Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto

June 3, 2015


Our hostel offered bikes to rent for a small fee (foldable bikes with teeny tiny wheels) so we hired them to cycle out of the city to a museum of woodblock print Japanese art, the Ukiyo-e Museum.

We must have been a funny sight on our bikes with super extended saddles and handlebars, and it felt like a joke to park them next to the cars outside the museum – they literally fell over in the wind.


The museum was a little hard to find out in the countryside, amongst the rice paddies. Great view though.


Pete’s favourite piece of art is ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ by Hokusai and we had it framed in our flat. The museum was pretty special because it housed a load of original woodblock prints by Hokusai and other famous artists, including The Great Wave although unfortunately it wasn’t on show. It also showed us the creation process, which is so complicated and highly skilled, involving at least three people: there’s the artist, who designs it; the carver, who painstakingly chisels out the minute details of the design from mountain cherry tree wood for each colour that is required for the print; then the printer who colours the woodblocks and prints each layer onto a single piece of damp handmade paper, matching them all up precisely to create the finished piece.

Here’s an example of the print before and after the colour.


It’s interesting because, providing the woodblocks are cared for properly, they can recreate famous woodcut prints exactly as the original artist intended them to look.


Or use alternative colours to create a different piece. There were a number of examples of this within the museum, showing the same piece of art created years apart with a slightly different colour palette. Also, in a video, they showed us how to recreate the art using the traditional techniques for pieces that they no longer have the woodblocks for. It was fascinating and great to see things being done traditionally rather than with machines, especially in Japan!

Here are a few examples but i’d urge you to get out there and see the full pieces of work. We especially liked Utagawa Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kitagawa Utamaro but there are hundreds of artists.