Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World

by mitchellgallery

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵 “Pictures of the Floating World”) is derived from the Ukiyo (浮世 “Floating World”). Ukiyo described the urban lifestyle of Edo-period Japan (1600-1867), a time and culture defined by the “pleasure-seeking,” geisha, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, samurai, chōnin, and prostitues. It was a period of fantastic beauty, a culture which floated between the realms of life and death. And it was a period of deep sorrow.

The term is also an ironic allusion to the homophone “Sorrowful World” (憂き世), the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release.

Yet there is more than “pleasure-seeking” and sorrow depicted in The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō of Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige. More than an objective depiction of this “floating world,” Hiroshige’s work captures the very essence of “floating.”

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First Station: Shinagawa (品川)

Unlike the oil-based ink used in Western print making, Hiroshige used water-based ink. Diluting and spreading the ink, he was able to achieve a graduation of color that was often used to parallel night sky with heaven, daylight with land. The effect is atmospheric. The gradation of night sky blues are often used to mirror the blues of the ocean. Likewise, day sky orange mirror the deep color the earth. Between these mirror gradations, the composition of Hiroshige’s prints draws one’s gaze to the very middle of the print; the procession of Shogun, hills, and villages hang perfectly between these paralleled colors. They “float.”

In addition, throughout all of Hiroshige’s prints, there is a peculiar perspective. One finds themselves peering around the face of a mountainside, over the harbor, or through the pine forest to look at the Shogun procession. One sees the procession, but the focus is more on the placement of the Shogun in the landscape. Often one’s perspective is not on the plane of the earth or on the plane of the procession, but overlooking the wearied Shogun. Again, one’s perspective “floats” like the Japanese forest spirits who follow wearied travelers, guiding and hovering above.

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Thirty-Second Station: Shirasuka (歌川広重)

Yet more than a unconventional style of printmaking, Hiroshige had an uncanny ability to capture the feeling of “floating” – not in the compositional sense of color or perspective – but in a feeling of Buddhist transience. Amid the harsh winter snow and blazing heat on the plains of Shimada, the entire journey was 310 miles between Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. The journey, however, through the natural elements gave one many opportunities to contemplate one’s mortality and to accept this transience of life. Hiroshige’s prints are peaceful. They feel contemplative. One can easily image the artist sketching at the edge of the mountain trails, contemplating his subjects and art, while the Shogun rested at a station.

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Forty-Eighth Station: Sakanoshita (坂ノ下)

The prints of Hiroshige, who would eventually “retire from the world” and become a Zen Buddhist in 1856, do not depict the bodily “pleasure-seeking” of the Edo period, but an intellectual contemplation. Here, along the Eastern Road one travels amid the realms of life and death. Yet moreover, Hiroshige’s prints do not objectively “depict.” One feels – and in feeling, is drawn into the floating world of Ukiyo-e.


Holly Huey – St. John’s College student

Photo credit: Utagawa Hiroshige, First Station: Shinagawa, 1833-1834

Utagawa Hiroshige, Thirty-Second Station: Shirasuka, 1833-1834

Utagawa Hiroshige, Forty-Eighth Station: Sakanoshita, 1833-1834