Tuesday, 9 August 2011


I am very excited to introduce my first guest post on narrow roads. It is written by my brother who is spending a year teaching English in Japan. His enthusiasm for the country and its culture has inspired me when writing this blog and I am delighted to be able share a post from him.

A memorial print of Hiroshige by the contemporary artist Kunisada via Wikimedia

My first intimation of falling in love with Japan, as it were, was the woodblock prints of the artist Hiroshige, particularly his masterpieces depicting the Tokaido Road, the famed Eastern Sea Road from the military capital Edo to the Imperial court in Kyoto. Ukiyō-e had become popular for the prints of great beauties and stars of the kabuki stage, but around the 1830s a combination of factors led to the runaway craze of landscape prints. The Tokugawa shogunate had started to view the licentious actors and courtesans with suspicion, believing the ‘floating world’ to corrupt morals with its message of easy life:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

Asai Ryoi, Tales of the Floating World (浮世物語 Ukiyo Monogatari, 1666)

This easy lifestyle was clearly incompatible with the strict code of Bushido that the government promoted. In 1842 the shogunate introduced the Tenpō reforms, in response to earthquakes, famine and external pressures. This restricted decadent urban life, especially the kabuki theatre and ukiyō-e that showed any aspect of courtesans, geisha or actors. It also banned, among other things, such dangerous habits as gaudy signboards and decorations on smoking pipes.

Another factor that lent itself to landscape art was the rise in polychrome inks since the 1760s. Though used before, it was the later generation of artists such as Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and Hokusai who would really make full use of this new medium, particularly Hiroshige, whose use of the imported colour Prussian blue was so prolific that he was nicknamed ‘Blue Hiroshige’. The vivid, deep colour of this pigment was used to fantastic effect in Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the one ukiyō-e that everybody knows.

Hokusai’s Wave print was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to landscapes, though. Part of the series Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), this print and the others in the set were phenomenally successful, kick-starting the whole genre in 1831. Two years later, Hiroshige produced the first of his series on the Tokaido, the definitive Hoeido edition. The theme of the three stations along the post road was equally popular, and no less than 30 series were eventually produced. The prints could be bought for between 12 and 16 copper coins, less than the price of a bowl of ramen, and made ideal souvenirs for travellers. Moreover, the Japan of the 1830s and 1840s was one of the best places in the world for travellers (if you lived in the country; the shogunate’s policy of exclusion meant that travel to and from Japan was banned, except in selected ports such as Nagasaki). Guidebooks covered virtually every inch of the country, and the established post roads, particularly the Five Routes, made travel safe and easy - post stations catered to a tourist’s every whim, and sub-routes meant few places were inaccessible to the dedicated wanderer (the roads were not unrestricted, however; they required a permit to travel and at various points there were checkpoints. This did keep a tight control on banditry, though).

A Victorian photograph of the Tokaido, showing the pine trees planted by the shogunate to provide shade for travellers. Via Wikimedia.
 Hiroshige’s talent was to show this teeming mass of life in all of its romantic glory and ever-changing moods. In the first print in the series, the view is invariably of Nihonbashi , the bridge in Edo that was the milestone of Japan, from which all distances were measured, and still are today. The Hoeido edition print depicts a daimyo’s procession beginning the long march home to his fief*. The long cortège  tramps across the bridge; porters are followed by men bearing tall banners, and ranks of straw-hatted retainers are just visible behind the bannermen. In the foreground, the inhabitants of Edo scurry about their business, boxes of goods balanced on their heads and shoulders. To the industrious townsfolk, living in the biggest city on earth, the daimyo’s procession warrants not even a glance.

 By contrast, the fourteenth print of the Hoeido series shows a scene devoid of habitation. Two ladies and their porter rest briefly, perhaps for a pipe break, under the lowering gaze of Mount Fuji. The road winds through a desolate plain of rice fields or reeds, its only occupants two herons. Dominating the print (and indeed protruding through the top of the frame) are the craggy slopes of Mount Fuji. The contrast between the hectic bustle of urban life and the quiet of the moor is striking, each conveying an enticing image, whether that of the start of a great journey or a moment’s repose on a quiet country road.

 Lastly, one of my favourite prints is from the Reisho edition, published in around 1850. It shows the coast at Hamamatsu, a desolate stretch of shore fringed by wind-bent pines. Again few travellers are visible, a pair of locals and an ascetic-looking man with a satchel and straw rain hat slung on his back, robes whipped by the wind as he stares back along the path. Beyond him, an angry grey sea is whipped into choppy little waves by the wind. Boats run for shore, while a dotted line of simply-drawn black pines promises more views just out of sight. It’s one of my favourite prints because of its wildness, calling to mind the tangy smell of salt air and the crash of waves on a lonely strand. Yet the focus of the picture, the gaunt traveller, is unmoved by nature’s roughness, and is content to stand for a while, back to the wind.

 However, like the shogunate itself, ukiyō-e would eventually be swept away in the chaos of the Bakumatsu  and Meiji restoration. The new Japan had no time for the old ways, and ukiyo-e was passed over in favour for western art. Ironically, it was this same rejection that created the love of ukiyo-e in the west; making up for centuries of isolation, Japan was shipping vast quantities of trade goods aboard, and the worthless prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai were now used to wrap ceramics. When they arrived in Europe, the owners frequently loved the wrappings more than the goods themselves, and the art school known as Japonisme was born. Van Gogh and Whistler both did almost exact reproductions of Hiroshige’s more famous prints; the Japanese love of bold, striking colours and the asymmetric composition caught their eye, and the line-and-curve patterns often used became the precursors of abstract art. Eventually, the wheel turned full circle, and in the 1920s and 1930s the right-wing politics of the time meant that Western art was falling out of favour. Ukiyo-e and other traditional arts experienced a renaissance, and a new form known as shin hanga developed. This retained the division of labour found in ukiyo-e, wherein the printer, artist, publisher and carver all played their part. However, the strict censorship and lack of materials during World War Two resulted in shin hanga never becoming as popular as ukiyo-e.

 For me, though, ukiyo-e is a quintessential expression of Japan. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, in particular, has been reprinted in thousands of tourist books, and is probably included in every major book on world art. But more than that, though, ukiyo-e is a window into a lost world of Edo life. The contrast between Meiji period Japan, when even the Emperor wore western-style, military uniforms, and the katana http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katana was replaced by a cavalry sabre, is vast and not a little heartrending. Later ukiyo-e extolled the virtues of this new age, showing steamships and telegraph lines. Gone were the peaceful roadside scenes of travellers buying rice cakes, or the self-indulgent rich at a moon-viewing party. The new prints are just as historically interesting, but for me they lack the appeal of the Edo-era masterpieces. And, like its art, Japan would never be the same again.

A great resource for Hiroshige prints is this comprehensive site:

And the Brooklyn museum of art has an online exhibition dedicated to “100 famous views of Edo” complete with commentary:

* By law, a daimyo had to maintain two mansions; one in his territory, and one in Edo. This system was implemented by the first Shogun Tokugawa Iyeyasu, in order to limit the power of the overmighty lords who potentially might rebel, by making them live alternate years in Edo and their fief. The daimyo’s family lived permanently in Edo as hostages to his good behaviour, and as he was required to travel in state, the costs of the trip to and from the capital would ensure that any funds that might go towards plotting were spent on ceremonial – to say nothing of the price of keeping two households. See A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan  for an evocative description of one of these processions.


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