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Exploring the Artistic Legacy of Hokusai in Tokyo

Statue of Hokusai, Seikyoji Temple, Tokyo

Since 2019, a desire to travel to Japan had been festering within me. With the pandemic this desire grew only stronger as it was delayed with each passing year. Finally in December 2023 I could fulfil some designs I had. I wanted to get closer to Hokusai by finding his grave in Tokyo and make an offering of a brush, as well as finding some of the spots he depicted.

Of course, in the Proustian conception of things, this would make me an 'idolater': committing the sin of focusing more on the life of the artist rather than the feeling or emotional message of the art itself. Indeed, what connection is there between Hokusai the man and modern Tokyo? The scenery of modern Tokyo is radically different from old Edo, but some things feel remarkably similar to his prints: the gradations of the sky, the interpretation of certain cloud formations, and colours. Although woodblock prints are stylisations of these natural phenomenon, they are surprisingly similar with the environment of Tokyo even today, and on the whole quite different with London clouds, colours, and gradations (as I'm writing, the sky is mostly grey in London). Hokusai was deeply connected and aware of the environment around him and interpreted it through his own visual language.

Indeed, the natural environment of any place always influences the art produced there. I was told once that the clouds and light depicted in old Dutch master paintings is a reflection of the canals and larger bodies of water found in the Netherlands, for example. Certainly David Hockney's art might not have been so colourful had he not spent time in bright and sunny California. Surely visiting the environment of modern Tokyo would reveal some secrets of Hokusai and Ukiyo-e?

i) Hokusai's Tomb

On 11 December, as our 13 hour flight to Tokyo neared its end, we were welcomed from our window by the sight of Mount Fuji rising above the clouds. Mt Fuji can be notoriously elusive and in two former trips to Japan, both times of which I passed by the volcano; I never saw it. I resigned myself to the fact that even the great Haiku poet Basho felt some suppressed frustration and that even not seeing it was in itself something:

Mt Fuji seen from the airplane window

Fog and rain
A day of Fuji unseen
rather nice

It was a relief that at least before even landing in Tokyo, I finally managed to see Mt Fuji, the same Mt Fuji which Hokusai saw with his eyes, at least once. Hokusai's Fuji seems more 'pointier' or narrower at the summit than in reality, but Hokusai's more triangular Fuji is somehow even more aesthetically pleasing, perhaps because it symbolises balance and stability. I took the sighting of Mt Fuji as we landed to be a good omen.

After landing at around 9am and settling into the hotel in Akihabara my partner and I immediately set off with brush in bag to find Seikyoji temple and Hokusai's grave therein. Google maps showed that it was only 25 mins walk. I was struck by the beauty of the vibrant yellow gingko trees on the Tokyo streets. The falling leaves floating from the sky in the breeze like gold flakes; cackling crows, the sound of children on a nearby playground in Taito district.

Kojima park, Taito ward, Tokyo, December 2023

Finally we arrived at the supposed spot, which led us into a back alley. We turned another corner and it was the back of a house it seemed, with no entrance or gate. Was this the temple? A woman on a bicycle saw our confusion and instantly knew what we were looking for and led us around the block to the front of the temple entrance. With a standard metal gate entrance Seikyoji temple is disappointingly modern and to my eyes resembled a modern Lutheran church than an Edo period Buddhist temple. The wife of the custodian instantly saw me from the side annex as I entered the grounds however, and understood what I had come for. She led me to a stone path around the back of the modern annex and to the graveyard. There she stopped by the entrance as we heard chanting. A man was already praying to Hokusai at his grave. We waited solemnly and silently as not to disturb him until he left.

