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Chefs who specialize in traditional Japanese cuisine known as washoku are often multi-talented. It’s traditional for them to not only master their craft in the kitchen but also specialize in the arts of the tea ceremony, ice-carving, flower arranging, and calligraphy. “It’s all about honing in an aesthetic that’s both unique and at the same time follows all of the rules,” says Cizuka Seki, who co-owns Izakaya Seki with her father.
When the Japanese restaurant marked by a red lantern opened off U Street NW in 2012, Hiroshi Seki suggested his daughter practice Japanese flower arranging known as ikebana.
“He wanted me to do it because it informs the way I plate sashimi,” Cizuka says. “When you cut different pieces of fish, they have directions. They have a natural form depending on the cut of the fillet, the type of fish, whether you’re supposed to cut them in squares or at angles.” The colors of the fish and the garnishes are important too. “All that needs to be just so,” she says.
The Japanese love rules. They govern everything from social behavior to decoration and ikebana is no different. “It does follow some rules as most Japanese crafts do,” Cizuka says. “Rigid, no bullshit rules.” Ikebana has ties to Zen Buddhism and there are various schools within ikebana. Cizuka practices Ikenobo, the oldest and largest school that has many sub-schools within it.
“The various components follow certain meanings that tie in with the natural world and humanity,” Cizuka explains. “The philosophy that ties humans and plants and all of the seasons together is supposed to reflected in this one arrangement.”
Unlike American flower arranging, which favors blossoms, ikebana utilizes all of the parts of a plant, including branches and leaves. “All these other components of plants are equally important and they’re supposed to balance everything out in just the right way,” Cizuka says. “Everything is supposed to have balance, contrast, and depth … It’s supposed to look natural and not forced.”
Almost every week Cizuka swings by a flower wholesaler or pops into a local flower shop looking for materials for her next arrangement. (She documents them on Instagram.) They’re displayed in the windowsill on the restaurant’s second floor. “I have books that provide suggestions for various seasons, things to look out for and use that are appropriate,” she says. “But sometimes I can’t find them here, so I make do. That’s why sometimes I take a walk and clip stuff.”
Ikebana utilizes what’s known as a kenzan, a spiky circle or square that looks part hedgehog, part pin cushion. Ikebana practitioners jab stalks, stems, and branches into it, making it possible to create a piece of living art with twists and angles that carry meaning. “You arrange things according to the movement of the leaves,” Cizuka explains, noting that plants have a front-facing and back-facing side depending on how they reach for the sun.
When Cizuka feels like she’s losing touch with the rules, she checks in with her teacher in Virginia. “She’s always correcting what I do,” she says. “She tweaks it and it looks infinitely better.”
Like most Japanese crafts, practitioners work their way up a ladder towards mastery earning diplomas or certifications along the way. “I’m no where near mastering it,” Cizuka says. It’s part of the reason she hesitates to teach others. “It’s nice to have some foundation of being able to do something other than just sticking flowers in a vase,” she says.
Those interested in learning more about Ikebana can take classes at the Japan-America Society of Washington DC. They’re offered the first and third Tuesday of every month and cost $65 for nonmembers.
Izakaya Seki, 1117 V St. NW; sekidc.com