A Moment in the Floating World

“For hundreds of years, Japanese woodblock printmakers worked in a thriving popular art scene. Their prints depicted heroes, villains and monsters, spanning every genre from satire, to romance, to horror. It was all part of Ukiyo, or Floating World culture. Inventive and fast-paced, Ukiyo culture was the big movement of its day.”

Ukiyo-e Heroes

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AUGUST 2012: Jed Henry, an American illustrator, and David Bull, an Englishman printmaker in Japan (by way of Canada), discovered a shared admiration for traditional Japanese woodblock prints and resolved to work together. Their Kickstarter campaign for an ambitious collaborative art project launched at the start of the month and promptly went viral, receiving more than $300,000 over their original fundraising goal.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved both video games and Japanese art, particularly ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The bold colors, exaggerated expressions, and dynamic compositions were a tremendous influence on my personal artistic development. To me, this mashup homage  to video game heroes and traditional Japanese art was like peanut butter and chocolate. I was already anticipating the launch of the fundraising campaign, so when the site launched, I immediately went to look at the various donor levels and noticed this:

“PRINT PARTY! – Visit David Bull’s studio and get a lesson in printmaking! Plus, you receive 1 of our main woodblock prints, and both Chibi Heroes prints. (Transportation to Ōme City, Tokyo, not included.) Various dates available.”

I was sold. After some quick decision making involving many texts back and forth with my husband, I snapped up one of the last pledges for the Print Party and set about making travel arrangements  for two to Tokyo.

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SEPTEMBER 2012: It’s a 90-minute train ride from Tokyo’s hectic Shinjuku Station to the suburban calm of Ōme. We hired a taxicab in front of Ōme station and gave the driver the address on my iPhone. He drove uphill through the sleepy town, stopping on a narrow street—right in front of an odd-shaped sliver of a house,  perched on the down-slope of a hill. It was the home and studio of woodblock printmaker David Bull.1

Sign reading "David Bull" in Japanese: デービッド・ブル

Sign reading “David Bull” in Japanese: デービッド・ブル

A tall, lanky man with an impressive beard, David immediately greeted us and invited us into his home, where we met Teiko Fujii, one of his printer apprentices. We introduced ourselves and talked about the history of ukiyo-e, giving us an opportunity to examine some rare Meiji and Taisho-era prints from David’s personal collection.

At noon, David treated us to lunch at Sōan, a charming mom-and-pop udon-ya across the street that is known for their enormous portions of homemade udon noodles. Construction workers at the table next to us slurped hurriedly.

After lunch, we went back to the house and headed downstairs to the workshop. The bay window overlooks a creek which feeds into the Tama River, which flows from Lake Okutama all the way into Tokyo Bay.2

As a beginner’s exercise, David invited us to try our hand at printing with a three-block design featuring everyone’s favorite feline transport vehicle. The procedure was straightforward: first, a dab of glue, then a brush of pigment. The mixture is blended together and spread evenly over the woodblock with a flat brush. A piece of moistened washi paper is laid facedown onto the block.3 Then, a baren is used to apply firm pressure to the back of paper, rubbing the pigment into the body of the paper. Once the color has fully registered, the process is repeated until all the blocks have been printed.

The printing process is deceptively simple, yet in practice is difficult to master. This would be more apparent when we later tried to print copies of the Ukiyo-e Heroes “Chibi”. By comparison, the “Chibi” pieces are much more complicated, requiring twice as many color blocks and a more experienced hand with its finer details.

I can’t imagine how challenging it is to print one of the larger pieces, such as “Rickshaw Cart”!

The process of making the woodblocks themselves is a fusion of old and new. Nowadays, David can easily print an image from his computer onto gossamer thin paper, then use a modern aerosol fixative to adhere the paper to a block of cherry wood. However, once it’s time to start carving and printing, the old ways (and the years of experience necessary to perfect them) are all that matters.

