Tokyo Culture Dash

At the end of April-beginning of May a series of closely-placed national holidays gives us Golden Week, marketed as such since the fifties to encourage people to visit the cinema. I had originally thought of taking off the two working days in the middle to go on an extended holiday out of the country, but I decided against it so that I could save money and time-off for the summer. So I visited Tokyo for the first long weekend.

I had been to Tokyo only a couple of weeks before with my family, and when I was there I noticed a lot of posters for exhibitions. Understandably my family weren’t too keen on visiting niche exhibitions while they were still suffering from jetlag and adjusting to Japan. So I decided to return on my own and have it out with as many exhibitions as I could reasonably see in two days without going mad. Luckily, my friend Catherine was also in Tokyo to see some friends that weekend so it wasn`t a completely antisocial trip.

I tried to do it on the cheap so I got the nightbus there on Friday and back on Sunday, saving the price of the train fare and on two nights accomomdation. I stayed in Ueno again, because I’m familiar with it and a few of the museums were in the Park there. The nightbus was full but luckily I had a window seat so I had the extra wall to lean on, and I was prepared with my neckpillow and Uniqlo room wear (i.e. pyjamas) before I got on. I’m sure the girl beside me who was dressed in a cute outfit with heels knew exactly what I was wearing. On arriving at Tokyo Station at about 7 o’clock I found a bathroom to freshen up in and get changed. I then went to Starbucks to have a wake-up coffee and decide what I was going to do that day. The joy of having a smart phone now means that I don’t have to print off reams of paper in advance of a trip and have everything planned out beforehand. I had made a list of about 10 exhibitions which I narrowed down based on how much I wanted to see them, how long they were going on for and where they were.

My first stop was the Edo-Tokyo Museum which is in a starwars-esque building near the Tokyo Sumo Stadium. In fact when I came out of the station I saw a massive queue and I worried it was of people who, like me, were going to the museum for Golden Week. Of course they weren’t. They were lining up in front of the stadium to get tickets for the afternoon sumo tournament. Next year I’ll have to go see the sumo. The exhibition in the Edo-Tokyo Museum was The Tower: a History of Cities and Towers to mark the construction of the Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest tower in the world at 634m (though the tallest structure in the world is the Burj Khalifa, Dubai at 829.84m). The tower opened to the public on the 22 May.

Unfortunately, there was no English information in the exhibition apart from a brief introduction at the entrance. Often at exhibitions, it’s no great loss if you can’t read the information, and sometimes I don’t bother to read it when it is there, because you can just look at and appreciate the actual exhibits. You could do it to an extent at this exhibition too because they had many woodblock prints dating from the late Edo and Meiji periods, scale models of towers, and some film footage. However I would have loved to have learned more about the development of the tower in Japan and elsewhere in the past hundred years or so. According to the information at the entrance;

The lack of tall buildings in the Edo period resulted in Mt Fuji being depicted in numerous landscape paintings and paintings of famous sites, but from the Meiji era onward, tall buildings and towers came to be favoured as landmarks to replace Mt Fuji. Unlike church belfries and pagodas, towers that have appeared in modern cities, including the Eiffel Tower, were built so that people could climb to the top and enjoy the surrounding views.

The exhibition showed Western images of the Tower of Babel as a symbol of man’s pride, other entries for the design of the Eiffel Tower, woodblock prints of hot air balloons and parachutes, and there was also a little video showing various towers in Tokyo getting destroyed by monsters in films in the ’60s and ’70s. I didn’t realise until now that the Tokyo Tower is actually different in design to the Eiffel Tower, although they do look similar.

I met Catherine after and went to an exhibition called Katagami Style in the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, which is a very beautiful museum. It was opened in 2010 on the site of the Mitsubishi office in Marunouchi, which was built in 1894 in the Queen Anne style by an English architect and then torn down in 1968 due to disrepair. To house this museum, the building was rebuilt in part using the original plans and original materials and fittings. The museum is shiny and new, a model of accessibility, while still retaining its links to the past. The location of the museum is wonderful too, the entrance is accessed by entering a little European courtyard, with a high-class Italian restaurant and creperie enclosing the space on the other side. There are seats and a sculpture garden, and the low surrounding buildings add to the sense that we are being sheltered from the rest of busy Tokyo, as represented by the skyscrapers looming behind.

