Like bonsai, ikebana is an art of arranging plants and flowers that has long been practiced in Japan. Filipino ikebana enthusiasts say it is “an ancient and highly creative art of flower arrangement that dates back to the 13th century.”
Ikebana was used as a floral offering in religious temples. At the time, this creative art had been nameless, and it would take another 600 years before it would be acknowledged as “an expression of art” and finally christened ikebana. Not long after, several schools that taught this art were established in Japan. Each one invented its own rules, style and characteristics.
Among these schools is the ikenobo, which teaches both the traditional (rikka) and modern (freestyle or jiyuka) way of creating an ikebana arrangement. To arrange a group of flowers and plants in the ikenobo style is to capture a certain look.
This type of arrangement is seldom more than three feet tall. Yet it looks taller, because ikenobo arrangers often use plants like ferns with branches that stretch out.
In ikenobo, plants are arranged, cut and given a new purpose—which is to help create a new form that would exist in a different environment. This new environment is usually indoors, or in a place other than the plant’s natural habitat.
“The traditional ikenobo arrangement depicts a community,” says the prolific ikenobo professor Serapion Metilla. “Each plant and flower chosen to be a part of this ‘community’ would represent a certain area or member of that community. The tallest plant would depict the head or queen. Other plants can represent the other members of the community located in the lower portion of the ikenobo.”
Most of Metilla’s students would choose to create a jiyuka, or freestyle arrangement, which is less complicated and requires the use of less plants. They are not constricted by the rules of rikka, giving them the freedom to express any kind of emotion they want.
The ikenobo, whether it is done the traditional or freestyle way, would normally resemble the graceful form of a ballerina doing an arabesque. Or perhaps the prominent profile of a flapper, a fashionable party girl of the 1920s, lazing on a chaise longue with her head and back nonchalantly arched. Her arm would be outstretched toward the rear, a long cigarette holder on her other hand.
Ikenobo hobbyists in the Philippines are bolder in describing their arrangements. “It’s all about creating something very sexy with the plants you choose,” says Dr. Romeo Balderrama.
Plants such as ferns with long branches, for instance, can be used to signify the outstretched arms of a stylish lady. It can be both graceful and erotic.
Balderrama is among the growing number of Filipinos who have become bona fide ikenobo enthusiasts. He is a member of Ikenobo Ikebana Society of Manila No. 67, which was founded in 1983. He says it’s just among the several ikebana societies throughout the Philippines.
Members of the society gather at Quezon Memorial Circle in Quezon City every fourth Tuesday of the month to attend workshops or plan future activities, such as exhibits and educational trips to ikenobo schools in Japan. Workshops are usually conducted by professor Metilla, but every member of good standing is encouraged to have a turn as well.
Members come from all walks of life—professionals, housewives, teachers and society figures dominate the list. But one thing they have in common is they all happen to be garden and plant aficionados. The society’s incumbent president is Dr. Lupe Lazaro, who tends to get slightly annoyed whenever anyone is surprised to learn that a medical doctor like herself would indulge in such a hobby.
“Doctors are artists,” she explains. “We use our hands to perform surgery, which is an art form. I myself got into ikenobo because it taught me how to make use of some of the plants I have in my garden. I often choose to create a freestyle ikenobo because I can use just about any plant in my garden for this. Who could have known that a normally overlooked and ordinary plant can be given a new purpose to create something beautiful?”
Lazaro notes that ikenobo normally consists of plants that thrive in the northern hemisphere. “We can’t use the same plants they use in Japan, but there are several local plants that can be used as substitutes.”
Plants and flowers often used for local ikenobo arrangements include ferns, santan, Doña Aurora, heliconia, and others that are relatively easy to grow.
Another member and former president is Linda Limpe, whose family owns Destileria Limtuaco. She says she got involved with ikenobo after all her children had grown up and started having families of their own. “I’ve finished raising them, so I now have the time to indulge in this hobby. I’m not about to spend all my time babysitting my grandchildren,” she says, laughing.
One of the founders and a former president of the society is Joyce Kato. Her husband is Japanese, and for several years she lived in Japan, where she found time to attend an ikenobo school. When she and her family returned to Manila for good, she met with a fellow ikenobo student and formed a study group, which eventually led to the establishment of this society.
Aside from holding seminars, members attend workshops in Japan at least once a year. “We attend these workshops to undergo further training,” says Balderrama, whose wife, Dr. Norie Balderrama, is also a member. “We are trained to teach this art form to others.”
To become a professor of ikenobo, a student must complete certain workshops that would lead to a promotion of sorts, says Romeo Balderrama. There are 15 levels to pass, and the 15th is perhaps ikenobo’s equivalent of a karate black belt.
“So far, professor Metilla is the only Filipino to have reached the 14th level, which is high enough to earn the title of professor,” he says.
The society’s members often marvel at the professor’s skill in creating ikenobo arrangements. At age 86, Metilla is still sharp and strong enough to give lectures or hold workshops not just on ikenobo arrangements, but also on bonsai and other types of Japanese floral arrangements.
“The professor is very particular with the details,” says Limpe. “We often choose to create freestyle arrangements, and he would approach us to check out our work. He would criticize it and suggest something different in the details. And before you know it, he has created something completely different, more complex and really beautiful.”
Future activities of the society include an exhibit at Tagaytay Highlands, scheduled at the end of May. The exhibits are major events, and are usually supported by the Japanese embassy and attended by ikenobo professors from Japan.
An ikenobo showcase is as grand an affair as it is brief. “Our exhibits seldom exceed three days,” says Limpe, “because the plants and flowers lose their freshness.”
They may have come from different backgrounds, but the members have become old friends because they share a passion. They are all at once classmates, fellow teachers, travel buddies and fellow artists. They also share in a belief that the beauty of the ikenobo has a purpose, which is “to serve as a way of drawing the world’s humanity together in prayer for peace and unity.”