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  • Then and Now: Hiroshige's Landscapes|Ronin Gallery

Then and Now: Hiroshige's Landscapes

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 18, 2016 at 8:32:18 AM PDT September 18, 2016 at 8:32:18 AM PDTth, September 18, 2016 at 8:32:18 AM PDT

As a master of the landscape print, Hiroshige captures Edo-period Japan through series such as One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces. Though the term meisho traditionally intertwines with literary or poetic landmarks, Hiroshige's meisho-e, or "famous place pictures," purport a different type of poetry. From the rough waves of the Naruto whirlpools to the New Years Festival of Asakusa, Hiroshige shares the natural marvels and vibrant culture of mid-17th century Japan. But what about today? At the time of printing, these images would have served as armchair travelling for consumers, so how have these meisho fared as destinations in the 21st century? Looking to four prints from Hiroshige's Landscapes, let's check in.

"Edo: Asakusa Fair" (1853) from Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces

(Left) Asakusa Festival (1853), Famous Views of the 60 Odd Provinces. (Right) Sanja Festival at Asakusa Temple (2012). Photo credit: Travis Suzaka

As the temple eaves and bare trees reach into the cold blue of the sky, the street bustles with activity. The temple path is packed with stalls offering all kinds of goods and food during this neighborhood Toshi no ichi, or "Year-End Fair." The delicate flecks of snow against the night sky and the heavy, layered clothing of the townspeople capture the December chill. While Hiroshige's print captures the 1850s celebration, the picture to the left, taken by the Ronin Gallery's very own Travis Suzaka, offers a modern version of the celebration. In both the past and the present iteration, the festivities take place at Sensoji Temple, one of the most colorful and popular temples in Japan today. Located in Asakusa, at the Northeast fringe of modern Tokyo, this famous place rests along the Sumida River.

"Tenjin Shrine at Kameido" (1856) from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

(Left) Tenjin Shrine at Kameido (1856), from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. (Right) Tenjin Today. Photo credit: AroundTokyo.net.

Visitors hold tight to the rail as they cross the steep curve of the drum bridge. The wisteria hangs lazily towards the water, delicately purple on this summer day. Built along the Eastern edge of Edo, the Tenjin Shrine was developed in the 1660s and given the namesake of the patron saint of learning and calligraphy. The shrine featured not one, but two taikobashi, or "drum bridges." The pair was known as the male bridge and the female bridge, one larger and one smaller respectively. Hiroshige presents the male of the pair. Turning to the contemporary photograph, the bridge looks considerably different. Though the wisteria falls as heavily as it did in the 1850s, the bridge itself fell apart during World War II and was rebuilt with ferroconcrete. Apart from the iconic bridges, the rest of the shrine remains largely unchanged, still attracting visitors to its quiet grounds.

(Left) "Bridge Over Pond of Water Lilies," by Monet (1899). Oil on Canvas. (Right) "Claude Monet Giverny Garden," by Ariane Cauderlier. Photo credit: Giverny.org.

When considering the taikobashi, it is significant take a brief pause between today and 19th century Japan in turn-of-the-century France. Not only does an iteration of the taikobashi remain in modern Tokyo, but also another resides in Giverny, France. Strongly influenced by Hiroshige's compositional mastery, French Impressionists found inspiration in the Japanese prints arriving in Paris. Particularly drawn to the works of Hiroshige and the "Eastern aesthetic," Claude Monet collected over two hundred prints. In 1899, he built his pond and Japanese bridge in the style of the taikobashi found in Tenjin Shrine at Kameido to serve as his subject in a series of eighteen oil paintings. After his death, Monet's son left the house and gardens to the Academie des Beaux-Arts and today the property serves as public museum.

"Horikiri Iris Garden" (1857) from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

(Left) "Horikiri Iris Garden" (1857), from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.  (Right) Horikiri iris garden in Tokyo, Japan (1890). Photo credit: photographium.com.

Horikiri Iris Garden today. Photo credit: rurousha.blogspot.com.

As water flows languidly through the canal, three hybrid irises command the frame. The color seems to bleed across the light petals of each flower. Founded by Kodaka Izaemon in the 1660s, the Horikiri iris garden grows in an eastern suburb of Edo and remains today in modern Tokyo. By the 19th century, Horikiri had garnered enormous popularity due to spirited competition between flower breeders, each trying to develop an iris more colorful or more exotic than the last. Hiroshige's print presents the most popular of these experiments, the hybrid irises. Though discovered by samurai, the breeding secrets were entrusted to the Horikiri Garden. Looking towards the hand colored photograph, one can see that fifty years after Hiroshige's print, the garden was still in the peak of its beauty. In 1890, the year of this photograph, the hanashobu's (marsh iris) popularity had spread beyond Japan and into the West with enormous success. Yet, by the 1920s, this newfound European demand dwindled and the garden declined. In 1942, the garden was converted into wartime food production. Despite this setback, as the modern day photograph suggests, the plantation was revived after the war as a public garden. The garden blooms in May, boasting two hundred varieties and nearly six thousand flowers to its many modern visitors.

"Naruto Whirlpool, Awa Province" (1855) from Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces

(Left) Naruto Whirlpools, Awa Province (1855), from Famous Views of the 60-Odd Provinces. (Right) Onaruto- Bridge and Naruto Whirlpools. Photo credit: Wikipedia.com.

White capped waves crash against the rocks in the Naruto Strait. Descending in sharp diagonals from either edge of the print, the rocks direct the eye to the rough churn of the central whirlpool. Looking to the modern day photograph, one can see the same tumultuous water that Hiroshige captured in his print. Though the bridge in the photograph is clearly a modern addition, in both images one can see Awaji on the distant shore. The Naruto strait connects the Kii channel and the Inland sea that separates Japan's main islands of Honshu and Shikoku. As rapid tidal changes create drastic differences in water level, the famous whirlpools form. When this action is combined with the narrowness of the straight, the speed of the water climbs, making Naruto the fourth fastest whirlpool in the world. In Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Henry Smith points to the concept of esoragoto, "making empty pictures that conform to the spirit of the place, rather than its form." While scholars and connoisseurs alike can see that Hiroshige often uses imaginary viewpoints and commonly improvises details, his depictions of place ring true. As one compares the prints with the locations as they are today, physical changes are plenty, but the spirit remains. Whether capturing the violent churn of the Naruto whirlpool, the wonder of the hybrid irises, or the festivity of the Asakusa Year End Festival, the feeling of place captured by Hiroshige resonates even in the modern age.


Hiroshige, Henry D. Smith, Amy G. Poster, and Arnold L. Lehman. Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. New York: George Braziller, 2001. Print.
http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/437127 http://aroundtokyo.net/blog/2013/04/29/wisteria-festival-at-kameido-tenjin-2013/ http://www.ukiyoe-gallery.com/kameido-woodblocks.htm
http://www.photographium.com/horikiri-iris-garden-tokyo-japan-1890 http://tokyosnapphoto.blogspot.com/2009/06/horikiri-shobuen-iris-garden.html http://rurousha.blogspot.com/2014/06/flowers-and-towers-at-horikiri-iris.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokushima_Prefecture http://giverny.org/gardens/fcm/visitgb.htm