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Japanese Flower Art Helps Calm a Frantic Moscow

As Moscow watched the Soviet empire collapse around it in 1991, an expert in the ancient art of Ikebana flower arranging flew in from Japan.

For most of the 16 years since, Midori Yamada has taught Russians to search for harmony in the lines of branches, flowers and vases -- as attempted coups, and spectacular booms and busts played out on the streets outside.

"Our school is very strict, each flower has its laws," she said. "With constant work you finally learn them, but it is not the head that learns, but the heart," she said in a north-western Moscow apartment, transformed to feel like a little corner of Japan.

Yamada is one of dozens of masters sharing the ancient secrets of Ikebana with students seeking refuge from the frantic pace of the booming capital.

"The city drains your energy and this creativity revives you. It allows you to defend yourself, to become a normal person again," said Dina Gorodetskaya, 47, a student at a Moscow school. Popular when the pace of life was slower under the Soviet Union, the art is today taught by Yamada and her fellow teachers as an antidote to the frantic existence in the new capitalist Russia.

"It's an immense pleasure, it gives you energy," said biochemist Yulia Yarlykova, 40, a 10-year veteran of the art. Her teacher, Moscow native Olga Fomicheva, is equally wrapped up in the lines of composition.

"When the weather is very hot, it is vital to evoke an impression of freshness," she told a class in Moscow recently. "If your composition is too dense, it will not quiver." Back in 1991, Olga was a young researcher for the Soviet space programme, when she realized the upheavals shaking her country might endanger her job.

Inspired by Ikebana, her hobby at the time, she began to organize floral decorations for one of the first luxury hotels in the capital. Today she directs the Russian subsidiary of the Sogetsu school, which was founded in Japan in 1927 to free the art from its very strict rules, allowing the use of everyday objects: from nails to multicoloured coat buttons.

With a curriculum controlled from Tokyo, the school today boasts 200 pupils in Moscow. Olga also travels across Russia, where followers of the discipline are relatively young, often decorators keen to improve their skills. Her colleague from Japan -- Yamada Sensei as her students call her -- teaches the very traditional Ikenobo school. "One does not simply arrange a flower in Ikebana, it is absolutely necessary that there are branches and leaves," she explained.

Before coming to Moscow, Yamada spent years in Japan teaching the art of the teas ceremony, flower arrangement and painting -- before suddenly giving up on her harmonious life at 54 to learn Russian in Moscow.

"I began to think, 'I have such a calm life, it's not good. My brain is growing dull,'" she said. Arriving in late January 1991, she moved into a freezing hostel amid the food shortages of the dying days of the Soviet Union, which would cease to exist in December that year.

Invited by chance to teach Ikebana, already very popular in the Soviet Union through the support of the Japanese authorities, she jumped at the chance. Throughout the turmoil of the post-Soviet transformation, her life has remained dominated by the ancient arts. Most days she ends a class with a tea ceremony in a room that whisks its visitors to Japan with its simple decor and traditional Tatamis floor covering.

She leads the women, in light summer kimonos, in silence through each gesture of the ritual, filling her small corner of the Russian megalopolis with a perfect calm.


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