The exhibitions here mainly focus on 19th C Western art, and this exhibition showed the influence of katagami, Japanese stencils used for textile designs, on Western graphic and decorative art. It had examples of katagami stencils, which are incredible in their intricacy, which were carved out of waxed paper, placed on the surface to be dyed and colour was painted through. The stencils would have been applied numerous times to cover a kimono, and the stencil edges were carefully designed to match up with each other when they were applied. There were examples of kimono decorated in this way, and woodblock prints showing the different pattern combinations of kimono and obi people would wear. The part of the exhibition showing the influence on the West was divided into sections by country and had examples of posters, objects and furniture which showed this.

With japonisme being all the rage at the fin-de-siecle, it was no wonder that Japanese patterns found their way into the decorative arts of the West. The exhibition showed Art Nouveau graphic designs by Alfonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley, decorative objects by Tiffany & Co. and German Jugendstil designers, wallpaper from the Arts and Crafts movement in England, and it even showed how this style of pattern has influenced hotel and airport carpet design. I thought the exhibition was excellent, and it was interesting to see a collection of varied objects from different countries brought together to examine how they shared a particular influence, although I wish there had been a little more information about what other styles influenced these Western arts as well, such as medieval floral patterns and Indian decorative work. Of course that was not the aim of the exhibition, but it`s just good to be aware at these kinds of exhibitions that examine the influence of one thing on another, that it is just part of the picture and other influences might have made just as much impact at this.


The next morning I got up early and went to the National Museum to see Japanese Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston which has the finest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan. I`m embarrassed to say it`s the first large-scale collection of Japanese art that I`ve been to since I`ve been in Japan, but I thought I should see this as who knows when, if ever, I`ll get to Boston. It was a really hot day and the queue for Ueno Zoo was ridiculous so I hoped that the museum would be relatively empty and quiet, but unfortunately, this time lots of people were, like me, trying to get their culture fix before the exhibition closed. A thing I`ve noticed in busy Japanese museums/holy places, is that people will form orderly queues around the exhibits so that even though it takes ages to move around, they`re still guaranteed to eventually see all of it. I joined the queue for the 13th C Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace scroll so that I could see all the illustrations in sequence, but for the rest of the exhibition I just skipped forwards and backwards to the exhibits that had no one in front of them.

There was a nice mix of classical Japanese art (as opposed to the popular art of prints), with very old Buddhist paintings and sculpture, Kano school paintings, kimono, swords, folding screens, hanging scrolls. They had a good few works by Soga Shohaku, one of the Three Eccentrics of Japanese Art, who revived the brush-style drawing of the earlier Muromachi period, but who had no stylistic successor. His works are probably some of the most recognisable Japanese works now, thanks, no doubt, to his presence in the Boston collection which allowed Western scholars to study him.

It was great to see these famous works in real life, as some of them were larger than I imagined, such as the folding screens. Just as when Western paintings are reproduced in books they are without their frames, with Japanese paintings you don`t see that they are sometimes mounted on elaborate hanging scrolls, which would have been an important part of their original display.

The final stop on my cultural marathon was the Museum of Western Art for an exhibition of prison prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th C Italian artist. Fortunately for me, this wasn`t a special exhibition so I just had to pay for the permanent exhibition and I could see the regular collection as well. I have to say I was taken aback by this unexpected gem of a collection. The works were collected by Kojiro Matsukata, an industrial magnate with a passion for Western Art who wanted to open a museum in Japan to allow Japanese artists to view art from the rest of the world. However the museum was not created until 1959, after Matsukata`s death, due to a number of misfortunes such as the bankruptcy of his company, destruction by fire of the works stored in London, and the post-war claiming of the remaining works in Europe by the French government. They were given to the Japanese government in 1959 as a sign of friendship between the two countries, and the museum was designed by Le Corbusier.

The collection has examples of work from most major artistic periods and countries starting from Medieval Italy. They have Veronese, Tintoretto, Guido Reni, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Jan Steen, Rubens, El Greco, Murillo, Ruysdael, Lorraine, Reynolds as well as Impressionists and Modernists. I enjoyed the Piranesi exhibition which showed fantastical visions of enormous gothic prisons. Again, no information in English for this, and I would have like to have learned a bit more about Piranesi and his prints.

I know this post has been quite word- and art- heavy, but the next one will be lighter and have more pictures, I promise.

Hanami in Honshu

The cherry blossoms have come and gone and so has the season for viewing them, known as hanami. There are still some of the fat pink variety lingering on amidst the leafy regrowth on the trees, but apparently it doesn`t count as hanami once there are leaves, according to one of my co-workers. It’s part of the traditional Japanese love of looking at and appreciating nature. It’s also a good excuse for an outdoor party. Above you can see some Edo-period woodblock prints of cherry blossom viewers. The cherry blossoms herald the start of Spring and warmer weather, and the Japanese weather forecast charts the cherry blossom ‘front’ as it travels up Japan beginning in Okinawa, where it can start as early as January, through Honshu where the season is typically in April, until it reaches Hokkaido in May. It seems strange that cherry blossoms are such a big thing here, more than anywhere else in the world. There was an avenue of blossom trees near my house in Ireland but you`d never go there just to look at them. I was so glad to see the blossoms here though, as it meant winter was definitely over. I`d heard that this winter wasn`t so bad in my region in terms of snowfall, but it was still snowing up until March so it was a relief to get a sign that it was over.

