Field Trip to Edo

Thoughts on visiting the Fukagawa and Sumida Hokusai museums in Tokyo.

What immediately strikes one upon viewing Hokusai’s work is his use of luxurious detail. The individuals depicted in each sketch and painting sit elegantly motionless, enrobed in richly textured garments. Each image seems to exude an ineffable quietness—a mysterious, fleeting moment floating in a timeless world. In the diptych entitled Remaining Snow for Azuma Yogoro and Evening Glow for Date no Yosaku and Seki no Koman (1801-04) for example, Hokusai’s delicate lines and muted colors draw one into the intimate reticence of the scene. One feels strangely connected to the mood of the piece, yet somehow the characters and their backgrounded landscape seem to be of a world that is altogether impossible to reach for the children born of modernity.

Similarly, in his more imaginative ukiyo-e featuring oni and yōkai, such as Kintaro Scattering Soybeans to Drive Demons Away (1781-89) and Okiku’s Ghost at Sara Mansion (1831-32) Hokusai shows us the otherworldly that is indelibly interwoven throughout the Edo narrative. Stories of gods and ghouls delighted the citizens of Edo on the stages of the pleasure district. Artistic aesthetics and fashion drew inspiration from the theater and actors playing valiant aragoto heroes for a time gained unheralded fame amongst the people. Hence, the citizens of Edo were contented to know little of the rapidly modernizing outside world as their state of seclusion allowed them to focus inward on the legends and customs of their past.

 

Hokusai_Sarayashiki
Hokusai’s Sarayashiki (Okiku’s Ghost at Sara Mansion (1831-32))

 

At the Fukagawa Edo museum, one can stroll the streets on a mini-tour of old Japan. Modest homes feature tatami rooms, a water taxi awaits its passengers beneath the branches of a drooping willow, a fabric-seller’s wares show fashionable prints, designs of which make clever play on the names of the period’s most acclaimed theater actors. Today, many homes and apartments in Tokyo are inspired by Western standards of living with hardwood floors and tall, framed beds. Water taxis, now powered by modern seafaring technology, ferry not just a handful of people up and down the Sumida-gawa, but hundreds at a time. And what became of the famous names dyed on the fabric-maker’s textiles? Well, many of the most famous names of the Edo period have been handed down over the generations. Actors such as Bando Tamasaburō and Ichikawa Danjūrō continue the tradition of their forefathers and act on stage in Tokyo even today.

Although modern-day Tokyo is overrun with tennis shoes and Toyota sedans, one can still find remnants of the old floating world that is represented in both Hokusai’s prints and at the Fukugawa Edo museum. Elements of the period remain not only in Japanese customs but also at the theater and in the traditional arts. Small shops make seasonal treats and sell local goods just as they did over three hundred years ago. While apartment buildings and old homes may now be powered by electricity and modern heating systems, many still feature tatami rooms where families rest on the futon and dine on low tables. Master craftsmen, such as Niinomi Morichika at the Adachi Institute in Shinjuku, continue to carve woodblock prints using methods that have remained unchanged since the Edo period. On the kabuki stage, one can see stories that were written and performed in Edo (such as Reigen Kame-yama Hoko). Fragments of Edo exist all over the vast metropolis; one simply needs to find them.


© 2017 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.

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