Experiencing Japan: Printing Your Own Ukiyo-e Via Mokuhanga
By Skywing Knights // January 31, 2022
You know that one Japanese print? You know the one. The one of the BIG wave? That’s called “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, or “Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura” (神奈川沖浪裏). It was originally made by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎), sometimes simply known as “Hokusai”. Hokusai was an Ukiyo-e artist who lived during the Edo period (江戸時代), a time in which Japan was cut off from the rest of the world. He created the image via Japanese woodblock printing as part of his series of “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji” or Fugaku Sanjūrokkei (富嶽三十六景). (Interestingly, it uses a different name and kanji for Mt. Fuji here.)
In any case, during that time, Japan’s art scene flourished. As a result, the art style of the Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), which translates to “pictures of the floating world”, was born. And these Ukiyo-e were more often than not, prints, produced via woodblock printing, or “Mokuhanga” (木版画).
If you ever visit Japan, you’ll often see prints and recreations of old Ukiyo-e that were originally made via Mokuhanga. But it’s possible to get an even more enriching experience when it comes to Ukiyo-e instead of just buying a modern print reproduction of one. That’s what I want to tell you about today in recounting a super unique experience I had while in Japan – and one that you can have too!
Tokyo is home to the district of Asakusa (浅草), originally an entertainment area of Tokyo during the Edo period, and sits along the Sumida River (隅田川). It’s known for the “Thunder Gate” or Kaminari mon (雷門), the most impressive Sensou-Ji (Sensou-Ji Temple) (浅草寺), and the looming Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) in the background. Between Kaminari mon and Sensou-Ji, visitors will walk down Nakamise Doori (仲見世通り), a street closed off to motorists for foot traffic and lined with shops selling snacks and omiyage (お土産) or souvenirs.
I won’t lie, I frequent Nakamise Doori when I visit Tokyo primarily for the souvenirs which make for great Christmas gifts for my friends back home. But… that doesn’t mean you’re always going to find the most ‘Authentic’ items (you sort of have to use your best discretion). Sometimes that doesn’t really matter if you’re just looking for a cool looking gift or something to remind you of your trip. But other times, you may want something a little more unique to bring back with you when you return home.
Along that topic, one of the things you’ll often see are these ‘woodblock Ukiyo-e prints’ for sale on this street. But if you look at many of them you’ll see they’re not woodblock prints at all, but produced at a regular printing company. Pass on these and instead go a little ways away to the shop of David Bull called “Mokuhankan” (木版館 or “Tree Printing Plate Hall” for something far more authentic, unique, incredibly memorable, and fun.
The History of Ukiyo-e and Mokuhanga
An Ukiyo-e Woodblock printer for 30 years, David hails from Canada, where he first encountered Japanese woodblocks. He would later move to Tokyo in 1986 to pursue a career in the art form, focusing on Ukiyo-e style printing as the style has been irrevocably intertwined with woodblock printing since the Edo Period.
As alluded to before, Ukiyo-e was an art style that began in the early Edo Peroid and flourished throughout the years in which Japan shut off its borders. Beginning in the 1670’s with black and white prints, gradually artists began to add in color, multiple layers, and even gradients via inventing techniques to achieve such looks commonly associated with Ukiyo-e art today. After the Meiji Restoration however, the art form like many others, such as Kabuki, hit a roadblock of sorts.
Woodblock printers moved onto journalism outlets and it became rare to find those woodblock printers specifically dedicated to the art of Ukiyo-e. And as one might imagine, woodblock printing continued to fall into a decline with the introduction of printing machines, which sliced the time required to print items immensely. While Ukiyo-e art influenced impressionists and other more modern art styles, to find still active practitioners in Japan has become rather rare in today’s day and age.
From Stamps to Blocks
That’s where David Bull has entered the picture, with the goal of keeping the art form alive. David is perhaps most well known online for his collaboration with Jed Henry on “Ukiyo-e Heroes” (浮世絵ヒーローズ), which reinvent popular Japanese characters in genuine Ukiyo-e style woodprints. He also embarked on his own journey to recreate Katsukawa Shunsho’s Hyakunin Isshi book of poetry and later “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” (See? It all comes back around.). But David didn’t want to stop there. The result of his passion for Mokuhanga? Now you can participate in the fruits of his labors by creating your own woodblock prints at Mokuhankan’s Woodblock printing workshops!
