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Ukiyo-e

Samurai, Scenery and the Sensual


Back in 17th century Japan, ukiyo-e were disposable, simple illustrations painstakingly hand-copied individually and sold by artists to eke out a living. Hishikawa Moronobu revolutionised the medium with wood block printing, producing beautiful reproductions that soon moved from monochrome to colour and captured the popular imagination of everyday people, full of idols from the kabuki theatre, heroes from popular folklore and venerated landscapes.

As well as the work of Hishikawa, prints produced by legendary artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, also known as Ando Hiroshige, have stood the test of time and set some of Japan’s most famous cultural symbols in stone, inspiring the imagination of western artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet in the process.

Ukiyo-e continues as a highly refined art form in Japan today, relying on the skills of consummate creators, publishers, and carvers who depict the modern landscape with the same sense of romance and mystery that pervades the work of their predecessors.

The 53 Stations of the Tokaido

While the samurai government ruled Japan from Edo, or what is now modern day Tokyo from 1603 until 1867, the capital of Japan remained in Kyoto along with the Imperial Palace. The two are still connected today by the Tokaido, an ancient highway across mountains, rivers and coastline of some 500 kilometres that has been well worn by the footsteps of feudal warriors, merchants, peasants and pilgrims.

The traffic continues today by car, bus and bullet train as businesspeople rush between the economic powerhouses of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, while travellers explore the vast wealth of historical and cultural bounty in between. It has all earned the Tokaido half a slice of Japan’s Golden Route, a stretch of the main island from Tokyo to Hiroshima that takes in the cream of the country’s tourist destinations.

Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige first travelled the Tokaido as part of an official procession from Edo to Kyoto in 1832, and released a series of prints on his journey the following year. Entitled “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido,” it became an all-time bestseller and cemented Hiroshige as one of Ukiyo-e’s greats. With one print included for each of the 53 rest stops and checkpoints along the way, it presents fascinating scenes of ancient life and landscapes in Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as the prefectures of Kanagawa, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie and Shiga.

Exploring the Tokaido

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TokyoOfficial Website

Nihonbashi, Tokyo

As the sun begins to rise, a feudal lord and his retinue embark on their journey from Nihonbashi, with fishmongers scurrying past the head of the procession. A bridge officially designated as the starting point of Japan’s five major highways in 1604, Nihonbashi was romanticised by Hiroshige and many other ukiyo-e artists as the bustling heart of Edo, old Tokyo.

Then and Now

The Bank of Japan, along with other Japanese business heavyweights like Mitsui and Takashimaya preside over Nihonbashi today, which has been dwarfed by Tokyo’s unstoppable skyscrapers. The present stone bridge, built under the rule of the Emperor Meiji in 1911, remains an important historical monument that has survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945.

On Tour in Tokyo

Now a mega-city of 35 million central to Japan’s trade, commerce, technology and the arts, Greater Tokyo yields an ever-expanding range of exciting attractions for the visitor. The city’s interesting blend of past, present and future can be experienced neatly between the Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate at Asakusa Shrine, and from the 450m observation platform of Tokyo Sky Tree, currently the world’s tallest digital broadcasting tower at 634m.

Ukiyo-e in Tokyo

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KanagawaOfficial Website

Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture

Squeezed between mountains at 725m above sea level, Hakone was the tenth and highest station of the Tokaido. Hiroshige’s work depicts the rugged path which confronted travellers through the Hakone mountain range beside the calm surface of Lake Ashinoko, with Mount Fuji in the distance.

Then and Now

Located in Kanagawa Prefecture, Hakone is now one of Japan’s most famous hot spring tourism destinations, and replete with wonderful alpine scenery, is also a popular national and international conference venue. Yokohama, the nearby capital, was a sleepy fishing village when Hiroshige was travelling through Hakone, but as one of the first ports in Japan open to international trade in 1859, has grown into a bustling metropolis part of the greater Tokyo area.

On Tour in Kanagawa

The futuristic face of Kanagawa today includes Minato Mirai 21, a harbour side dining, entertainment and relaxation hub in Yokohama centred around the 296m Landmark Tower. Slightly closer to the ground at 13.35m, but no less impressive, is the Great Buddha of Kamakura at Kotoku-in Temple, one of Japan’s two tallest Buddha statues and most famous symbols.

Ukiyo-e in Kanagawa

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ShizuokaOfficial Website

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture

Palanquin bearers and travellers warm themselves up by a campfire at the foot of a pine tree, surrounded by a desolate winter landscape on the outskirts of Hamamatsu. The seaside town was the 29th station on the Tokaido, centred around Hamamatsu Castle, which can be seen in the distance.

Then and Now

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu commanded his forces from Hamamatsu Castle for 17 years before unifying Japan at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and an ornate replica of the original stands in the town today surrounded by beautiful gardens. Hamamatsu is part of modern day Shizuoka Prefecture, which with a combination of technology, tea farming and crystal clear springwater, is also home to one side of Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest peak.

