponge that you sometimes get free in business hotels in Japan. It was the perfect fit for the ikebana vase diameter.

Yoshimura laughed. “Nice idea desu!” 


Ikebana Challenge: Part 2

Now it was time to watch Kashu in action as he recreated the artwork as it should be. 

First of all, he produced a “random piece of wood.” This “piece of rubbish” that I had so casually discarded was integral to supporting the stems. He deftly sliced it and folded it in half, binding the bend with wire. This triangular peg would be the wedge into which the stems were inserted. 

Next, he set about selecting the most appropriate stems for the piece. This is where individuality comes into play. A stem with more upward-pointing branches might seem best suited for reaching up to heaven, but someone else might choose a stem with a broader, heavier top. Ultimately, the artwork relies on your personal taste or even your feelings at the moment.

“Today, my current self feels like this one is the perfect shin,” said Kashu, carefully laying out the stem that was to become the central piece. 

“Tomorrow’s self might be different.”

In seemingly no time at all, the pieces were slotted, assembled, taken out, and reassembled as more stems were added swiftly to the arrangement. 

However, my challenge was not yet over. I had to remove all the stems and replace them in the same arrangement. It sounded too simple, so I pulled the branches out and mixed them up to make it a bit more difficult.

I am clearly not the longest stem in the bunch. It was hellish trying to figure out which was which. Finally, I mastered the bio-Tetris and got all the stems standing up, but they splayed out in distinctly inelegant directions.

After readjustment and tweaking, the wooden peg gave a groan of protest and loosened its grip, releasing the entire arrangement, which collapsed like a tragic house of cards.

“I find it hard to watch,” Kashu confessed to Hiro. “It’s like we’re mocking her.”

Although I didn’t realise at the time, Hiro had asked Kashu to pick an arrangement that is normally attempted and mastered after a casual four years of practice. I had been set up to fail.

I threw in the towel, and Kashu kindly showed me how the pieces needed to be inserted in order, with the stems aligned flushly at the base.

Before long, he had the entire artwork back together, ready for display and resplendently elegant.

Be Your Best (Floral) Self

Selecting the stems, examining each individual leaf pattern, and admiring the artwork from differing angles, I found myself unexpectedly captivated by ikebana. Even the classical, more formal style of seika allowed for the expression of individuality, but I longed to also try the freestyle, and let my imagination and creativity run amok.

“Freestyle requires a huge amount of mental energy,” said Kashu. “You have to think a lot and weigh ideas in your head… How is this? Has someone already done that? What should I do? How should I do it? It’s a world of worries.”

But, with seika, for a little while, you don’t have to worry. You can do a predetermined form and forget everything. Even without worrying about things, you can make something impressive.”

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t at that skill level yet, but I truly saw the appeal. Even my busy, chaotic mind might find a moment of peace.

However, perhaps my greatest creative moment of the day was breaking away from seika and maybe even breaking away from freestyle. With the help of Kashu, I established Phoebe-style, which I personally think takes ikebana to levels not thought humanly possible.

With many thanks to Grand Master Yoshimura Kashu and Ryusei-ha.

Photo Credit: @Ryuseiha and @Megumi Yoshida
in collaboration with Wakokoro

AUTHOR: Phoebe Amoroso

Phoebe Amoroso

Twitter: @pheebzeatz
Instagram : @pheebzeatz

Phoebe Amoroso is a Tokyo-based multimedia journalist with a focus on food, culture and human stories. Always on an adventure, she is prepared to travel several hours for a good meal and believes life is way too short to eat bad food.



Ikebana Experience with Ryusei-ha

Interested in trying Ryusei-ha style Ikebana experience?. *Can be taken with English as well. In the experience, you will learn the basic flower pattern at the headquarter of Ryusei-ha. The instructor cannot be chosen.

  • Location: Ryuusei Kaikan (nearest stations: Ichigaya and Iidabashi)
  • Cost: 2,600+ yen (including flower materials). All the necessary tools such as flower vases, kenzan and flower scissors will be provided.
  • If you would like to participate in the class, please contact the Ryusei Kaikan info(at)ryuseiha.net with the following information: 
  1. Your Name
  2. Phone number
  3. Email
  4. Preferred date and time (at least 3 options) *Please contact us at least one week or prior, 
  5. Need English support or not


Event Information: Ikebana Ryusei Exhibition: The Aspects of Plants 2020

Around 120 works (including a large work) Presented by Ryusei-ha grandmaster Yoshimura Kashu & Ryusei-ha Headquarters will be presented.

  • Date: November 22 (Sunday) and 23 (Monday, Holiday), 2020
  • Location: Shibuya Stream Hall Shibuya Station Exit C2,
    3-21-3 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0002, Japan
  • Open 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
    *Entrance allowed until 30 minutes before closing time
  • Entrance fee 1,500 yen (free for high school students and younger) 
  • *Day tickets only
  • *Please wear a mask, and cooperate in sanitizing your hands and checking temperature for COVID-19 prevention.
  • *We may restrict the number of entrance depending on the number of people at the venue. If so, numbered tickets will be issued.
  • Official website: (https://www.shibu-ike.com/)
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