I’ve seen a lot of ukiyo-e exhibits, but the temporary exhibit going on now at Shimane Art Museum is really exciting. The Hiraki collection is on display!

Masterpieces of the Hiraki Collection – The Beauty of Ukiyo-e  July 18th (Fri) ~ September 1st (Mon), 2014

Masterpieces of the Hiraki Collection – The Beauty of Ukiyo-e
July 18th (Fri) ~ September 1st (Mon), 2014

Though many of you might already be familiar with ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), here is a little break-down and explanation of why this collection is so cool (and why everyone needs to come to the museum in person before the exhibit closes on September 1st).

Shimane Art Museum, known just as much for it's building and Lake Shinji sunset viewing location as it is for its collections.

Shimane Art Museum, known just as much for its building and Lake Shinji sunset viewing location as it is for its collections.

Ukiyo-e are prints that were especially popular souvenirs from Edo (now Tokyo). They were carved wood blocks and those blocks were stamped on paper to create several copies of the same image, which is why there may be several existing originals of any particular print. They were popular for people visiting the big city because they were small and light and didn’t go bad like edible specialties, and although they varied quite a bit in price, they were usually quite reasonable and you could get them for a little more than the price of a bowl of soba noodles. They were so prolific that it was easy to send kids out on tasks to buy the newest prints of whatever it was you collected. Their content ranged from landscapes to Kabuki actors in various roles to grotesque illustrations of horror stories–within the medium, you could find whatever genre and style suited your tastes.

The prints were imposed mirror-image on to boards for carving, usually cherry tree wood, but different woods might be used for different levels of detail. There would be a board with the outlines, and as many boards for colors as there were colors in any given piece.

The outlines

The outlines

A very detailed piece, such as the one below, might require twenty different boards for stamping the various colors. Between each color you need to wait for it to dry. Therefore, it made sense to do these bulk so you had something to do while waiting between stampings on any given single print!

Note how bright the colors are. Ukiyo-e is a medium that fades fast, and international standards for preservation of art state that they must be displayed at 50 lux (compared to, say, 200 lux suggested for oil paintings). This means that ukiyo-e displays must be kept rather dark, but even then, continuous exposure is damaging. The Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation manages the print collection and their traveling temporary exhibits to make sure they preserved as possible while still doing exposed enough for their quality to be enjoyed.

Used with permission

Used with permission

Used with permission

Used with permission

One of the other qualities of the collection is the quality the prints had to begin with, even when the prints were still freshly mass-produced. When a new print was made, the artist would make it as well as possible to attract potential buyers. Production was market driven; if a particular print was not very popular they would stop producing it, but if a new print was very successful, they’d focus more on mass production since they felt assured of having buyers even if the quality was a bit lower. Hence, there were a lot of cheap copies available to ukiyo-e collectors, though the more copies there were, the more low-quality copies there were as well.

What makes an ukiyo-e low quality? Like any art that people get lazy with, errors like coloring outside the lines and less crisp lines are common, the variety of colors and details is usually lacking compared to the debut printings, and the quality of the materials used will probably be cheaper. I should know, as lazy art is my specialty as of late. By the way, it’s from lazy ukiyo-e that we get the Japanese phrase “kentouchigai” for misdirection a wrong guess–it refers to the guiding points of the wood block (kentou) not lining up with illustration correctly, thus resulting in colors that are stamped in incorrect places.

The Hiraki collection, however, is composed of the top quality early printings, when the art was braving against the whims of consumerism, elbowing its way through the crowded print market to shine and claim the eyes of passers-by. In fact, many of the pieces in the collection are designated as national Important Cultural Properties or Important Works of Fine Art.

So pretty works of art, yes, one can always find art in books or on the internet. While bother looking at the originals? Because you can’t see the karazuri without seeing the originals, that’s why!

Although I’ve been somewhat familiar with ukiyo-e for many years, I only learned about this when I visited the exhibit. Karazuri is a pattern that is pressed into the paper which physically adds depth to the area it affects, but you can only detect it when looking at it in 3D as opposed to 2D. The rise and fall of the paper is delicate but measured, and pieces with clear examples of it are very rare. For example, the piece on the poster for the exhibit, Utagawa Toyokuni I’s “Portraits of Actors on Stage–Masatsuyu” has a rather surprisingly elegant-looking loin cloth.

One of my other favorite examples of 3D effects from textured paper is of a snowy scene–the stark rise and faded fall of the paper make the paper look shimmery and ethereally fluffy like real snow. Although ukiyo-e may have a reputation for being unconfined by realism or rather sparse on details, many of my favorite works in the collect refute both of these ideas.

While speaking of content in general, I have discovered that I am a big fan of Isoda Koryusai‘s bird-in-parlor-room series, and works like Ishikawa Toyonobu‘s portrait of a young beauty hanging poems on a cherry tree in full bloom certainly looks, to my eyes, like it deserves its status as Important Cultural Property.

This page is in Japanese, but you can see a few more examples of the feature works of the collection. Just bear in mind that this is a very small taste of the variety of the exhibit (it covers ukiyo-e of many different styles and methods and time periods), and they are really, really pretty prints to stare at in person.

…and I suppose it has me inspired to try to be a little less lazy with my art.


If you’re familiar with theater styles of the world, perhaps you are familiar with kabuki. If you’re familiar with kabuki, perhaps you’re already familiar with its founder, Izumo-no-Okuni (1571~??). Not only is she the mother of Japan’s first form of pop-culture drama, but she lead a fairly dramatic life herself.

