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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo shop protects woodblock print technology behind Japan's ukiyo-e

A reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei," an ukiyo-e work by painter Toshusai Sharaku, is seen complete with the "eshi" painter's name, at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- As a craftsman moved a small rubbing pad to apply pressure on Japanese washi paper against a woodblock, the large face of a kabuki actor depicted in a famous "ukiyo-e" print gradually emerged to the surface as pigments were impressed onto the paper.

    When hearing the term "ukiyo-e," people are bound to call to mind major artists like Toshusai Sharaku, -- the painter who created the sketch for "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei," the work mentioned above, among other kabuki actor prints. Others include Katsushika Hokusai, the artist behind "Fugaku Sanjurokkei" (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji) and Utagawa Hiroshige known for the famous "Tokaido Gojusantsugi" (Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido) ukiyo-e series. Such painters, called "eshi," are well known today, but the artworks could not have been created without the presence of other craftsmen -- one of them being "surishi" who print patterns and colors from carved woodblocks on paper in the last stage before the work's completion.

    Paste and color are being applied to a "hangi" woodblock made of wild cherry wood at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.
    "Surishi" printer Noriyasu Soda is seen moving a "baren" rubbing pad to apply pressure to washi paper against a woodblock at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. The shades and gradations of colors are also expressed during the printing process, and marks are left on the back of washi paper where the woodblock carvings were impressed. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    "When humidity levels are high, the washi paper absorbs moisture and becomes soft. I adjust the pressure applied to the paper while observing its condition," said Noriyasu Soda, 36, an Edo woodblock print surishi craftsman at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo, on a day during the muggy rainy season in Japan.

    He used a "baren," or a rubbing pad made of bamboo skin and other material, to press the paper onto the "hangi" woodblock. What was initially only the black outline of a kabuki actor's face eventually rose to the surface following the seventh round of printing, during which a black pigment was added to the background. This led to the completion of a reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei," one of the masterpieces created by Toshusai Sharaku, a mysterious ukiyo-e painter who has fans all over the world.

    Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which were established during the Edo period (1603-1867), were like posters, magazines, or illustrated postcards of the present day. The woodblock printing technique made possible the mass-production of cheap prints -- depicting kabuki actors, women embodying the ideal beauty of the era, landscapes of scenic spots across the country, and so on -- which were collected by Edo locals as an enjoyable pastime.

    "In a nutshell, woodblock printing is like the work of a manually run printing shop. Japan is home to rich forests and has nurtured a culture of trees since the old times. Woodblock printing is a technique unique to Japan," said Yukiko Takahashi, 75, the sixth-generation head of Edo woodblock print shop Takahashi Kobo, which has produced ukiyo-e for 160 years since the late Edo period.

    A reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei," an ukiyo-e work by painter Toshusai Sharaku, is seen during the first printing stage, with light black ink applied for the picture's outline, at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.
    A reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei," an ukiyo-e work by painter Toshusai Sharaku, is seen following the fourth printing stage, during which orange was added to washi paper, at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.
    A reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei," an ukiyo-e work by painter Toshusai Sharaku, is seen following the sixth printing stage, during which skin color and green were added to washi paper, at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    Takahashi takes on the roles of both a "surishi" craftsman and a "hanmoto" publisher. The creation of ukiyo-e woodblock prints involves the work of "horishi" craftsmen who carve woodblocks with a knife and a chisel, based on the preliminary sketch drawn by "eshi" painters, as well as "surishi" craftsmen who print the colors onto paper using these woodblocks, and "hanmoto" publishers who bring together these different craftsmen and make use of established networks to plan how to sell the finished works. The integration of all these workers is indispensable for producing an ukiyo-e work.

    Takahashi said, "There are also artisans who create ingredients, tools, and the like. The work of many nameless craftsmen went on behind the scenes for the creation of masterpieces."

    One feature of ukiyo-e woodblock prints is that woodblocks for each color for multi-colored prints are used. When creating colorful "nishiki-e," it is not the case that the entire illustration is printed onto the paper all at once by painting various colors onto one woodblock. Instead, multiple woodblocks with carvings of different parts for each color are made and are printed onto the paper again and again.

    Eight woodblocks were created for the reproduction of Sharaku's "Edobei" kabuki actor work -- each of which applied light ink black color for the picture's outline, glossy ink black, vermillion, orange, brown, green as well as skin color to the chin and sideburns, ink black to fill in the background, and ink black letters for the painter's name "Toshusai Sharaku."

