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An Artist and His City: Urban Greenspace

In An Artist and His City: Select Works from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Ronin Gallery explores Edo through the eyes of a local. Over the course of this exhibition, we’ll take a closer look at the interaction between artist and city. While the second installment in this series took us within an intimate interior of the Yoshiwara, this week we’ll step outside into one of Edo’s urban greenspaces through Moon Pine, Ueno.

 Hiroshige, Moon Pine, Ueno from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The tree dominates the immediate field of vision, while one limb makes a circle, framing a view of the commoners' neighborhood across the pond.
Hiroshige, Moon Pine, Ueno from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1857. Ronin Gallery.

Amid the dense residential dwellings, teahouses, theaters and shops, shrines and temples accounted for about fifteen percent of Edo’s urban fabric. In many historical Japanese cities, such interwoven greenspace and urban life was uncommon. Typically, shrines and temples were moved to the edge of town. This choice stemmed from a concern for public safety: these religious sites were home to funerary cremation and thus fire hazards. Yet in Edo, these spaces peppered the city and became public venues where one could appreciate the beauty of nature and the turn of the seasons.

In Moon Pine, Ueno, Hiroshige highlights an example of natural beauty woven into the urban fabric. The unexpected angles and full circle of “moon pine” dominates the immediate field of vision–its rough bark tangible, its needles each carefully defined. As the eye follows each twist and turn, we find ourselves gazing through the natural framing created by the encircled pine branch. Beyond the tree, we find ourselves looking across Shinobazu Pond to the chonin, or commoner, neighborhood at the far bank. Beyond the eaves, we can see three fire towers rising against the red sunset. Towards the right edge of the composition, we can see the brilliant red walls of Benten Shrine peeking out from the descending pine branch. Here, the natural and the urban, the sacred and the ordinary come together in Hiroshige’s dynamic composition.

The Moon pine can be seen on the left edge of the print, set against the expansive blue of the pond. from the right edge, the crimson balcony of Kiyomizu Hall looks over the pond, surrounded by blooming cherry blossoms. Temple visitors can be seen enjoying the springtime views.
Hiroshige, Kiyomizu Hall and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, 1856. Ronin Gallery.

The “Moon Pine” (also known as “Loop Pine”) grew on the grounds of Kan’eji Temple in Ueno. This aged pine earned this name not only for the "full moon" created by the circled branch, but also for the other phases of the moon visible in its form. From the balcony at Kiyomizu Hall, Edo’s residents could peer through this natural lens framing the landscape over Shinobazu Pond.

While Moon Pine, Ueno features the abrupt truncation and extreme close up perspective characteristic of One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, the print Kiyomizu Hall and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno, designed a year earlier, provides a more expansive, if exaggerated, view of the temple grounds. Depicted with inflated scale, the Moon Pine towers high above temple goers along the left of the image. Kiyomizu Hall is equally elongated, echoing the grandeur of its namesake in Kyoto. Shinobazu Pond has swelled into an expansive lake. While we can see the narrow stretch of land reaching out into the pond, Benten Shrine remains out of site from this angle. Instead, this design emphasizes the springtime beauty of the site through a blush of cherry blossoms.

When one visits Kiyomizu hall today, they may be surprised to find that Hiroshige somewhat embellished the view. In its reality, the balcony is lower and the pond hidden behind heavy tree growth, but the temple continues to function as an urban greenspace. Though the original Moon Pine was damaged by a typhoon in the early Meiji period, it was recreated in 2012. Yet, it is important to note that Hiroshige wasn’t necessarily trying to capture the physical reality of the place. Rather, he aimed to capture its spirit. So, perhaps such exaggeration-whether through dramatic composition or elongation–was necessary to accurately evoke the spirit of the place in the hearts of its residents.


Moon Pine (recreated) at Kiyomizu Hall. Photo from Travis Suzaka.

Want to explore more urban greenspaces? Explore the city through the online exhibition An Artist and His City here.

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