Ukiyo-e would be one topic when people talk about Japanese art. What comes into your mind when you think of ukiyo-e? Vivid color? A woman wearing kimono? A face of Kabuki actor? Some of you might already have your own favorite artist.

But can you imagine the shock it brought to people in old days when they saw ukiyo-e, art from unknown country at the time, for the very first time, since Japan had national isolation policy and was only dealing with Netherlands for limited amount of goods? Ukiyo-e was never a formal export then, it was part of packaging for ceramics, a wrapping paper to be more specific. But soon Europeans started to find its value and some started collecting them as art piece.

There’re hand-painted ukiyo-e, but they were very expensive and only available for the wealthy. They mostly stayed in Japan until 1867 when they were showcased at the International Exhibition at Paris. On the other hand, woodblock ukiyo-e was mass produce and was even used as wrapping paper or toilet paper after people finished enjoying it to replace it with newer print. (This is one reason a lot of foreigners only think of woodblock print as ukiyo-e.) Maybe because it was more for the commoners, it illustrated more of exotic daily life of Japanese people which in result became more attractive for foreigners.

Japanese Art to Influence the Giants Overseas

People who became fascinated by ukiyo-e includes world-renowned artists. A great artist the Netherlands has ever produced, Vincent Van Gogh was one of them. Van Gogh became heavily fascinated by the art during his stay in Paris, he and his brother collected and dealt their pieces. What is more, he studied them closely and made copies of them. The bold structure and vivid color of ukiyo-e gave him such an impact that it almost became part of his expression.

Claude Monet was a French artist fully dove into the world of ukiyo-e. He had painted his wife dressed in kimono posing in traditional mikaeri-bijin posture (beauty looking back) of ukiyo-e. He was also in the part of Japonism movement and had even built arched bridge which was commonly seen in ukiyo-e in his own garden.

The influence of ukiyo-e was seen in music scene as well. In La Mar, French composer Claude Debussy drew inspiration from Hokusai’s famous woodblock print of ‘The Great Waves off Kanagawa’ and used part of the image on the cover of his music score.

Find Your Inspiration

Here is small collection of ukiyo-e for you to get inspired. They all have different touch and color scheme. Since ukiyo-e was something people casually enjoyed to know trend, it was easily replaced with newer one. They were usually held in hand when viewing. It was also used for educational purposes for children and was used at school at the time.

+++ Hokusai Katsushika / The Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido +++

Shows one of the hardest passing point of Tokaido (one of the five majour routes of Edo period). People had to cross a river that had no bridge. There are people who carried their customers and loads on their back to get them to the other side of the river. Hokusai’s artwork fully expresses the beauty and wildness of the nature. He is often referred to his works of waves and the color blue he had used.

+++ Hiroshige Utagawa / Morning View of Nihonbash +++

Another busy morning at the Nihonbash Bridge. There is daimyo procession crossing the bridge starting their journey to Kyoto. (Nihonbashi bridge was the starting point of high-way that connect Edo and Kyoto.) Fishmongers who’s just got their fish from the market across the bridge are about to spread into the city for business. Behind them you’d see there are many wooden plates with small letters on it. This was how the government released newly issued rules to the people. It is called Kosatsu field and usually placed at places where a lot of people gather or pass by. Traveling became popular from later Edo and ukiyo-e was bought as a souvenir.

+++ Sharaku Toshusai / Ichikawa Ebizo 4 as Takemura Sadanoshin +++

Portrait of famous Kabuki actor. Edo was a period popular culture emerged and fully flourished. Seeing play was no longer only for the wealthy and ukiyo-e played a big part in spreading the culture to the commoners as well. Since those portraits of actors are usually illustrated as he’s in the character, ukiyo-e also worked as advertisement of the latest play.

+++ Utamaro Kitagawa / Woman Holding a Comb +++

Woman’s face is half covered with a comb, but her red lips still show through the tortoise shell. Her white skin is beautifully contrasted with bright background. Kitagawa lived through the golden age of bijin-ga (picture of beautiful women) and he was one of the most popular artist of the time. His bijin-ba included courtesan and well-known beauties to unknown waitresses of own discovery. His bijin-ba had such a popularity that it often created over-the-night stars and was also a medium for setting fashions.

+++ Sadahide Utagawa / Buddhist Memorial Service in Kamakura +++

Sakahide was an ukiyo-e artist known for his delicate expression and geographic knowledge which he’s often displayed in his panoramic artworks. He was also a traveler and published books to introduce places all around Japan.

Ukiyo-e Workshop

If you want to dive deeper into the world of ukio-e, there is a place where you can layer your own colors and print your own art.

Mokuhankan is a woodblock print shop that lets you see their artworks in display and experience the process yourself. If you have an hour and 2,000 yen to spare (they have friend and family discount if you are not alone), please contact them to book for their ‘print party’. You can learn more about the shop at They regularly have at least three sessions each day.

Location: 1-41-8 Asakusa, Taito 111-0032, Tokyo
Phone : +81 70 5011 1418

The shop is positioned in Asakusa area where there’re still a lot of remains of Edo atmosphere. It would be a fun day for you to breath in all things Edo if you joint the ‘print party’ at the workshop and stroll around Kaminari-mon tasting traditional Japanese street food.