Crash Course: Ukiyo-e

I just noticed an article online this past week that mentioned an excellent ukiyo-e exhibition at the Edo-Tokyo Museum through March 2nd. (And huzzah – the exhibit will actually move west after that!). I’m not a huge fan of art in general and before I moved to Japan I couldn’t have told you the difference between ukiyo-e and ukulele, but I have come to appreciate these works of art and am thrilled to see a modern movement cropping up as well.

So what is ukiyo-e? It literally means “pictures of the floating world”, but most people are more familiar with the term woodblock print. Ukiyo-e prints originated in Edo (the city that would later become known as Tokyo) in the 1700s during the reign of the Tokugawa shoguns. That’s not to say that the actual art of printing using woodblocks wasn’t used before; in fact, there are examples of woodblock prints from the 8th century that were used to produce copies of Buddhist sutras. However, the development of mass printing in the mid-18th century allowed for great strides in the realm of ukiyo-e.

It’s believed that the first modern ukiyo-e printed were calendars, ordered by publishers and used as part of a gift exchange at the beginning of the New Year. From there, the themes of the prints expanded, and often encompassed what were then considered the less respectable sides of human life – drinking, gaming, women, theater. There were also scenes printed that appealed to the wealthy classes – romanticized versions of travel or nature, mostly. 

Ukiyo-e for sale in Inuyama
Ukiyo-e for sale in Inuyama

There are several well-known names in the pantheon of ukiyo-e (Hiroshige, Hokusai), but truthfully, the process of creating a woodblock print involved at least four people – the publisher, who came up with the theme; the designer or artist, who drew the sketch; the engraver, who carved the individual blocks for each print; and the printer himself, who turned out the final product.

The printing itself is ridiculously tough, in my opinion. I can say that with certainty, having tried my hand (twice now) at the Kyoto Handicrafts Center. Imagine a print has 20 different woodcuts, each responsible for adding a different color or texture (shadowing, etc) to the scene. You need to line up your paper perfectly every time in the corner of each woodcut to get it to lay on the paint just so and not smudge the colors all over the print. Miss by just a fraction, and the blue pants your traveler may be wearing could appear next to his body on the print itself. Like I said, it takes a pro.

You can try your own hand at ukiyo-e in Kyoto
You can try your own hand at ukiyo-e in Kyoto

While you can buy both antique and reproduced ukiyo-e in many places in Japan (Asakusa in Tokyo and downtown Kyoto have some very good shops), there are also more modern takes on ukiyo-e. I love the bold colors of Nishijima Katsuyuki, who does scenes of traditional Japan but in a more vivid style. For an even more eclectic take on an old tradition, check out Ukiyo-e Heroes. I mentioned them in my round-up of best holiday gifts for Japanophiles this year and I am still quite taken with their dedication to blending old and new Japan. (Plus, their videos on the actual carving process are fantastic.)

Even if you don’t want to buy your own print, there are plenty of places you can go to see them. My favorite gem of a spot is the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, tucked away just off the craziness that is Takeshita-dori street in Harajuku, Tokyo. You can swish around the two-story gallery in slippers and enjoy the thematic exhibitions that change once a month. Or, head out to Matsumoto in the Japan Alps and visit the massive, modern-looking Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. It’s a tad hard to reach without a car but worth it if you’re a fan.

4 thoughts on “Crash Course: Ukiyo-e

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  1. I saw the Edo-Tokyo exhibit a few weeks ago, it was fantastic! I had about seven Hiroshige’s hanging in my apartment before coming to Japan, so it was like heaven. I will have to check out the one in Harajuku next, thanks for the tip

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