Ikebana teacher continues parents’ commitment to sharing the art

THE ART OF IKEBANA — Julie Nakatani's student Louise Owling, creates her own ikebana arrangement in Nakatani’s class at the Buchanan YMCA. photo by Noriko Shiota Slusser/Nichi Bei Weekly

On a Saturday afternoon, in a classroom on the second floor of the Buchanan YMCA, a small group of women are contemplating flowers. Their teacher, Julie Nakatani, circulates among them, advising in English and Japanese and offering additions from two huge white buckets of flowers and a giant pile of quince branches. “Make it look towards the sun,” she says, adjusting a small flower slightly upwards. “Tameru,” she adds. “Tameru means to bend and shape. Sometimes you can, and sometimes they break.”

Nakatani learned the art of ikebana (flower arrangement) from her parents, who used to teach the class. After her father, Susumu Saiki, a major Bay Area proponent of Japanese arts and culture, passed away, her mother continued to instruct the same class.

When her mother Kinsui was no longer able to continue, the students had no desire to quit practicing the art, and Nakatani assumed the role of teacher.

Nakatani, who lives in Cupertino, Calif., teaches ikebana to students in her home city as well as in San Francisco and Marin. “Even though I have a busy work schedule, it gives me focus and I forget everything else,” she said, “It’s like therapy.”

But she worries about the future of the study in the Bay Area. “Our Ikenobo membership is getting fewer and fewer,” Nakatani said. “I think that young people are focused on other activities and culture is secondary.”

D’Arcy Sarnelle, 25, who lived in Fukui Prefecture on Honshu for two years as an English teacher and studied ikebana for a year, is attending Nakatani’s class for the first time. She said that she understands why young people might not be naturally drawn to the art. “It might be a little difficult to get into this art because people of our generation don’t know that it’s out there. Because I was lucky enough to study it in Japan, I knew to look for it.” She added that young people are accustomed to getting information from the Internet and social media, which might not lead them to a traditional art. “There’s probably not an ikebana Twitter,” she said.

“I did an Internet search, but I didn’t find much. I had to dig deeper and make phone calls. Our generation is used to finding something at the touch of a button, so they might not dig for it.”

Louise Owling, another student who said she has been studying ikebana for about 20 years and teaches classes of her own, also worries about it continuing. “It’s almost like a dying art,” she said. “Our society is such that we don’t give aesthetics enough appreciation. Ikebana really enriches your life and it gives you a different perspective. You see nature and its beauty. Even though the elements are disparate, in the end all the elements are in harmony.”

Owling has studied at the YMCA since Nakatani’s parents taught there, and said she remembers their dedication. “Mr. and Mrs. Saiki were strong proponents of ikebana. They went out of their way to promote their art. He made a lot of sacrifices.”

Now those sacrifices continue with Nakatani. She said that she gets up every Friday at 3:30 a.m. to go to the flower market before going to work. There is also the money. “I used to spend $100 a week,” she said. “Now I spend $300 a week on flowers. I want to have the fresh, most unique flowers.” Sometimes, she said, she wonders why she continues.

But she has her reasons. “It’s the satisfaction of someone finishing their work and going, ‘Oh, I love it!’” she said. And she said it’s also important to continue the legacy of her parents. “They were so involved in the community and the culture,” she said. “I can’t give it up.”

New students are welcome, and Nakatani offers individualized instruction to each participant. The fee for the class is $17 for Shoka and Freestyle (recommended for beginners) and $22 for Rikka, a more complex style.

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