Japanese Ukiyo-e, which translates to “pictures of the floating world,” is a genre of art that flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries. Thanks especially to the advancement of woodblock printing, Japanese artists such as: Toyokuni Utagawa 1769-1825 and his disciples Kunisada Utagawa and Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Kitagawa Utamaro 1750-1806, Ando Hiroshige 1797-1858, and Hokusai Katsushika 1760-1849, became famous both in Japan and abroad.
They heavily influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists of France and America, with their expressive curves, bold use of colors, and liberal designs. Ukiyo-e subjects included: female beauties, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, historic scenes, folk tales, travel scenes and landscapes, flora and fauna, and erotic.
When visiting Japan, significant, classical Ukiyo-e can be viewed today at two important museums in Tokyo, the Ota Memorial Museum in Shibuya ward and the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. It is also worth traveling to Matsumoto, a historic city about 3 hours from Tokyo in the Japan Alps, to check out some of Japan’s greatest Ukiyo-e masterpieces at the Ukiyo-e Museum in that city.
As far as shopping for your own historic prints, shops in Tokyo include: the bookseller Ohya Shobo in Jimbocho and the Oriental Bazaar in Omotosando. In Kyoto some of the old publishing houses are still active: Unsodo, on the west side of Teramachi Street, south of Nijo, has a showroom and shop with a vast store of original key-blocks from which it still produces re-strike prints.
Visitors can watch demonstrations and take part in classes in block carving and printing at the Kyoto Handicraft Center, on the north side of Marutamachi Street, east of Higashioji. There are also catalogues of currently practicing artists, as well as modern prints with traditional themes for sale at Gallery Gado, south of Kinkaku-ji Temple, on the Kinukake-no-michi path.
Ukiyo-e make convenient gift ideas, as they lie flat and take up no luggage space. Ukiyo-e from the early Edo period to the Shin-hanga movement can be found at Kyoto dealers such as Daishodo. Many prints have been found simply pressed within old volumes in antique bookshops, and it has not been unknown to find original printing key-blocks at flea markets!
The Ukiyo-e tradition is actually still thriving today in the work of some notable Japanese contemporary artists, such as Yayoi Kusama, who collaborates with Ukiyoe Hanga shokunin (those with modern technical expertise in woodblock printing) to produce visionary Ukiyo-e work. One of the greatest contemporary Ukiyo-e masters is 80-year-old Matsuzaki Keizaburou. I had the great pleasure of meeting him during Japan Week at Grand Central Terminal, March 10-12, 2016. He sat on a slightly raised platform on the floor and intently showcased his woodblock printing skills. His work was honored with the title of Intangible Cultural Property in 1988, and he himself currently holds the following positions: Vice-President of the Association for the Preservation of the Traditional Crafts in Arakawa, Tokyo; Director of the Traditional Woodblock Print Handicraft Union in Tokyo; Director of the Preservation of the Ukiyo-e Woodblock Print Handicraft Association of Tokyo.