    There were markers on two spots of the woodblock -- the key to adding color without the different parts getting misaligned. The indicators are called "kento," which are the origins for the Japanese word "kento chigai," meaning "wrong guess" or "missing the point." The corners of the paper are pressed against the "kento" marks and printed, and whether they can be positioned at the right spot depend on the skills of the surishi printer.

    "The woodblocks also shrink depending on the season, so making adjustments is tough. When the paper absorbs too much water, it is liable to change form. I try to make the paper flat when printing," said Soda, a young artisan who has entered his seventh year in the craft.

    In the end, the name of the eshi painter is printed, bringing the work to completion. To produce the piece, ingredients, tools and skills that transcended time are needed, and these are passed down by the hands of craftsmen.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    The Japanese version of this article was originally published on June 23, 2020, and the ages of individuals indicated in the story are as of the publishing date.

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    Ukiyo-e trivia

    -- During the Edo period, ukiyo-e woodblock prints cost around the same as one bowl of buckwheat soba noodles in soup, and were rarely stored with care. They were even used as wrapping paper after they were done serving their purpose. Foreigners who came to Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912) took note of these prints, and many of the ukiyo-e prints that are in good condition today are stored in art museums in the United States and Europe.

    Pigments used for the reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei" are seen at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. The pigments are made from natural minerals and plants, and the paint does not dissolve in water. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    Paint

    -- The pigments for the Edo woodblock prints are made from natural minerals and plants, and the paint does not dissolve in water. Mixing the paint, and printing various colors on top of each other are also techniques employed by the "surishi" printer. Although the color of paints fade throughout time, the shop tries to reproduce shades of the original ukiyo-e paintings as closely as possible. Takahashi said, "It's also fun to observe the colors changing over time."

    Washi paper

    -- Takahashi Kobo uses Echizen washi paper made in Fukui Prefecture. The high-quality, handmade paper, produced from kozo (mulberry tree), feels soft and fluffy like cloth. Takahashi said that Echizen paper absorbs paint well and does not produce wood dust. Washi paper made in the winter, when impure substances are less likely to get mixed in, are said to be of a superior standard.

    "Hangi" woodblocks used for the reproduction of "Kabuki Actor Otani Oniji III as Yakko Edobei" are seen at Takahashi Kobo in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. The carvings, also seen on the rear sides, are made so that the raised areas correspond with the areas where color is applied. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    Hangi blocks

    -- Wild cherry trees grown in Japan are used to make "hangi" woodblocks. As wild cherry wood is hard and robust, it is suitable for elaborate carvings. However, large cherry trees whose material can be used for woodblocks have apparently been decreasing, and woodblocks that have become worn from multiple usages are reused by carving them again. Few old woodblocks from the Edo period remain today due to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and air raids during World War II.

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    Takahashi Kobo is located at 2-4-19 Suido in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward.

    The shop can be reached at 03-3814-2801 by phone, or via its official website https://takahashi-kobo.com/english/ (in English).

    Yukiko Takahashi, sixth-generation head of Edo woodblock print shop Takahashi Kobo, is seen in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on June 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    The shop was founded during the Ansei era (1854-1860) of the late Edo period as a printer of ukiyo-e, and has also taken on the role of a publisher from the fourth-generation head. Its product lineup also includes reproductions of Japanese-style and Western-style paintings using Edo woodblock print technology, as well as works collaborating with anime. The store also continues to create restaurant menu boards using woodblock print technology. Today, the printers at the shop are Takahashi, Soda, and 32-year-old Naomi Yanagi, who is in her first year of the craft.

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    Takahashi Kobo is also featured in the online museum exhibition "Edo Tokyo Rethink," a project directed by a contemporary artist in collaboration with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which provides a unique perspective on Japanese traditional art and culture. The online exhibition, as well as Takahashi Kobo's feature page, can be accessed via the following links.

    https://edotokyorethink.metro.tokyo.lg.jp/exhibitor_7.html

    https://edotokyorethink.metro.tokyo.lg.jp/about.html

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    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of the articles, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The user-friendly text primarily targets grade school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    The next "Enchanting Edo" story will be published on Aug. 3.

    In Photos: Tokyo shop strives to preserve ukiyo-e woodblock print technology

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