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[Greater Tokyo Area] Comparing Japanese Ukiyo-e Paintings With Their Real-Life Counterparts Today

Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese paintings and prints that inspired artists around the world, including Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. What makes ukiyo-e stand out is the colors and compositions that are uniquely Japanese. This article introduces five locations in and around Tokyo that were captured in ukiyo-e prints. Take a look and see how they differ from 200 years ago.

What Is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e is a style of Japanese painting that flourished during the Edo Period (1603-1868), particularly among the common folk of Edo (present-day Tokyo). These paintings were hand-painted or block printed*, and primarily depicted the lifestyles of the common people of Edo.
At the time, the cost of one ukiyo-e print was about the same as a bowl of soba noodles—so they were quite affordable for the general public.
The works by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) introduced here all portray places in the Greater Tokyo Area that were familiar to the people of Edo. Now, let's take a look at the 200-year-old scenery depicted in their works together with the works themselves.

*Block print: In the case of ukiyo-e, this refers specifically to prints made with wooden plates.

1. Katsushika Hokusai "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" (Tokyo Bay off Kanagawa Prefecture)

The "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" is one of Hokusai’s most famous series of paintings in which he drew scenes with views of Mt. Fuji. There were initially 36 paintings, but he later added more due to popular demand, creating a total of 46 works.
This particular work depicts huge and powerful waves, but haven't you ever wondered if this spot really has such large waves?

Some say that the picture is of a view Hokusai saw from a boat on Tokyo Bay. The best place to see this view is on the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line that connects Kanagawa Prefecture and Chiba Prefecture. It consists of a 9.5 km tunnel on the Kanagawa side and a 4.4 km bridge on the Chiba side, with a parking area on a man-made island called Umihotaru in between. The tunnel is the longest undersea road tunnel in the world.
The waves may not look that big, but even small waves can appear quite large from a boat, so the height of the waves in the picture may be what Hokusai felt them to be.

1. Katsushika Hokusai "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" (Tokyo Bay off Kanagawa Prefecture)

Umihotaru, Nakajima-saki, Kisarazu-shi, Chiba

2. Katsushika Hokusai "Cushion Pine at Aoyama" (Aoyama/Meiji-jingumae)

This painting, "Cushion Pine at Aoyama," is also a part of the "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" ukiyo-e series. The large pine tree, which is said to have been about 5.6 m tall, was on the grounds of Ryuganji Temple in an area that was called Harajuku-mura at the time and was a popular tourist attraction. The picture shows people having a party, enjoying the view of Mt. Fuji and the pine tree.

The scene of this ukiyo-e is in Jingumae, Shibuya Ward today. I was surprised to learn that Harajuku was a village back then! While the cushion tree no longer exists, Ryuganji Temple still stands today. It is about 15 minutes on foot from the new National Stadium. It is not open to the public, but you can enjoy looking at its main gate from the outside.

2. Katsushika Hokusai "Cushion Pine at Aoyama" (Aoyama/Meiji-jingumae)

2-3-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

3. Utagawa Hiroshige "Zojoji Pagoda and Akabane" (Zojoji in Shiba, Minato Ward)

Zojoji is a Buddhist temple that flourished as the "bodaiji" (a temple where a family’s ancestral graves are and where the family holds funerals and other Buddhist ceremonies) of the Tokugawa family, which generated generations of Japan's military dictators during the Edo Period. This is an ukiyo-e with vivid contrasting colors.

The five-story pagoda that Hiroshige drew was burned down during World War II and has not been rebuilt, but today, Tokyo Tower, which is also red, can be seen nearby. The river that flowed beside the pagoda now runs beneath a highway.
Zojoji still stands near Tokyo Tower as a temple with a 600-year history. Be sure to visit its grounds when going to the Tokyo Tower.

3. Utagawa Hiroshige "Zojoji Pagoda and Akabane" (Zojoji in Shiba, Minato Ward)

4-7-35 Shiba-koen, Minato-ku, Tokyo

4. Utagawa Hiroshige "Snow, Moon, and Flowers at Famous Places / Snow Scene at the Shrine of Benzaiten in the Pond at Inokashira" (Inokashira Park)

The Prussian blue in Hiroshige’s work is a beautiful shade of blue that is sometimes called "Hiroshige blue." In this picture, the white snowscape beautifully enhances the gradation of this lovely blue color. This is a work that deftly captures the quiet of a snowy day and is one of my favorite ukiyo-e paintings.

Inokashira, which means the head of all "ido" (water wells), was so named by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, because it was the source of the water supply for the city of Edo. The water that fills Inokashira Pond today no longer comes from a spring, but is instead groundwater. Still, Benzaiten Shrine remains in much the same form that it did at the time of the painting, as does the topography, so it is easy to imagine how it must have looked back then.
The nearest station is Kichijoji Station, which is filled with stylish cafes and shops that I like to visit.

4. Utagawa Hiroshige "Snow, Moon, and Flowers at Famous Places / Snow Scene at the Shrine of Benzaiten in the Pond at Inokashira" (Inokashira Park)

1-18-31 Gotenyama, Musashino-shi, Tokyo

Bonus: Utagawa Kuniyoshi "Picture of Mitsumata" (Tokyo Skytree!?)

The last painting is the "Picture of Mitsumata," which has become the subject of rumors that it shows Tokyo Skytree, a building that did not exist during the Edo Period.
The artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, is famous for his depictions of warriors, but he has also left unique pictures that anthropomorphize a variety of subjects including fish, tools, monsters, and his favorite animal, cats.

On the other side of the river in the left half of this painting is a building that looks just like Tokyo Skytree. In addition, the river is the Sumida River, which flows right near Tokyo Skytree. However, the bridge is Eidai Bridge, which still remains today and is nowhere near Tokyo Skytree.
As such, it is generally thought that the building that looks like Tokyo Skytree is an exaggeration of scaffolding that was built to dig a well.
Still, the view of Tokyo Skytree across the Sumida River does look quite similar to this ukiyo-e.

Bonus: Utagawa Kuniyoshi "Picture of Mitsumata" (Tokyo Skytree!?)

1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Doesn't it sound like a lot of fun to visit these sites in person and take photos that match the composition of the ukiyo-e works? The next time you come to Tokyo, go the extra step to discover the scenery depicted in these ukiyo-e pieces!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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