22 Apr 2010


... 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 Ryōi 浮世物語 Tales of the Floating World 1661
1 Nihonbashi

The beautiful woodblocks of ukiyo-e, 浮世絵, tell the story of old Japan - a Japan closed and isolated from the rest of the world - a Japan of fleeting beauty, of geisha, kabuki, courtesans, sumo, samurai and daimyo. They tell the story of the floating world, a time of transience and impermanence.

Early ukiyo-e portray urban life and culture. Although today we generally associate the term with prints, it was as books that the genre first developed and was most popular. Guidebooks and picture books were widely available. Later landscapes and nature as subjects became more common.

Andō Hiroshige 安藤広重 drew during the early 1800s and was one of the major printmakers of this period. His series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō is our focus for Picture Study during this term as we prepare for our own visit to the floating world of Japan in only a few more weeks.

On the Tōkaidō Highway near Hakone in 2005

The Tōkaidō Highway, linking the shōgun's capital of Edo, to the imperial capital Kyōto, was the main artery of old Japan, and formed part of a system inaugurated by the shōgun of Japan, Tokugawa Iyeyasu, in 1603. From Nihon-Bashi, the great bridge over the Sumida River, just opposite the palace of the shōgun in Edo, roads radiated throughout the island of Honshū,and from this point all distances were measured.

Iyeyasu demanded an annual visit to Edo from all the daimyo; and twice a year these territorial lords travelled the roads, stopping at the posting houses along the way. Fifty three of these post stations at various points along the highway provided stables, food, and lodging for the daimyos and their entourages as they travelled its 514 kilometre length.

In 1832, the printmaker Hiroshige travelled the length of the Tōkaidō from Edo to Kyoto, creating numerous sketches of his adventures along the way. He used these sketches to produce a series of fifty five prints - one for each post station, plus one each for the start and end points of the route. The prints are Hiroshige's best known works and are amongst the most popular of all ukiyo-e prints. They portray the adventures that Hiroshige experienced during his journey, as well as the day to day activities of the people he encountered along the way. Together they form an ideal medium for a study of old Japan.

So which to choose? The beginning and end points are obvious, as as Hakone, the posting house and check point we visited back in 2005.

Hakone Sekisho -the Menbansho of the Hakone checkpoint where Sekisho officials from the Odawara Domain inspected male travelers making their way along the highway.

After some consideration we selected the other three prints to make up our term's picture study on their subject matter alone.

1 Edition 1 Nihonbashi

11 Hakone

14 Hara

36 Goyu

37 Akasaka

55 Kyoto - Sanjo Ohashi at Keishi

Exquite, aren't they? To think they're carved out of wood first! You can see the prints in this video:

There's more on Hiroshige here:

Learn more about the process here:

I could talk more about each beautiful print - that, after all, is the purpose of Picture Study Charlotte Mason style, but if I did that before you'd studied the picture then I'd really be getting in the way between you and it. The time for discussions like that is after looking at and really seeing the piece of art - not before.

If you look in on us during this subject, Jemimah and I will be discussing what is happening in the picture, the colours and techniques used, whether we like it and why. We will be looking at clothing, events and locations. We will be learning about Old Edo. Mostly, though, we'll just be looking at the work of an exceptional artist and appreciating the beauty he has wrought from God's creation.

Just before he died Hiroshige wrote this poem.

I leave my brush in the East
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Western Land.

Andō Hiroshige 1858
With apologies I write,
I leave my worries in the West
And set forth on my journey.
I shall see the famous places in the Eastern Land.
I shall try not to bore you to tears with preparations for our journey to Japan in May. Are you interested in hearing more about our Japanese studies or is this enough, already? Do please tell me. I'll cope with the criticism.

I do get so overexcited sometimes. Such a kid.


  1. I love it when my morning coffee break includes a good read! I would be very excited, too, Jeanne! They are indeed lovely prints, I will need to come back and look at the clips later as I'm on a time limit.
    That is a great pic of the three of you on the "highway" Jemimah is sooo little.

  2. exquisite is the perfect word choice. What an adventure that you will have! I am happy for you!

  3. Share, please. I am insatiably curious about all sorts of things & shall read with pleasure! ☺

  4. Wonderful post, Jeanne!

    I love your posts about Japan, because they remind me of my original love affair with this country. I still love it, of course, but in a very different way now that it's been my home for so long. I love seeing Japan through fresh eyes again!

  5. This post is rich with information! I will be showing my second son, Joseph. He's my dyslexic who "gets" Japanese more than English. He will love looking at these beautiful, beautiful works of art.


  6. I'm not bored at all, quite the contrary. I appreciate your guidance into immersing us in this quite fascinating and unknown world for me. I'm very jealous of your journey but quite glad that YOU are preparing so well, that'll result in a deeper and greater appreciation of the things you'll see and live.
    Those prints are...there's no words...you can LIVE in them.
    And I so admire the fact you can type a title in Japanese.

  7. ooh. I like!

    I too admire your Japanese titles... even if my browser doesn't do them justice.

    this is a post that will remain in the back of my mind... I will have to come back here.

    amy in peru

  8. Hi Jeanne,
    We did a picture study of a woodblock print called "The Wave". We love some of the Japanese art. The closest thing we've tried to use for carving is a square block of soap. DS really enjoyed this day.

  9. Jeanne, I'm delighting in your Japanese post archives. My daughter has been madly in live with Japan for over a year. It began with the Yoko books by Rosemary Wells, and intensified when I read to her The Japanese Twins by Perkins. I'm considering buying her a kimono and pair of Japanese sandals and socks for her birthday. This particular post has sent me down a lovely rabbit trail. I love these prints.


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...