From the Outside In

From the Outside In
A foraging florist

Each time we make a turn I scan for landmarks and scribble down notes, a tree here, a fencepost there, the house on the corner with a dog in the yard. I already know that I want to make this drive again, that I want to get to know this route that Yoko takes to gather wild branches and flowers. But I also know that I’m destined to get lost if I do. 

Yoko drives with one hand on the wheel and her head out the window scanning the passing flora. Having traveled these roads for years, she knows just what to look for in this third week of April. Spring is reaching towards its peak. The mountain wisteria is blooming. Most are impossibly out of reach, climbing high above us up and over the canopy of trees, but Yoko’s trained eyes spot a cluster on a nearby embankment. She pulls over, grabs her shears from the dash, and alights from the car on a mission. Jumping and tugging ensues, and she comes up with a length of vine with several violet blossoms. 

Peeling back the bark at the clipped end, she swirls it around in a small bottle of sake. Talking me through each of her actions I quickly realize that Yoko holds a wealth of fascinating tidbits like this. Wisteria like a little sake in their water, branches of a certain size should be cut in half or quarters lengthwise at the base to better drink. Smaller woody stems can do with a bit of pummeling between the brunt end of her shears and the pavement before adding them to a bucket of water.

In the back of her car are several such buckets, a few chilled by freezer packs. Still more empty buckets stand in reserve to be filled from the mountain stream if needed. Over the course of our drive, her small vehicle is transformed into a terrarium on wheels, a microcosm of the very mountain scape we are traversing.

It feels like a relaxed drive on a sunny day, an escape into the mountains on the hunt for flowering beauties, but this is all work for Yoko. As the full time florist for Yoyokaku, an esteemed traditional inn in Western Japan, she is responsible for a constant rotation of multiple flower arrangements in each of the 20 rooms as well as the large and small vases that decorate the entrance, hallways, and dining rooms. Every arrangement must mirror the seasonal moment of the day and reflect the natural surroundings. To this end, Yoko forages flowers from mountain roads and occasionally visits a willing friend’s garden to collect her materials. 

She tells me that there aren’t as many options as there used to be. The mountains are not as wild as they once were. Undergrowth has been cleared away, hillsides carved back and reinforced with wire mesh or concrete to prevent landslides. Many great plants are now too deep in the woods or too high to reach. 

Back at Yoyokakau, Yoko unloads her collection into a room stacked to the brim with vases of all sizes. The room feels fresh and bright with so many waiting clippings. She works swiftly, choosing vessels, rinsing and filling them with cool water. I watch her purposeful movements as she selects stems and branches and works them into unexpected arrangements.

Yoko has studied the art of arranging flowers for decades and, even after so many years in the profession she still regularly attends formal practice sessions. Her arrangements are at once balanced and reaching. They reference the mountain scenery we explored all morning. Though each stem was chosen with an eye for its form, Yoko further twists and coaxes each into just the right line until the arrangement reaches an apex where natural disposition and human intention meet. 

As each is completed she places it on a rolling cart until the cart is laden with vases. I follow her down shadowed corridors and up steep stairs. Each room will receive two or three arrangements. Entering a tatami-floored room, she places a vase on a surface by the window. Kneeling before it, she gives a final adjustment to the stems until they are consonant to the air and light of the room. With this ultimate touch, the space is now ready to receive the night’s guests.