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‘Rainstorm beneath the summit’: An ukiyo-e tour of Tokyo

Vikram Shah
Landscape, demon, bird and shrine—an outsider tries to look in and unpeel the layers of inscrutable Japan through the intricate art of woodblock printing

I lived in Tokyo for six-and-a-half months, but Japan remained inscrutable. I think of it as an acquaintance I am infatuated with, but one who hardly registers my presence. A polite smile, a slight bow-I took what I got but I hoped, in vain, for more.

The impenetrability has much to do with language. Without a working knowledge of written or spoken Japanese, it felt like snorkelling while wearing a fogged-up dive mask. What I could see clearly I already knew but the true wonders were devoid of shape and meaning.

Edo and the Japanese eye

Thus handicapped, I put pressure on my other senses. I tried to enter Japan in other ways. One of them was ukiyo-e, the art of woodblock printmaking that flourished between the 17th and early 20th centuries.

Ukiyo-e is a child of Edo, the city that Tokyo grew out of. The form's development was contemporaneous with Edo's growth as the new seat of the military shogunate in the 17th century. Later, in the latter half of the 19th century, the art would also chronicle the start of Tokyo's outward march-out into the world, both literally and figuratively-under its emperors, who had reassumed control under the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Words, particularly Japanese ones, contain worlds, so to say that “ukiyo” translates to “floating world” is not enough. The “floating world”, with all its allusions to a place in the mind, referred to the night-time entertainments of Edo's merchant class. In that sense, ukiyo-e would mean pictures of geishas, scenes from forms of Japanese theatre, such as kabuki and noh, courtesans and patrons.

Hokusai's ‘Rainstorm Beneath The Summit' print. Photo: Getty image

Yet, even this milieu seems restrictive. Because ukiyo-e is also landscape, demon, bird and shrine. Ukiyo-e is an aesthetic, a style. Possibly, for the artists in the moment of creation (and for the Edo townsman that these prints were mass produced for), it is a way of looking and perceiving. To a forever outsider, it becomes a way of feeling and remembering but not quite understanding.

In Japan, obsession is not a disease but simply a way of being. It is a nation of serious hobbyists and an unfailing eye. The late American writer and long-time expat Donald Richie had noted that in Japan, “everyone can draw, everyone can take pictures. The visual is not taught, it is known: it is like having perfect pitch.” It is why ukiyo-e is, in a sense, reflective of the national character.

The usual manner of its production is typically Japanese-painstaking, detailed, precise. An image is outlined on paper. It is pressed onto a carefully chosen and cut wooden block. The wood is carved and chiselled along the lines of the image. The grooves are then filled with ink. Blank washi paper is pressed down into the grooves. A flat hand-held disc called baren, with a core made of coiled bamboo fibre, is used to apply pressure to the paper. Everything is purpose-built, nothing is makeshift. The outline is ready.

However, it is in the colouring of a print that the technique truly came into its own. Sometimes it was done by hand but for the more memorable and intricate images, separate colour blocks were created for different colours. Because of this, lines remained clean, colours stayed in their precise place, order was imposed, and a kind of world gradually came to life.

Harajuku's Ota Museum

One autumn afternoon, I took a side street from the high-fashion glitter of Omotesando in the Harajuku district to visit a two-storied building of grey brick.

The Ota Memorial Museum of Art houses the private collection of the late Seizo Ota V, former president of the Toho Insurance Company. The collection is said to be an astonishing 12,000-print strong, and contains representative masterpieces from all the stages of ukiyo-e's development.

A file photograph of a woodblock print production demonstration at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art. Photo: Getty images

At the time of my visit, the museum was exhibiting a legendary series by Utagawa Kuniyoshi-One Hundred And Eight Heroes Of The Popular Water Margin. Commissioned in 1827, the images are based on the 14th century Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan, or Water Margin, which tells the story of a band of 108 outlaws and their conflicts with the Song rulers.

Prints from the series are said to have been wildly popular among the Edo populace, and it is easy to see their novelty. Central to them are the mad-eyed warriors with wild matted hair, their rippling, tattooed torsos suggestive of war, honour and virility-the images were a far cry from the sallow, long-faced beauties of Edo's Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.

Reproductions of iconic prints are available in the museum store. The master of landscape, Utagawa Hiroshige, was well represented by images from his series, One Hundred Famous Views Of Edo. I was taken in by a postcard print of the famous Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge And Atake.

A lone man is rowing a log boat in the background. He appears not in bokeh, but is as much a part of the scene as the bridge in the foreground, peopled by five or six individuals struggling to counter the rain.

The sudden rain-pouring from a darkening, graded sky-is relentless. The brushstrokes had survived the glossy format of the postcard. In the quiet and dark, I recalled the feeling of being sopping wet.

Sumida's Hokusai Museum

On a cloudless January morning, I took the metro to Ryogoku, the heart of Tokyo's sumo wrestling scene.

Ryogoku is part of the Sumida ward, which takes its name from the river on whose eastern bank it lies. The Sumida and the low-lying flat plains that surround it were part of the Shitamachi or the Low City-this is where the Edo townsman worked and played. In his idiosyncratic history of the emergence of the new capital of Tokyo from the old city of Edo, the writer and translator Edward Seidensticker notes that the “story of what happened to Edo is so much the story of the Low City.”

Sumida was home to Katsushika Hokusai, arguably the most well-known exponent of ukiyo-e outside of Japan. Now, it also hosts a fantastic museum, a short walk from the Ryogoku metro station, dedicated to his life and work.

