Ikebana artist Toru Watarai on reverence for nature and knowing contentment

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. There is a deeper philosophy and history behind this art form than merely putting pretty flowers together. SAINE speaks to Toru Watarai, founder of ikebana school Tumbler & FLOWERS based in Kamakura, Japan. He shares with us his interpretation of ikebana, what inspired his journey and knowing contentment. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What got you started on Tumbler & FLOWERS?

In my early 20s, I was making bamboo vases as a hobby. From this experience, I became interested in Ikebana and started learning Ikebana in 2002 at the Ohara School of Ikebana in Tokyo. I studied Ikebana with them for 2 years and then another 17 years with my current teacher. I still go to her class once a month.

I was involved in fashion magazines as an editor and writer for almost 10 years until 2012. I was involved in planning, interviewing, directing the scene, and sometimes even collecting and styling the products myself. My field of work is not limited to fashion, but also includes design, food, and interior design. I have the impression that the barriers between fashion and other fields have been broken down. At the time, I was very much aware that fashion was not something special to me, but an aspect of my life.

The reason for my change in job was the combination of having a child and a change in the editorial structure. The first thing I thought about was how to spend time with my kids. I also wanted to share the appeal of Ikebana with people in the fashion industry, those involved in magazine production, and many others, and the way of thinking that I learned in Ikebana was very useful on set and in magazine composition.

These experiences helped to form my Ikebana style. I closed my Shibuya studio in 2018 and moved to Kamakura last year.

Ikebana is the Japanese form of flower arrangement. In your opinion, how is ikebana different from the conventional flower arrangement?

I think a lot of this is due to the underlying philosophy and the view of nature that the Japanese people have developed. The Japanese are agricultural people, and our lives have been closely related to “nature”. Sunlight and heavy rain affect the quality of crops. It can also cause natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons. However, spring buds, autumn fruits and harvests enrich our lives. Such reverence for nature is the roots of Japanese people.

Also, we Japanese think that God would dwell in everything. The large mountains, forests, rocks, etc. were considered to be god’s residence and were the object of worship. So we want to bring the gods into the house and try to bring back the nature where the gods live. For example, we want to bring tokiwagi, an evergreen tree which leaves lush leaves all year round without falling leaves, back home and decorate it as a symbol of nature where the gods Iive.

It is this realization of a sense of reverence and gratitude for nature. It is no coincidence that the appearance of prayer is included in one of the origins of Ikebana. As a result, just by inserting a single flower, you can already feel the vastness of the universe.

You seek to give ikebana a modern interpretation. How have you done that and where do you get your inspiration from?

Ikebana has been handed down through the ages. The “truths” that should be passed on need to be changed in accordance with the times. I don’t know if that can be called evolution. I believe that ikebana out of the alcove has become more meaningful as an interior decoration. That is why I’m exploring to make them more appropriate to the current living environment. Whether it’s good or bad, the house we live in is not the same as it was 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.
My inspiration is from the plant itself. I get a lot from art, but if I go into the mountains and walk in the woods, the trees teach me a lot of things. For example, rhythm. The inflection that the trees create, the way the branches and leaves spread, the way the flowers bloom. Leaf swaying. A decaying dead tree. Sprouting. The sound of rain and the babbling of a river. The season of rotation. All the small accumulations of nature, where no two things are the same, are the source of my ideas.

Do you use flower arrangement to bring out Japanese culture and heritage? Could you share a little bit more about how you do that?

I am not aware of any particular desire to express it. However, the appearance of plants has evolved in a variety of ways, adapting to the surrounding environment. It is a memory of the land, so to speak. Cultures and traditions are similarly nurtured by the Japanese climate and environment. For this reason, I believe that the appearance of my flowers and the feelings that people have when they see my Ikebana naturally reflect the Japanese culture and way of thinking.

You talk quite a bit about Wabi Sabi on your instagram. How does Wabi Sabi influence the way you lead your life?

Wabi-sabi probably includes the concept of time. Something that has existed, be it physical or conceptual, has fallen away. To use an analogy, there used to be people living there, but now it is abandoned and derelict, only a hint of what people might have spent their time in. Wabi-sabi is about accepting that. I learn to feel the flow of time from the lands and the things around. Human life is a gift of imagination, just like ikebana. 

Is there an age-old Asian beauty or wellness tip that you got from your parents or an older person?

Well, I wonder. The tip I have is a common thing but it is about living without stress. You don’t have to be so uptight about living your life the way you want to. It’s not good to be too much for someone else. In the end, stress is the root of all diseases. And exercise in moderation.

Is there a quote or life motto that you live by?

“Knowing contentment”. It is all about not taking too much and knowing what’s enough. Don’t be greedy. The right amount of what I need. I also think it’s about putting the axis of judgment as far away from me as possible, as close to nature as possible.

Lastly, what’s the future plans for Tumbler & FLOWERS?

I believe that ikebana can be a bit of a tip for the state of the world after COVID-19.

That’s why I want to convey the appeal of ikebana in a multifaceted way, just as I have done in the past. Not only to Japan, but to the world. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to reach out to places I couldn’t reach on my own. 

Check out Toru’s works on IG @watarai_ikebana. 

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