Hokusai's tomb, Seikyoji,Tokyo

It was my turn to enter the small courtyard filled with stone tablets. In the background the cawing of crows could still be heard in this otherwise residential neighbourhood. The lady led me to a wooden box with sloping roof. "Here is the grave of Hokusai and his wife" she said. "The first or second wife?" I asked. "The second". Finally I was before Hokusai's grave. I took out from my bag the brush I had brought from London. The lady was as surprised that I had come with an offering. I offered the brush and made my prayers silently. As I approached the stone tablet closer I noticed with some joy a little wooden bucket carved with an elephant on the exterior. She then opened the side door of the wooden enclosure and showed me Hokusai's death poem inscribed on the side of the stone tablet:

Side view of Hokusai's tombstone


As a spirit
I will stroll
through summer fields

The lady then asked about me: where had I come from? why was I so interested in Hokusai? was I an artist too? How did I know Hokusai had two wives? etc. We chatted a bit in broken English and Japanese as we left the graveyard and returned to the main temple courtyard. She motioned she would be back shortly. To my surprise, she returned with some gifts for me: some papers about Hokusai and the local area and also a box wrapped in paper. I expressed my deep gratitude to her and left the temple. Once outside, I opened the box and found that inside was a small ikebana flower vase. I was touched by her kindness.

Gifts received from Seikyoji

ii) Honganji Temple in Asakusa

After leaving Hokusai's tomb, we meandered along to Asakusa with the aim of going to Mokuhankan (a woodblock print shop I knew of). But along the way, we serendipitously encountered a large temple. It wasn't until we walked inside that a little reproduction print of Hokusai's 'Honganji at Asakusa in Edo', from the series 26 views of Mt Fuji, indicated that this was the same temple!

Hokusai, Honganji at Asakusa in Edo, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-32, New York, Metropolitan Museum

The temple today is a reconstruction, but the size of the sloping roof gives the same sense of awe and many of the architectural elements are the same. I walked around to the graveyard from where I could try see the same side. I was struck by the imaginative skill of Hokusai in imagining a higher viewpoint with which to draw the roof. The clouds and the kite all give a sense of the workmen being extremely high up.

Honganji Temple in Asakusa today, (December 2023), Tokyo)

iii) The Sumida River

Hokusai spent most of his life around the east bank of the Sumida river. In fact there is an area still called Katsushika from which his name Katsushika Hokusai derives. On 12 December, we began exploring the east bank at the Sumida Hokusai Museum, on - yes you guessed it - Hokusai Dori street. The museum is a shiny and impressive-looking modern building, but I was somewhat disappointed to learn as I entered that they were in the process of changing exhibitions, so most things were closed except for a room of reproductions - c'est la vie... I did like the eerie wax models though of Hokusai and his daughter though. Occasionally a hand would really move.

Hokusai Sumida Museum, Tokyo

Leaving the museum, we walked along the Sumida river trying to find various spots. Hokusai street is of course, decorated with street art of the Great Wave. The area is also near the Sumo ring and Dojos, so you occasionally kimono clad sumo wrestlers tottering around. We walked north up towards the Umaya Bridge. From here, you can see the spot where Hokusai depicted 'Viewing Sunset over Ryogoku Bridge from the Onmaya Embankment.

Viewing the Sunset over Ryōgoku Bridge from the Onmaya Embankment (Onmayagashi yori Ryōgokubashi sekiyō o miru), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Same view, from Umaya bridge today, Tokyo, December 2023

We continued to walk down along the Sumida river towards the Kyu-Yasuda Gardens (旧安田庭園). This tranquil garden from the Edo period has a pond with bridges and carp. A famous rock known as Komadomeishi is there and was depicted by Hokusai in 1822.

Komadome Stone, from the series, A Selection of Horses, the Sumida Hokusai Museum

Kyu Yasuda garden today, Tokyo, December 2023

Just two minutes walk further down to the Sumo stadium is also the spot where Hokusai depicted a Sudden shower at Shin Yanagi bashi bridge, from the picture book of the Sumida river. Published in 1806, one image shows people caught in a rain shower as they rush over the the bridge. In the background is a lumberyard where the sumo stadium now stands.

Hokusai, Shower at the New Yanagi Bridge, 1806, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

To cap it all off though, I was delighted to finally make it to a modern Ukiyo-e shop in Tokyo - Mokuhankan, run by woodblock carver and printer David Bull. I have been following David Bull on YouTube for many years and am a big admirer, not just of his woodblock carving skill, but his passion for the subject, eloquence, approachability and desire to revive the craft in modern Tokyo. If you want to see the spirit of old Ukiyo-e, go to Mokuhankan in Asakusa.

David Bull and Edward Luper at Mokuhankan, Tokyo, December 2023


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