It had been only two weeks since the museum's opening at the time of my visit. At the entrance, a quiet throng waited for its turn to take the elevator to the exhibits. The showstopper-in keeping with the hyper local theme-was ostensibly the 7m-long Landscape Scroll Of Scenery At Both Banks Of The Sumida River.

I was seeking the smaller masterpieces. However, due to the number of visitors, the only possible reverie was one of shuffling forward. Unlike the regular obsessives, I did not even have the benefit of an eyeglass. Of course, we all stopped in front of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, easily the world's most recognizable print.

More than any other, it is this image which has comprehensively achieved the old masters' goal of perfect standardization and mass access: truly a print for everyone. It can be seen on desktop wallpapers, mouse pads, T-shirts and bottles.

There was a cluster around yet another well-known image from the Thirty-Six Views Of Mount Fuji series, Rainstorm Beneath The Summit. In the print, meteorological mayhem surrounds the holy mountain. The dark sky below is punctuated by jagged shards of amber orange lightning which look like sharp ravines on the mountain slopes.

In all of this, the snowy top of Fuji-san stands unperturbed, an unchanging presence over the horizon. Edges and colours have noticeably frayed in this original, but it is somehow more electric than a reproduction will ever be. This is Hokusai at the height of his powers.

The triumph of the museum, however, is in the meticulous way it chronicles Hokusai's journey from apprentice wood carver to the old master of the Fuji pictures. Exhibits include sketches from his notebooks and monochrome illustrations of storybooks (considered by some to be the forerunner of manga comics).

The highlight was a life-size reproduction of Hokusai and his daughter (and collaborator) Oi at work. The old man, white eye-browed, is on his haunches, bent over a line drawing. A tired-looking Oi sits beside a blackened tea pot. Behind the two, the tatami-floored room is lined with crumpled scraps of discarded drawings. Hokusai is said to have struggled with poverty, debt and illness throughout his life. One wants to reach out to the artist, ease his pain, but the artist cannot and will not be helped. It is a touching tableau.

Jinbocho's rare books stores

One of the markers of the great cities of the world is a thriving used and rare books trade. The Jinbocho area is Tokyo's rare and antiquarian books district. The same shops also contain troves of ukiyo-e, originals and reproductions. Most of the stores are lined along the south side of the main street, so as to protect their fragile contents from direct sun rays.

The Jinbocho stores represent the apogee of the Japanese marriage between a labour of love and an equally essential love for labour. Ceiling to floor lined with gilt-edged hard bounds containing tales of the Edo period; waist-level cabinets brimming with sheaves of yellowing prints; owners at their overflowing desks at the far end, examining a print through an eye glass. This is Japan, so there must be a method to the madness.

There are tables stacked with popular books on the pavements outside the stores: manga, pulp, instruction manuals, pocket fiction. Jinbocho also markets itself as the curry capital of Tokyo. The peculiar aroma of pungent Japanese curry (kare raisu)-a dark brown gloop of comforting goodness-wafts along from the surrounding restaurants and tempts the otaku (the term used to describe manga and anime obsessives) to step in for a bite. Some of the happiest afternoons of my Tokyo life ended with a curry meal following hours of browsing through ukiyo-e and vintage maps of Edo.

The history of ukiyo-e is layered and full of qualifications-an ironic fate for a standardization project. That is because each piece of carved wood, whether a master or a colour block, tells its own story. Wood gets chipped, pigments lighten, paper decays, the artist tweaks his vision. Hiroshige's series Fifty-Three Stations Of The Tokaido, prints of landscapes of key locations on the old road from Edo to the imperial capital of Kyoto, had as many as 10 known editions between 1833-1855.

Knowledge is only ever imperfect but life is too short to avoid slipping into generalizations. In a rag-tag manner, we cobble together and then inhabit our approximations of convenient truths. And it might be the only way to live. A deep, layered understanding is hardly a call to action. In fact, it might lead to just the opposite: a crippling paralysis born out of an awareness of one's helplessness against the shifting nature of truth and time.

And such generalization offers a special kind of solace for a casual student of ostensibly the most ambitious standardization project of them all: the idea of Japan. We are tourists, short-term workers and other kinds of long-distance Japanophiles. If we are to form our truths about Japan, where will we find them? In symbols and totems, of course. In the sun setting on Fuji-san. In the rapid finger movement of the sushi master. In the flat texture of ukiyo-e.

On my final weekend in Tokyo, I went to Jinbocho in search of a print by the “master of the night”, Kobayashi Kiyochika. Kiyochika, who died in 1915, is regarded as the last of the great ukiyo-e masters. He employed a light-and-shade technique called kosen ga, appropriate to the period he was a melancholic chronicler of the beginning of Tokyo's modern miracle and the passing of the old ways.

Though I am not one for souvenirs, I was after a print called Fireflies At Ochanomizu. In images, I had seen a small boat on the Kanda River, its inside lit by paper lantern. The moon doesn't appear in the frame but it lends light to accentuate the silhouettes of trees on the banks. In the distance, where the bluish-green ribbon of Kanda merges with the night sky, is a bridge hemmed in by the fences of a possible railway track. The yellow splodges-in the trees, reflected in the water-are fireflies.

I did not find the print in the usual stores, not even a reproduction. It is a short walk from Jinbocho to Ochanomizu station. Ocha no mizu. Water for tea. In the Edo period, this is where they extracted the water used to prepare the shogun's tea. The Kanda is more canal than river now. Tokyo has sprouted on its banks. I had stood on a footbridge for a few minutes, watching a small barge in the evening light. There would be no fireflies at Ochanomizu that night. I lived in Tokyo for six and a half months, but Japan remained inscrutable