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Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. 'Ike' means 'living' and 'bana' means 'flower' so the idea behind this type of floral arranging is to create a three dimensional art form that surpasses real life. Ikebana is also known as Kado, 'the way of flowers' and is one of the traditional Japanese arts.

One of the main focuses of modern ikebana is that of heaven, humans and earth where the three areas are portrayed through branches, flowers and other natural items. While beautiful flowers are often used, the overall shape or structure of the display is more important than the fact that there are blossoms.

The art of ikebana is usually studied for between 3 and 5 years to allow time to master the technical and spiritual forms which can be incorporated. Some of the most common ways of arranging are rikka (standing flowers), seika or shoka (living flowers), and nageire (flung flowers) which are used when making arrangements in bowl-shaped vases. Another is moribana (piled-up flowers) which is used when arranging in dish-like containers.

The contents
As well as flowers, ikebana can incorporate leaves, branches, buds, moss and many other objects from nature. Whether living or dead, blooming or budding, an arrangement may consist of one item or many. The items used depend on the dish in which they are to be placed, the surroundings and the season. Evergreen pine symbolises eternity and is traditionally accompanied by bamboo for youthful flexibility, and blossoming apricot branches, for venerable old age. This combination of three is common at New Year. Peach branches are for girls and Japanese irises, symbolising male strength, are for boys.

Unlike Western floral arranging, which tends to use large quantities of flowers closely packed, ikebana focuses on spacing, balance and structure to display the materials chosen to their best advantage and is more often than not asymmetrical to suggest movement and growth.

The arrangement
Once selected, the items are positioned and fastened into a formation that best displays their harmony and elegance using special tools. This should not be an imitation of nature, which could only be an inadequate one, but rather should try to transcend the natural form's beauty through the construction and inclusion of elements that would otherwise not occur. This careful arranging is aided with the use of a heavy, spiked stand into which the flowers are often carefully pushed to be held at an unusual angle. The base of the display should also form a part of the whole arrangement whether this is a ceramic pot, dish, or glass or bamboo jar.

The history
Ikebana has been a prominent art form in Japan for over seven centuries and originated from the 6th century Buddhist traditions of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead. Early offerings were simple stems but, towards the 17th century, the arrangement had become an ornate selection in a tall bronze vase. The main, asymmetrical branch symbolised heaven while the remainder of the items formed a universe. The main characteristics of asymmetry, symbolism and spatial depth exerted a strong influence on later ikebana thinking.

While early teachers and practitioners were priests and the nobility, the art had reached general Japanese society by the 17th century. Because of its spiritual beginnings, ikebana was often been used as a form of meditation on the seasons and time, especially of birth, growth and death. It was during this time that the 'three' form became common through the shape of a scalene triangle representing heaven, earth and human beings.

Where can you see ikebana?
Ikebana is often placed in the 'tokonoma' or special alcove in Japanese receiving or guest rooms although many houses or companies have ikebana displayed in their entrances and shop windows. This three-dimensional work of art is still valued as it was many years ago and annual competitions and world-wide interest ensure that this will continue.