The Sensei from Sendai

This morning I had a ikebana exam at the civic center. I haven't written about taking the exams on the blog before but I've showed pictures on my Facebook page. Let me give you an idea of the whole process.

The Aomori chapter of the Ohara school has a test, exhibition or workshop every month. Every month you accumulate points just for paying your dues. These points allow you to gain higher levels of sensei. Tests also boost your points. You are "graded" on a scale from 100 to 80 by increments of 5. One hundred is very difficult to achieve. I've rarely seen judges award 100s. It's like the equivalent of perfection and flowers and students just aren't perfect. If you get an 80 you might as well have not showed up because you earn 80 points just by paying your dues. If you earn a 100 or 95 you receive a certificate with your name on it.

When you first get to the test you bow and say good morning to everyone you know. The tests are a very social experience. These ladies, especially all of my sensei's students see each other once a month at tests on top of three times a month for classes. You get to know them very well. My socializing is hampered a bit because I don't have good Japanese but the ladies all smile and say good morning and try to talk to me a little. You get to know who has enough English to talk to you really quick. Our sensei's are not allowed to come until after the test is over and is being judged so that they don't influence the judge.

You pick out your card and pay your dues at one table. Then you write your name and teacher down on a roster at another table. I have a notebook with a cheat sheet. They are always happy to see that I write the strokes for my kanji correctly. You pick up a ticket and then move on to the florist. You pay the florist based on what flowers you are using for the test. He give you a card. Then you move over to the woman that hands out flowers and she takes your card and pulls your flowers out of a bucket. They are all individually wrapped in news paper. Its luck of the draw when it comes to what condition your flowers are in. Sometimes they are smaller or a different color then what you practiced with. The skill of ikebana is knowing how to make materials work.

After this I go to my assigned seat in the testing room. I get some water for my flowers, set up my vase and then assess what flower becomes a subject or an object. Usually there's a little bit of panic because the flowers are crushed and "How in the world am I going to hide the kenzan? There are no leaves!"

This test I was in a bit of a panic because I was working with these curly dried willow sticks. They are held in a curl till they dry with a small nail. You need to remove the nail before you arrange them. During practice sensei actually broke one of mine because it was so dry and brittle. Before we started the test I dipped all the curly ends in water and let them soften. This turned out to be a great move because it allowed me to get the nails out. It still took a bit of care and some time but it was well worth it.

Even though I was able to get the nails out, I still never want to work with these dried willow things again. They are so difficult to stick in a kenzan and keep them from moving. As the willow moistens it bends and droops. Just as I would get it perfect it would drop down or twist to one side. I was paranoid that I would finally get it just right, leave the test, and it would fall apart before the judge saw it.

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The angle this picture is taken from is a little high. It's really the most beautiful when you are sitting right in front of it. I got a 95 on my arrangement and the judge said that it was very beautiful. I really love the strong greens and bold flowers in the summer.

You get an hour to finish your arrangement and then everyone goes out into the hall to wait for the judge. This month the judge seemed to take a while. This might also be because I was by myself in a corner. Usually, I talk more to people but I had a sinus infection that morphed into a wet cough. I was loosing my voice and sounding like death. Everyone was giving me a wide berth.

When we get called back into the testing room the people that scored 95 or 100 will have a that number on a little stand by their arrangement. It's almost like Christmas sometimes because I usually think  I've done poorly.

The judge this month did something very different. Usually the judge will give a bit of a speech and go over each arrangement saying what was good and bad. Certificates will be awarded to those that got 100s and 95s. Then the judge will go from arrangement to arrangement fixing flaws. Our judge this month just went about fixing the arrangements and talking to the student. Then we very hurriedly handed out certificates at the end.

I had no idea who this guy was but when I saw him arranging flowers I was so amazed. He was so masterful in the way that he handled the flowers. It was like he was rough with them, ripping them apart at a moments notice. He made decisions about where to cut or bend in a split second, then put it into the vase and it just magically fell into place. Decisions that would take me five minutes and several tries. He was so precise. So inspirational. To have that touch and confidence. It seems so simple but there are hundreds of materials we use and you have to treat them all differently, use them differently in different vases, different seasons. So much calculation and knowledge and he moved through it with such grace and naturalness.

I knew that he was someone important when all the senseis, including my sensei, were clapping or exclaiming over his placement of a flower. He is from Sendai and is very famous in the Ohara school. Hiroki Ohara is the headmaster of the Ohara school so he is the highest ranking sensei. Our judge this week is ranked number two in the entirety of the Ohara school, hundreds of thousands of people. It's just really cool that one of the rock stars of the Ohara school of ikebana told me that my arrangement is beautiful and didn't even need to fix it.

Here are some of the other arrangements that were at the test. I try to take a picture of one from each level or ones that really strike me as beautiful.