Spotlight: Sumida Hokusai Museum

It’s been a few days since we arrived back in Japan and settling into life in Tokyo once more is like slipping back into your favorite pajamas – familiar and comfortable. With cheek numbingly brisk weather this week, it seemed a good time to head out and reacquaint myself with some of the city’s (well-heated) museums. Top of that list was the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo’s Ryogoku neighborhood, an installation just a few years old that highlights the work of famed woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai.

On one of my return trips to Tokyo two years ago, I stopped in to the museum in its inaugural month, fighting the hordes attempting to use the museum’s two small elevators and elbowing other interested viewers to get a better glimpse at the relatively few masterpieces. I never even got near the interactive touch screens that form a large part of this cutting-edge exhibit. Though a fan of ukiyo-e, I left feeling that my money hadn’t been well spent and hoping they’d make improvements in the future.

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The museum exterior is definitely eye-catching

Two years have seen a lot of those early issues resolved. I rolled up to the museum around 10am on a Wednesday, found no line at all to purchase tickets and sailed right into the elevator alone. I had purchased a ticket for the special exhibit, Hokusai and the Gourmets of Great Edo, as well as the permanent exhibit space, and a little voice in the back of my head niggled at me: “Wasn’t it all in Japanese last time?”

Whether that was the case or not before, the special exhibits now are all detailed in both Japanese and English, with excellent informational panels adorning the walls and detailed descriptions under most of the individual artworks. Since the topic was of interest to me, I found it worth the additional fee for the exhibit (combo tickets are ¥1000, while tickets to the permanent exhibition only are ¥400). Understand as well that the special exhibit space covers 3/4 of the total exhibition space, while the permanent collection only covers about 1/4.

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The permanent exhibit room (no photos are allowed in the special exhibit area)

Though smaller, the permanent collection has its merits. You’ll get an introduction to Hokusai the man (along with a list of a few other names he went by) and samples of both his early and later works. Simple sketches are here, as well as famed masterpieces – Red Fuji (aka Fine Wind, Clear Morning) and the Great Wave Off Kanagawa are highlights. The pieces are all labeled well and touch panels provide even greater detail on the works themselves and where they fit in the context of Hokusai’s life.

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Two of Hokusai’s most famous works

Towards the far edge of the room, a larger touch panel allows visitors to call up digitized images of some of the artist’s greatest series – 36 Views of Mount Fuji or Famous Bridges, for example. It’s a shame there is only one of these panels because it was fascinating to take the time on a quiet weekday morning to browse through these landscapes, zooming in and out with ease to better examine certain aspects of the works.

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This touch screen holds digitized copies of Hokusai’s most famous series

The center of the room hosts a number of other touch screens – these carry more background information, games and activities. I designed my own kimono, practiced line drawing characters from ukiyo-e prints and even did a woodblock print Mt Fuji seek-and-find (harder than you’d think!). These are also great stations to park kids at for a few minutes while adults enjoy the room’s exhibits.

Back on the first floor, there’s a small but tasteful gift shop to wander through and a library where anyone can browse the numerous art books. All in all, I spent about an hour here, and left feeling fulfilled. I’d return again if the special exhibit was worth seeing, and I’d recommend it for visitors with an interest in Hokusai or ukiyo-e in general.

7 thoughts on “Spotlight: Sumida Hokusai Museum

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  1. We’d love to visit this museum. This exhibit may be gone by the time we visit. I would love to know more about Hokusai. Jess’s mom had a least one official print of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. I think his brother has it now. We also had a book about Hokusai’s work. I gave it to a friend when he retired. His mother was Japanese and he visits Japan often. I never bought another book for us.

    1. The exhibit on the food culture will be out in a few weeks, but they will have other upcoming special exhibits. And the Great Wave is in the permanent display section, so you definitely would see that. I think it would be a worthwhile visit. 🙂

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