In my ongoing pursuit of the Japanese arts, I finally got to try out ikebana: flower arranging. You might have guessed from my onslaught of flower viewing posts last spring that I like flowers, but I’ve never done ikebana, save the one time Tea-sensei received some difficult to use by very pretty wild flowers, and let me have a go at trying to arrange them. She always reinforces that in tea (or at least the omotesenke school), you always try to arrange the flowers like how they’d appear in nature. Not so for the Sogetsu school of flower arranging, though it was Tea-sensei who introduced me to Flower-sensei.

The sogetsu school makes arrangements based on three major supporting elements which, for beginners, are at certain points and angles and lengths. There is lots of flexibility as you go on, though. I brought along my partner in the arts Tanya, my Russian CIR friend, but it turns out she’s already studied sogetsu before and was way ahead of me! I started by trying to keep it as close to as Flower-sensei instructed me.

When using a wide, open bowl, you stick the stems on a spiked tool called a kenzan.

Sometimes you have to be a little forceful when stabbing flower stems.

Flower-sensei prepared two types of flowers for us to work with: beniaoi and snapdragons.

Beniaoi (紅葵) is a mallow plant. I couldn’t find any Flower Language associated with it.

I finally see why these are called snapdragons in English! However, in Japanese, they are kingyosou, literally “goldfish grass” (金魚草). It can signify a range of meanings, such as a pure heart, foresight, shamelessness, an intrusive person, or “if I had to guess, the answer is NO.”

To my disappointment, Hanakotoba (Flower Language) is pretty much ignored in both sogetsu and in omotesenke. That makes sense because Japan didn’t start obsessing with this until receiving Victorian England’s flower language influence, and most people don’t really know trivial stuff like this. It’s still used a lot in manga and anime, though, and as a fan of shoujo manga I enjoy the extra level of meaning they can add when plastered all over a page. Too bad we can’t all walk around with giant flowers floating behind us to express our feelings sometimes.

Following the most basic guidelines of sogetsu, I completed my first creation!

Meanwhile, Tanya had already completed a piece according to the instructions, and had begun showing off.

So I got a little more creative with mine too, albeit still rather conservative.

Yes, I purposely placed those fallen snap dragons, there! It evokes a sense of impermanence, or something artsy like that. Flower-sensei dusted them out of the way to take her own picture, though. Tanya was more creative and used a fallen snapdragon as a hat for a beniaoi pod.

I appreciate all of my sensei’s patience with me as I try out various art forms, and Flower-sensei was no exception. After finishing up with the flowers, we just hung out in the studio to chat, and as is typical in Japanese hospitality, there was tea and snacks. I was just really surprised by one of them–I’ve seen sugary dried fruits as treats before, but I had never seen bitter melon in a sweet, dried form! I hate this bumpy and appropriately named produce, but I love sweets, so I was more than happy to try it.

Nope. Still bitter. But it was worth a shot.

A few weeks after this delightful little taiken (a very handy word for just “trying it out” and “getting the experience”), I visited Matsue’s industrial high school. At these kinds of trade schools, many students pick up applicable labor or business skills to go straight into job searching as opposed to university, though some go on to enter university programs in architecture or engineering or the like. I had visited them last year as well to listen to their senior project presentations and have a discussion with them, but this year we switched things up a bit by attending their research classes with them a couple times before hearing about their final projects (it was fun to spent more time getting to know them this year!).

One group of students was working on some kind of concrete that can sustain plant life. Or is it cement? I have to confess I know very little about this, though thanks to a college roommate’s very enthusiastic lecture she once gave me on the concrete/cement she made, I at least know there’s a lot of thought that goes into it getting the right combination of ingredients. As part of the ingredients, the students were using ashes from shijimi clam shells (seeing as Lake Shinji is famous for abundant shijimi) and sawdust, and after making the concrete/cement soaked them in water, and then did water tests to see how well they could support life. Unfortunately, not as always as well as they hoped.

Once they had something that wasn’t going to be toxic, they tried out raising different kinds of plants on it. Little seedlings had trouble taking root and didn’t last long, but the moss did alright. The day I joined them, they were doing an ikebana experiment: how well can the concrete/cement support cut flowers?

We collected clippings around the campus, then drilled little holes in the soft concrete/cement to stick our flowers in. There were no rules to abide by, but with sogestu fresh in my mind, I used some of that for inspiration.

The students trusted their instincts instead:

Some flowers wilted within a couple weeks, but others were still doing well a good six weeks later! Sogetsu only started in 1927, so I wonder if concrete ikebana will catch on and be a new style? Or if it’s already being done…?