On Tour in Shizuoka

Japan’s tallest peak at 3,776m, Mount Fuji attracts a steady stream of climbers hoping to experience Goraiko, a sunrise above the clouds, atop the peak during the official climbing season from July to August. Another all-round winner in Shizuoka is its hot spring resort area on the Izu Peninsula, a reinvigorating retreat with spectacular views enjoyed by Tokyoites all year round.

Ukiyo-e in Shizuoka

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AichiOfficial Website

Narumi, Aichi Prefecture

As it reaches Narumi in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, a procession passes by a row of stores selling the region’s famous tie-dyed fabric, Arimatsu Shibori. Arimatsu is located to the immediate northeast of Narumi, and the beautiful designs still produced today by local artisans in both districts are some of the most famous in Japan.

Then and Now

A port city on a fertile plain, Nagoya has historically functioned as an important hub of Japanese trade and commerce. Narumi and its many surrounding Buddhist Temples, along with the other traditional landmarks of Nagoya Castle and Atsuta Shrine contrast sharply with the modern metropolis that has grown up today, home to some of Japan’s industrial movers and shakers.

On Tour in Aichi

One of Aichi Prefecture’s most well known icons is the Toyota Motor Corporation, and its Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, located in Nagoya itself, is a fascinating insight into Japan’s technological might with 4,000 exhibits. It provides a modern backdrop to the traditional atmosphere at Nagoya Castle and Atsuta Shrine, and an adjunct to enjoying the local Hitsumabushi, Nagoya style grilled eel.

Ukiyo-e in Aichi

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MieOfficial Website

Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture

Two travellers are accosted by a gale as they try to cross the Mitaki River, near Yokkaichi in Mie Prefecture. Hiroshige uses the straining boughs of the willow tree in the centre of the print, the abandoned boat in the foreground, and the masts beside the fishing village in the distance to dramatic effect in reproducing the atmosphere of the howling wind.

Then and Now

Originally a small port at the mouth of the Mitaki River near Ise Bay, Yokkaichi was also an important stopover for pilgrims visiting Ise Grand Shrine, Japan’s most sacred, en route from Nagoya. Today it has grown into a vibrant industrial centre, and together with Nagoya, has a sister port relationship with Sydney Ports in Australia.

On Tour in Mie

Ise Grand Shrine houses Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess traditionally believed to be an ancestor of Japan’s imperial family, in stunning natural surroundings. Mie also has a vast wealth of therapeutic hot springs, many with ocean views, and is the home of Matsusaka Beef, a Wagyu brand exalted to top three status in Japan.

Ukiyo-e in Mie

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ShigaOfficial Website

Otsu, Shiga Prefecture

A procession arrives at the Hashirii Chaya teahouse in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, famous for its Hashirii-mochi rice cakes. These traditional Japanese sweets are still a popular delicacy in Otsu, and the Hashirii, a well out the front of the teahouse revered for pristine quality water, has been preserved to this day.

Then and Now

The original site of the Hashirii Chaya is now occupied by Gesshin-ji, a Buddhist temple. Its ancient gardens, which incorporate a waterfall, are one Shiga’s many beautiful cultural and historical sites, including Enryaku-ji Temple, Lake Biwa, and Hikone Castle. Shiga is also the home of the legendary Omi Beef, one of Japan’s big three Wagyu brands, and has diversified its agrarian economy to include high-tech and manufacturing industries.

On Tour in Shiga

Hikone Castle boasts an original keep harking back to the days of its construction in 1622, which has made it one of the four castles designated as National Treasures by the Japanese government. It sits in the vicinity of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest at 670.25 square-kilometres. A more philanthropic slice of the country’s history can be found in the the World Heritage listed monastic community of Enryaku-ji, which has been atop the lovely Mt Hiei since 788.

Ukiyo-e in Shiga

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KyotoOfficial Website

Sanjo-Ohashi, Kyoto

After covering some five hundred kilometres on foot, a procession makes its way across the Sanjo-Ohashi bridge to Kyoto. The style of dress of the characters typifies the customs of the old capital, which were a recurring theme in Hiroshige’s work. Beyond the bridge, the outline of Mount Higashiyama, on the eastern edge of the Kyoto Basin, superimposes itself clearly on the skyline.

Then and Now

Kyoto was Japan’s capital, and Imperial seat of power from 794 until 1869, and contains a veritable gold mine of cultural and historic treasure. It can be experienced in living colour at 17 World Heritage listed sites and a multitude of vibrant festivals, which perpetuate the ancient traditions of the city. An especially poignant reminder of its bygone past are the maiko of the Gion district, apprentice geisha who can still be seen gliding gracefully between the old wooden teahouses.

On Tour in Kyoto

Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, is a 14th century storehouse of sacred Buddhist treasure in Kyoto, and one of the city’s most famous World Heritage sites. Shimmering in gold leaf over a characteristically austere pond, the pavilion incorporates Chinese architectural styles into its design. As well as experiencing its idiosyncratic set of cultural mores, no visit to Kyoto is complete without sampling its famously refined, wholesome cuisine and sweets.

Ukiyo-e in Kyoto

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