My family came to visit me during their Easter Holidays for two weeks at the beginning of April, which really is a great time to visit Japan. Winter`s too cold and Summer`s too hot, and while Spring is chilly, it`s good weather for sight-seeing. Rather than go into minute detail of what we did, I`ll track our journey in terms of cherry blossom.

My family flew into Narita airport so I met them in Tokyo. We stayed in Ueno, the area where I stayed at New Year, which I love for its mixture of high-brow museums and low-brow markets. Ueno Park is also one of the most popular spots for hanami in Tokyo. The cherry blossoms were just starting to open so it was relatively quiet, but they had lanterns up around the place and festival food stalls so my family were able to try yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and yakiniku (meat on a stick).


Another favoured Tokyo hanami spot is Shinjuku Gyoen, which tends to be quieter because you have to pay in and you`re not allowed bring in alcohol. It was a dull windy morning when we went there, praying that it wouldn`t rain, which it didn`t. We breakfasted under a gnarled old tree that had round seeds hanging from it like Christmas baubles. I don`t know what it was, but I liked the contrast between it and the delicate flowers on the trees next to it.

There are three styles of garden in the park; an English landscape garden, a formal French garden and a traditional Japanese garden. We only looked around the Japanese garden because, as my mother put it, they “didn`t travel to the other side of the world to go to an English garden”. The Japanese garden was beautiful, with trees, ponds and bridges. My sisters were reminded of Disney`s Mulan (China/Japan, close enough) and we passed most of the time quoting the film and singing the songs to ourselves.



Most of the blossom trees were still just starting to sprout pale, fragile blossoms from their truncated and seemingly withered limbs, but the magnolia was in full bloom. They`re not so common in Ireland I think, but I remember one house in my town had a tree and I loved walking past it when it was in bloom. My friend says that it`s important to know your favourite things because it`s easy to forget unless you`re reminded of it, so I`ve decided that the magnolia is one of my favourite flowers. They are magnificent in full bloom. Did you know that the magnolia tree was around before the evolution of bees? The petals are so tough in order to avoid damage by the beetles that assist in pollination.


The next stop on our Japan travels was Kyoto. On our first night we went to Maruyama Park as the sun was setting. There was a light-up that night, the centrepiece of which was the weeping cherry tree in the middle. This is the most popular spot in Kyoto for hanami parties, and you enter it through Yasaka Shrine. Crowds of young university students and office workers went through to the park where they had scouts already staking out a place on the blue plastic mats underneath the cherry trees. The blossoms were still in their early stages but people were celebrating with full-blown gusto. The weather was clear and cold and the temperature dropped sharply when the sun went down, but that didn`t stop the revelers from having a good time, most of whom were wearing their beer jackets, although one smart guy came prepared with a sleeping bag.



After our brief stop at Kyoto we went further south to Hiroshima, where the blossoms were blooming nicely. Unlike Tokyo and Kyoto where the blossoms were pink, they seemed to be mainly white in Hiroshima. The riverside area around the A-Dome and the Memorial Park are so beautiful that you feel guilty appreciating the blossoms instead of contemplating one of the most horrific events in recent history. We wondered what it must be like to live in Hiroshima and walk by this place regularly. Does it lose its significance for them? Is the dichotomy of horror and beauty something you get used to?




We took a side trip out of Hiroshima to Miya-jima, an island shrine which is famous for its floating torii in the sea. These were the fullest blooms we saw on our trip because the front was slow in moving up through Japan this year; in fact the special opening of Kenrokuen park in Kanazawa for the cherry blossoms had to be put back by a week so my family missed them there. They are notoriously unpredictable.




The blossoms bloomed in Kanazawa the week after my family left, and there was lots of hanami-ing by the rivers which are lined with cherry trees and blessed with wide grassy banks and lots of sun. However, the weather is so changeable at this time of year that I caught a cold and missed the light-up in Kenrokuen. Oh well, there`s always next year.


I took a trip back to Tokyo a week or two ago during Golden Week (more on that coming up) and stayed in Ueno again. Although the hanami season was over, there were still people appreciating the last blooms of the year.