Printing Ukiyo-e

March 25, 2011

I went to the National Gallery of Victoria International on Monday for a workshop. I had time before it started and decided to revisit the Asia gallery. I wandered the gallery, lingering in front of the beautiful negoro lacquer, its layers of black showing through the red. My mind was on the Japan disaster and it must have been visible on my face because as I left, the gallery guard, looked at me, hesitated, and then said, ‘Have a good afternoon’.

One of Hiroshige's 100 views of Edo

I did. The workshop I had signed up for was learning the art of printing an Ukiyo-e woodblock print using traditional methods. Thanks to the Consulate-General of Japan and the Sakai family from the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum (JUM), it was a free one-and-a-half-hour workshop offered to the public. Printmaker Ito Tatsuya explained the process with the help of translator Yumi. The image we were colouring, one of Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo showing Ueno Park, had 17 colours that each had to be added separately. We were going to try three colours only.

We were given the basic underdrawing, the hanshita-e on mulberry paper. One of the most important things to get right is lining up the paper on the woodblock so that each layer of colour is applied exactly where you want it. We were able to practice for a while before getting down to inking the woodblock.

Colouring the cherry blossom

Our first colour was a pale pink for sakura (cherry blossom).  Ito-san wet the woodblock a little, explaining that usually the paper would also be a little damp but was more difficult to work with like that. For beginners, it was better to keep it dry. Then he added a few drops of pink paint, a drop of nori (glue), and using a circular motion, spread it over the relevant area with a wide brush. Then he placed his paper onto the woodblock and pressed it down using a baren, a flat round instrument for that purpose. He lifted the paper and voila, the sakura had bloomed.

Adding the blue water

Ueno Park’s blue water pond was added using the same method but the yellow tint for the horizon was a little trickier. For that we had to add paint and glue in one spot, then sweep the brush back and forth so that it created a graduated colour.

Ito-san has been a printmaker for 26 years. His movements were deft and sure. As with Japanese calligraphy or ikebana masters, I could have watched him carry out his craft for hours. He patiently explained the process and answered our questions. He gave us feedback on our attempts, pointing out where we missed the placement a little, or where we might not have kept the baren absolutely flat, and praised our attempts. Considering it was the first time the workshop members had made a woodblock print, everyone did a very good job.

The graduated yellow horizon


Mode Japonism

March 18, 2010

Tayu 太夫, the hair style of an Edo-period courtesan.

A more modern style with a Japanese feel.

On Monday evening I attended a hair show titled Mode Japonism. The hair show was held by Keiichi Hanada who specialises in Nihongami (日本髪),  traditional Edo-period Japanese coiffure. These days it is rare to find a hair stylist who has the skills or knowledge to create such hairstyles. In fact, Hanada-san told me there are only about five individuals in Kyoto who have these skills and all of them are elderly. Hanada-san was only able to learn the styles by approaching these artists over 100 times before one of them agreed to teach him.

As is usual in the Japanese arts, it takes many years of practice and study to acquire the skills to execute these hairstyles. Hanada-san also studied Ukiyo-e, traditional woodblock prints, to get a better understanding of many of the hairstyles. The list of recorded styles runs to well over 100 for the Edo period, with almost three times as many hair ornaments (kanzashi) for different occasions. Kanzashi were selected depending on season but also on a variety of other factors. Type and location of kanzashi in the hairstyle was used to inform others of an individual’s status in Edo period Japan.

Hanada-san putting the final touches on a Bunkin Taka-shimada, a traditional bridal hair style.

Hanada-san does many types of Western and traditional Japanese hairstyles at his salon, Arms, in Kyoto. He studied Nihongami styles for ten years but does not do maiko or geiko. That world is still a closed one and the patron–client relationship is considered sacred.

Hanada-san does styles for weddings, including the traditional Japanese Bunkin Taka-shimada. This was the style we watched him create on Monday evening. He had already created four other styles for the show, having started the day at 6am. The Bunkin Taka-shimada took him about an hour to do, and he had already prepared the hair a little beforehand, which gives some idea of the complexity of the style. Traditional combs are used along with  a special wax made of soy derivative called bintsuke-abura. The latter is also used by sumo.

The day finished in the studio at Wings Kyoto with a quick photo shoot that Hanada-san invited me to join. The models were tired and needed to go so we did a rapid shutter-clicking whirlwind and then they were gone to have their locks untied and de-waxed.

Full gallery of images can be seen here.

Genroku-shimada style