After a Skype session with Ukiyo-e Heroes creator and illustrator Jed Henry, we all walked back to the train station as the sun was setting. The Tama River flowed with great strength as we crossed a bridge; a typhoon was forecast to hit the Tokyo area within the next 24-36 hours.4

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NOVEMBER 2012: Back at home, I received a package in the mail containing a copy of “Rickshaw Cart” and two immaculate “Chibi” prints—together with my printed catbus and “Chibi” prints, I treasure them all as unique souvenirs of one fine day in Ōme.

"Rickshaw Cart" (2012)

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TODAY: The Kickstarter campaign has had a tremendous effect on the future of David Bull’s printmaking studio. By the end of November 2013, a little over one year after the project got off to a rollicking start, Seseragi Studio’s work on Ukiyo-e Heroes has finally been completed.

It is inspiring to see David and Jed continue to fight for the relevancy of this art form in a contemporary world—particularly in embracing 21st-century technology as a means to achieve this goal. While he may be in his sixties, David is no slouch when it comes to tech. He’s built and maintained an ever-growing website full of project updates, personal musings, and educational resources for woodblock artists of all skill levels. He posts videos regularly on YouTube. Recently, he’s even done an AMA on Reddit where he not only fielded questions, he simultaneously broadcast a live webcam stream while he was creating several prints. Meanwhile, Jed continues to create new woodblock designs for David’s studio, all inspired by his love of Japanese pop culture.

Nevertheless, there remain challenges. The labor-intensive nature of this highly specialized artisan work does not scale sustainably. If business demand increases—as it did with the Ukiyo-e Heroes project—the supply must still be created by hand, either by David’s own hands or those of his collaborators. Prices may go up in order to keep the business going and pay the workers a living wage. Would a premium price contradict the artist’s intent to make quality affordable art, even if it meant that his workshop could continue to survive?  Would the art-buying audience, small as it already is for contemporary woodblock prints, even stomach such prices?

With so many unanswered questions for the future of ukiyo-e beyond cheaply-made tourist trinkets,5 it’s not hard to succumb to the tide of pessimism. Yet, the philosophy of ukiyo revels in impermanence, finding beauty in the here and now.

“… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…”

—Asai Ryoi, Ukiyo monogatari
(“Tales of the Floating World”)
ca. 1666

In that same spirit, David has this to say about his latest venture: “Will we succeed? Who knows… But we intend to have some fun trying!”


Getting There

Located at the very western boundary of greater Tokyo, the town of Ōme is along the route that hikers take to explore Mount Mitake, which forms the eastern border of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. The Japan National Tourism Organization has put together a guide (PDF) to the park.

The closest international airports to Ōme are Narita International Airport and Haneda International Airport. Together, these two airports serve the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, with the majority of international flights flying into Narita.

To get to Ōme from central Tokyo, board the westbound orange JR Chūō Special Rapid line from (Shinjuku Station and Tokyo Station are major stops along the line) and off-board at Ōme station. Depending on the timetable, there may be a change of trains required halfway along the journey at Tachikawa Station onto the Ōme Line. For general information on using the train in Japan, see the “Taking the Train” by Japan-Guide.com, an excellent resource for getting around Japan.

Lodging

For this trip, we stayed in central Tokyo, at the Westin Tokyo (1-4-1 Mita, Meguro-ku) in the Ebisu neighborhood. While its opulent Old World decor isn’t for everyone, the rooms are comfortable and spacious.

Travelers set on staying in a traditional inn, or ryokan, in the Mount Mitake area might find luck at Yuzu no sato Shosenkaku ゆずの里 勝仙閣 (3-484 Sawai, Ome) or other listings posted by the Ōme City Tourist Information site.

Ukiyo-e in Tokyo

The Ukiyo-e Ōta Memorial Museum of Art in Harajuku was unfortunately closed during our visit to Tokyo (the museum is closed during the last few days of the month in order for the museum staff to change exhibits), but you may have better luck. Other museums in Japan that have ukiyo-e prints on display are described here.

David Bull’s pro tip for visitors to Tokyo: make time to peruse the antiquarian shops in Kanda-Jimbōchō and you just might find your own antique ukiyo-e print to treasure! Kanda-Jimbōchō is not too far from the electronics district of Akihabara.