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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Flower arranging is a precise art in Japan.

In the West, anyone can throw together a bouquet of roses and carnations and call it a flower arrangement.

But in Japan, it takes thought, practice and instruction to master a time-honored tradition — called Ikebana.

“The best thing about Ikebana is you can take very, very simple flowers and make a beautiful arrangement,” said Katya Kotkin, a spouse at Yokota Air Base who has been studying Ikebana for three months.

Ikebana, which means “flowers kept alive,” took form when monks made flower offerings to Buddha. Some Japanese publications trace its origin to the sixth century, while others say it began as late as the 16th century.

The object of Ikebana is “to capture the natural beauty of the fields and hills — the various greens and colors of flowers and trees — to share this with others, especially long-awaited guests,” writes Houn Ohara in the book “Ikebana for Everybody.” First published in 1975, the book was revised a year ago into the first complete English presentation of the Ohara style of Ikebana forms and traditions.

Today there about 3,000 Ikebana schools in Japan, where 15 million people, mostly young women, practice it, according to the Web site Japan Zone(www.japan-zone.com).

Classes are available at most military bases in Japan. Ayako Yamakura has taught at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo for 25 years; she’s practiced Ikebana for 35 years, starting as a high school student.

“If I study flower arrangement every week, I have pretty flowers at home,” she said.

Yamakura is a “first master” at the Ohara School, one of Japan’s three main Ikebana schools, along with the Ikenobo and Sogetsu.

The schools practice different styles and take turns every day arranging flowers for display at the Emperor’s palace in Tokyo, she said.

There are six master ranks in Ikebana; masters are allowed to teach Ikebana students. It takes about 20 years to reach “first master,” the second-highest, expert level. Novices can acquire a beginner’s certificate in about three months.

Every Wednesday, Yamakura brings new materials for her Yokota students to arrange in a holder of their choice. Students begin with branches or twigs — sometimes green and leafy, sometimes stark and brown. Around them, they place several flowers — fewer than lavish Western bouquets — always paying heed to the angles and space between each piece.

“Some schools say the main stem represents heaven,” said student Machiko Kobayashi, a base employee who has studied with Yamakura for about six years. The first branch usually is the tallest in the arrangement.

Often, the flowers and branches form an irregular triangle or pyramid, Yamakura said. Other materials used are wood and rocks. The vase or container is considered an element of the arrangement, and not chosen for its beauty or simply to hold water.

Other differences exist between Ikebana and Western-style flower arranging. They include:

• Expression of art vs. decoration.

• Asymmetrical and three-dimensional vs. symmetrical and flat or round.

Students say what they enjoy most about Ikebana is its relaxing effect. As Yamakura said: “Arranging flowers gives you a calmer disposition.”

Added Kotkin: “After work I come to class, and I just relax.”

— Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

Ikebana classes

Mainland Japan

Atsugi: Mondays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., in Morale, Welfare and Recreation’s ceramics shop. The cost is $5 per 30-minute lesson. Materials are extra. For information call DSN 264-3574.

Iwakuni: Mondays, 1-3 p.m., and Thursdays, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Marine Corps Community Services Arts & Crafts. The classes require a 24-hour advance sign-up and cost $7 plus 850 yen for flowers.

Misawa: Tuesdays, three classes per month, 10 a.m.-noon at the Arts and Crafts Center. The cost is $40 for three classes. For information call DSN 226- 4452.

Sasebo: Thursdays, 10-11 a.m. at the Community and Education Center Fellowship Hall. The cost is approximately $10. Call DSN 252-3102 for information.

Yokosuka: Kofu-style: Wednesdays, four classes per month, 1-3 p.m., at the Community Center. The cost is $10 per class and 3,360 yen a month for supplies.

Sogetsu-style: Tuesdays, three classes per month, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1-3 p.m., at the Community Center. The cost is $10 per class and 2,500 yen a month for supplies.

For information call DSN 241-4110.

Yokota: Sogetsu-style: Saturdays, three lessons per month, 2-4 p.m., at the Skills Development Center. The cost is $10 per lesson and 1,000 yen per class for supplies.

Kodo-style: Fridays, 5-7 p.m., at the Skills Development Center. The cost is $12 per lesson and 1,000 yen for supplies.

Ohara-Rye style: Wednesdays, 5-7 p.m., at the Skills Development Center. The cost is $12 per lesson and 1,000 yen for supplies.

For information call DSN 225-7837 or 225-9044.

Zama: No Ikebana classes are available.

Okinawa

Kadena: Tuesdays, 5-7 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Kadena’s Arts and Crafts Center. Call DSN 634-1666 for details.

Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 9-11:30 a.m. at Kadena’s USO. Call DSN 633- 0438 for information.

Lester: Tuesdays, 4-6 p.m. at Lester’s USO. Call DSN 633- 0438 for details.

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