The custom of placing flowers on the altar began when Buddhism was introduced to Japan by way of emissaries to China in about 538.
The Rokkaku-dō temple in Kyoto is the site of the birth and earliest development of ikebana. The name Rokkaku refers to the hexagonal shape of the temple. Rokkaku-dō temple was founded by Prince Shōtoku in the 6th century to enshrine a Nyoirin Kannon Bosatsu, the Goddess of Mercy.
Near a pond (ike) where Prince Shōtoku bathed, a small hut (bō; priest's lodge, monk's living house attached to a Buddhist temple) was built and became the home of succeeding generations of Buddhist priests. This gave rise to the name Ikenobō. In the temple grounds, one stone is called Heso-ishi. It means "bellybutton stone". It is said that it was the foundation stone of the original temple. Because this temple existed before the transfer of the national capital to Kyoto in 794, it has been claimed to be the center of Kyoto.
In the Heian period (794-1192), apart from altar offerings, the practice of enjoying flowers displayed beautifully in a vase became popular. Poems, novels and essays from that time contain many passages that describe the appreciation of flowers used in this way.
Japanese people in the early 15th century tried to give wider meaning to placing flowers in a vase. An earlier attitude of passive appreciation developed into a more deeply considered approach. This approach forms the basis of ikebana.
According to a 15th-century manuscript, the two of the most popular flower arrangers of the time were Ikenobō master Senkei and Ryu-ami, a tea master. Unzen Taigyoku, a monk belonging to a Zen Monastery, first recorded the name Senkei in his journal called Hekizan Nichiroku. In an entry dated February 25 of the third year of the Kanshō era (1462), Unzen Taigyoku wrote, “at the invitation of Shunko, Senkei made a floral arrangement in a golden vase and denizens of Kyoto with refined tastes vied to see his work”. This written record marks the starting point for 550 years of recorded Ikebana history. Additional historical documentation of Senkei’s work includes only one entry, on October 2, in the Nekizan Nichiroku journal describing how Senkei is moved by the extraordinary beauty of chrysanthemums.
From the late Kamakura period to the Muromachi period (late 13th -16th century), flower arranging contests were held at the imperial court on the day of Tanabata (the festival of the star Vega, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month). These contests were called Tanabata-e . Aristocrats and monks vied with each other in demonstrating their skills, offering flowers in honor of the festival. The description in Hekizan Nichiroku (a diary of the monk Daikyoku, 15th century) of many people vying to see arrangements by Ikenobō Senkei is the first record of Ikenobō ikebana.
People in the early 16th century (the middle Muromachi period) tried to give deeper meaning to the thoughts accompanying flower arranging. In other words, they wished to arrange flowers (tateru, to arrange stems in an upright or standing manner), rather than casually placing them in a vase. An earlier attitude of passive appreciation developed into a more deeply considered approach.
The Ikenobo Institute refers to the name of the buildings that surround the Shiunzan Chohoji or Rokkakudo temple in Kyoto. Use of the family name Ikenobo was granted by the Emperor of the time. Succeeding generations of head priests of the temple used this name. The Rokkakudo has been popular from ancient times as a place for the worship of Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy). The townspeople of Kyoto used this temple as a place for gatherings, at which times flower arrangements were placed there.
Toward the end of the Muromachi period the earlier simple way of setting flowers in a vase developed into tatehana (tateru, standing; hana, flowers), a more complex style of ikebana. During this period the oldest extant manuscript of ikebana (Kao irai no Kadensho, 1486) and the famous manuscript about ikebana by Ikenobō Senno (Senno Kuden, 1542) were written. Senno, the founder of Ikenobō kado, originated ikebana that was imbued with meaning (kado or way of flowers). Previously, tatehana had more of a connection to the spiritual practice of Yorishiro.
The Azuchi-Momoyama period (late 16th century) brought a renaissance in ikebana as part of a Japanese cultural renaissance. Two Ikenobō masters named Senko I and II, completed the rikka (立花) style (also meaning standing flowers, but with more complexity than tatehana) and Ikenobō reached a high point of its early history. Paintings depicting the rikka of Senko II, a famous master of Ikenobō, are preserved at the Manshuin Temple (Kyoto), the Yomei-bunko library of the Ninnaji Temple (Kyoto), the Tokyo National Museum and the library of Ikenobō Headquarters (Kyoto). The arranging of rikka as a style with five main parts later developed into the modern standard seven part rikka (shin, soe, uke, mikoshi, nagashi, doe, hikai and maeoki) was established at this time.
After Senko II died, rikka gradually became more complex and mannered. The birth of the shoka style of ikebana brought new interest into the world of ikebana.
Nageire, a more informal style of arrangement, had been practiced even during the earlier period when rikka was developing. Nageire was a style of decoration for the zashiki, while rikka, the most formal style, was used for rites and ceremonies. The townspeople favored nageire, which presented the natural beauty of flowers without complicated rules.
In 1684, Toichiya Taemon, a merchant, wrote the Nageire Kadensho (How to arrange flowers in Nageire style), and in 1697, Kodai Shōka Zukan (Collected Paintings of Historic Shōka Works) by Ikenobō Sen'yo was published. Nageire influenced the development of early work in the shōka (生花) style. Shōka at this time was very simple. Only two main branches (or flowers), one of which was called in (negative) and the other yo (positive), were used in arranging the work. These would later develop into three main parts, called shin, soe and tai.
The shōka style developed over a long period, with many schools of ikebana other than Ikenobō appeared. Shōka was firmly established in Ikenobō Senjo's work Soka Hyakki (One Hundred Examples of Ikebana, 1820). He also edited Heika Yodo-shu, in which the traditional methods of rikka were described in detail.
In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Ikenobō Sensho set down the regulations of shofutai shōka, shofutai meaning orthodox or traditional style. Mannerism again began to appear. Efforts to break away from mannerism were not successful until the Taisho era (1912-1926). The styles of modern nageire and moribana and modern styles of shōka were the result. These styles were influenced by the importation of European culture, beginning during the Meiji Restoration (1868).
Shimputai, a new style of shoka, developed in 1977 by 45th generation Headmaster Ikenobō Sen'ei, presents a bright, modern feeling. Two main parts, shu and yo, respond to each other with contrasting yet harmonious qualities. A third part of the arrangement, ashirai, is often added as a finishing touch. Following a period of development of shimputai the new principals were also applied to Rikka and Rikka Shimputai has become popular in the twenty-first century.
Ikenobō headquarters stands adjacent to Rokkaku-do temple. It serves as a centre for communication, studies, and workshops for teachers and students, and serves as a coordination point for local chapters or those wishing to found a new one.