I first went to Mokuhankan in 2015 with my mother when she visited Japan to see me. She’s long been a lover of crafting and stamping and it was her idea to go. We ended up going to the main sites of Asakusa mentioned above around Sensou-Ji in the morning first before making our way over for our 10 o’clock workshop. To be honest, I didn’t know all that much about Ukiyo-e and woodblock printing before going. So I wasn’t really sure what I was in for.
That said, I was astonished by the amount of work David and his team put into creating these prints. (And not to mention how hard it was to even get a ‘simple’ print done correctly!). In many ways, Mokuhanga work is very similar to stamping… but with a LOT more layers. Plus, they always needed to line up perfectly! And for us, it was time to get started!
The Pre-Printing Prep
David kindly greeted us upon our arrival before bringing us upstairs to the shop on the second floor. Inside, we were greeted by a number of prints on the walls, the fruits of his teams’ and his own work, but also an entire workspace dedicated to woodblock printing. And it was at this layout where we could try our hand at creating our very own woodblock print. Kindly, David explained to us the process of woodblock printing.
Prior to our arrival, David had chosen a design for the print. He carefully considered the colors and what imprints would be needed to achieve an ideal design and in what order they would need to be done. And then, David went about LITERALLY CARVING those imprints into wood after transferring the designs onto the wood! And he wouldn’t do this once. He did it several times – one for each layer that would be needed to create the print! The result for us were several pre-made woodblocks we could use to create our print.
Creating Our Own Momotaro
This print in particular was one of the Japanese folktale character of Momotaro (桃太郎), literally meaning “Peach Boy”. (A super cute story! If you’re unfamiliar with it, look it up!) To create the prints, David showed us how to use Hakobi (brushes made from bamboo sheaths) to transfer color to the blocks.
We’d then rub a thick brush over the ink and wood to dilute the pigment over the blocks. This was important as woodblock printing is meant to be done in light color layers. Each time more color would be added, giving the piece vibrance slowly but surely! Plus, too much color in one place would mean not enough in another area. So it was important to make sure it was all nice and evenly spread.
Time to Press!
Once we successfully covered our blocks in pigment, we’d place a sheet of paper over the block and use a baren (essentially a smooth plate with a handle on it) to press the paper evenly into the raised area of the woodblock. The smoothness of the baren made it so that only the raised edges of the block (what we would consider the ‘stamp’) would leave ink on the print while the rest would remain untouched. (That is unless you deliberately pushed it down into the crevice – don’t do that!!).
After pressing, we’d pull up our print and find a portion of our woodblock print done! It was then time to move over to the next block to repeat the process. But this time we were to use different pigments. To ensure that all of the woodblock print stamps lined up each time with one another, we were to make sure that the paper edges on one side always slid into an etched corner of each block.
The Results of Mokuhanga
Super cute right? It was a really nice bonding experience for my mother and I too. With practice (and patience and reminding myself to not press the paper into the cracks), even I ended up creating some really amazing, genuine Ukiyo-e art at the end of the workshop!
At the end of the session (about 1-2 hours of printing) we left with several prints, including our last and best ones. You can also buy some of the Mokuhankan’s prints if you feel so inclined. But for me though, having something I created made this experience such a fantastic memory. And yes, I still have the prints today!
I can’t recommend David’s workshop enough. Asakusa is a wonderful place to visit and you can always find fun gifts to buy down Nakamise Doori. But going to David’s workshop is just a bit more personal than buying something made at a local ‘fedex’. These carry value to you and the workshop is an experience that brings you closer to understanding an incredibly unique and artistic aspect of Japan’s Edo period.
So if you’re in Asakusa and looking for something really cool to do, make a reservation and head over to Mokuhankan. You’ll be glad you did. And even if you don’t have a reservation, check out the shop. You’ll find some spectacular art that will genuinely have you asking, “How did they do that by hand???”
Because yes, it’s all done by hand.
Just incredible. 😀 😀 😀
How To Try Your Hand at Making Ukiyo-e Mokuhanga
Workshop “Print Party” reservations can usually be made here (once operations resume and the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided in Japan) :
*Due to COVID-19, reservations may or may not be available and are dependent on the current privelance of COVID-19 in Japan at the time.
In the meantime, you can also support David and his team by shopping on their online website:
Want to learn more about Mokuhankan, Mokuhanga, and David’s work? Check out David’s website and Youtube Channel. All of them are fascinating and absolutely worth diving into.
This video is especially cool! Watch David creating woodblock prints for his “Chibi Heroes” (禿びヒーローズ) series!
Till next time,