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Woodblock Prints – A Great Souvenir!

One of the most recognizable forms of Japanese arts are woodblock prints or ukiyo-e. The word ukiyo refers to the world of common people and e means picture. This art form originated in the late sixteenth century in the ancient capital of Kyoto and the first ukiyo-e were not woodblock prints at all but paintings of everyday life.

As ukiyo-e developed into popular art the subjects of the prints broadened. The equivalent of today’s movie poster were Yakusha-e or woodblock prints of kabuki actors in popular roles and Bijin-ga illustrated beautiful women of Edo. Landscapes came later and were used as we use postcards today.

You can see beautiful examples of ukiyo-e in many of Tokyo’s museums and you can purchase modern reproductions of ancient scenes in many stores, including the Oriental Bazaar in the Omotesando area of Tokyo. The scene below is on a plaque at the site of a former Shrine in Kagurazaka and I think it’s just gorgeous!

Making traditional ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints is a complex process that involves the work of at least three artisans:

  1. The ukiyo-e artist sketches the design with sumisen (ink lines)
  2. The horishi (carver) pastes the sketch on a block made of wild cherry wood and carves out the design. This block, called a sumiita (ink plate), is only for printing the black outline.
  3. Other blocks are then carved out, one for each color; these are called iroita (color plates).
  4. The surishi (printer) applies color on the blocks under the artist’s supervision. The light colors and largest areas are printed first followed by darker colors and small details.
  5. Sheets of paper are then pressed on each woodblock to create the design. Each block has a marking on the same spot relative to the finished picture to ensure that the image remains aligned throughout the process.

As you can imagine this process is painstaking and time consuming but once the blocks themselves have been completed it is much easier to make reproductions of the same design. Kids-web Japan has a gallery of some famous woodblock prints and you can even create your own virtual Ukiyo-e to see if you have mastered the process.

Photo Credit: Personal Collection

Tags: , Art, Japan, The Tokyo Traveler, Tokyo, Travel, ukiyo-e, woodblock prints

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POSTED IN: Art, Symbols of Japan