A brief survey of popular culture in Japan reveals that although folk culture did exist and change throughout the ages, it was the high culture of the elites that defined the tastes of the ages. In the Warring States period when samurai had to mentally and spiritually prepare themselves for death at any moment, the ritualistic Noh plays were the height of theater. No one could really expect the common riffraff to appreciate such a refined art, though. Not that commoners’ opinions were worth much to begin with.

In that day and age, it was common for shrines and temples around the country to send priests, nuns, monks, and shrine maidens to the capital to solicit donations. With religious dance being the heart of performance culture at the time, a beautiful shrine maiden–the daughter of a local blacksmith–was chosen to leave her duties at Izumo Taisha to solicit donations in Kyoto.

It was supposed to be a brief trip, but for whatever reason, she decided to ignore the call to return home. Rebellious and pleased with the large crowds her dances drew, perhaps? Or maybe by that time she had already met her lover and emotional, creative, and financial partner, Ujisato Sanzaburo? (Please read Lafcadio Hearn’s account of her story if you want a more romantic retelling.)

Whatever the case, she shirked her shrine duties (though continued to send money, it seems) and remained in Kyoto, performing in the dry riverbeds and recruiting women–often social outcasts–to perform with her. Graceful though her religious dances were known to be, she introduced very flamboyant, exaggerated, and provocative dances to the populous, and she grew famous throughout the country. She was especially well known for her performance in male roles.

Her humorous and dramatic performances were both loved and loathed by common people and those of high status alike. Part of what makes Kabuki interesting as a form of theater is that it started as a low-class form of entertainment for the masses, and during the Edo period it was the common peoples’ tastes than had the most influence on the artistic movements of the era. This was the start of Japanese consumer culture! What’s more, it was frowned upon for the dignified warrior class to engage in these popular forms of entertainment, but they frequently became regular patrons of kabuki anyway.

She was so famous and her troupe had such an influence on the tastes of the masses that soon brothels wouldn’t hire just any pretty women–they had to be talented in outlandish singing, dancing, and acting, too! Following Izumo-no-Okuni’s retirement and disappearance from the public eye, the newly established Tokugawa government would no longer tolerate this crazed form of mass entertainment corroding public morals. Women putting themselves on such gaudy display was too scandalous! Thus, women were banned from the stage. Kabuki theater was already so well-established by that point that it didn’t disappear, it merely replaced the womens’ roles with young boys (similar to what Shakespeare was working with). That was also problematic in a moral sense, so eventually the stage was limited to grown men as actors specializing in specific characters types. Contrary–or quite similar to–Okuni’s popularity in her male roles, the onnagata (female role) performers are often among the most famous and most popular actors. (Remember good old Metora-san?)

Today, kabuki is considered a high form of art that is thought to require some amount of sophistication to appreciate (400 years ago, who would have expected that?), and quite some sum of money to view live. I still have yet to see more than video clips of it, but exposure to kabuki (and its founding story) a number of years ago was, in a sense, the first I had ever heard of the Izumo region. How much longer Izumo-no-Okuni lived after retiring is a mystery, but it seems she returned home to her old neighborhood. It may surprise people just how easy it is to pay their respects to her on a typical visit to the shrine, which I’ll explain in my next entry.

Having finished re-telling the story of Izanagi and Izanami, introducing some places associated with them should now make more sense. Some of places have not only been listed in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, but have also been listed in the Izumo Fudoki. The Fudoki was like Japan’s first encyclopedia, written 713-733, and today the Izumo Fudoki is the only one remaining nearly fully intact. That means most of these places are really old and have fairly reputable roots, though it is worth noting the Shinto scholars’ impact in the Edo era (1603-1868) on cementing these places’ claims to Kojiki fame.

Manai Shrine (in red) is a shrine to Izanagi, Iya Shrine (blue) and Kamosu Shrine (purple) are both Izanami shrines, Izanami’s grave on Mt. Hiba (green) and final resting place of her soul on the restricted grounds of Kannoyama (yellow) are both relatively close by, but Yomotsuhirasaka (orange) in the Higashi-Izumo part of Matsue was what I was most interested in visiting.

Simply put, I live near the entrance to the underworld.

I started my Higashi-Izumo daytrip at Iya Station, where there is a friendly little place to kill time while waiting for the train, full of tourist information and ice cream and chatting old ladies and books–lots and lots of old books! This is the NPO known as Higashi-Izumo Machi no Eki: Metora, run by a kind lady happy to make your visit to hell–I mean, Higashi-Izumo–pleasant and well-informed. She named the place after a local kabuki actor from the Meiji era, Oonishi Seitarou, whose stage name was Metora (“Lady Tiger”).

The neighborhood is old and quiet, and definitely feels like a small town (which used to be a distinct municipality from Matsue, until a merger in 2011). It was a pleasant walk with a little Jizo shrine, flowers, and fish to discover–which I found so pleasant that I almost didn’t notice Iya Shrine when I passed by!

Iya Shrine, as stated before, is an Izanami shrine.

That being said, it’s not the most decadent shrine–even is the main building in which she is enshrined is hidden behind a bunch of trees, and the parts that you can walk right up to are very sparsely decorated.

Not that I am complaining–the atmosphere was very other-worldly, as Shinto shrines are set apart to be. Notice the mirror? In Shintoism, mirrors are frequently used instead of idols. Go ahead and take a minute to ponder that. Unlike shrines in more metropolitan areas, the torii here looked and felt old–just like the stone gaurdians at the entrance with their faces worn off by time. The gohei were also noticably unkempt.

Perhaps that atmosphere is appropriate, seeing as it can be considered a shrine of the dead–which I also find highly interesting, considering death is such a taboo impurity in Shinto shrines. Speaking of impurity, let’s take a trip to the entrance to Yomi in the next entry!