Japanese arts and traditions

Ukiyo-e, the art of Japanese prints

Ukiyo-e (浮世 絵) is the art of woodblock printing and more generally depicts paintings produced between the XVIIᵉ and XXᵉ centuries, featuring landscapes, tales, and pleasure districts. Usually, ukiyo-e is literally translated as 'floating world', a conception of an evanescent, ephemeral, fleeting world, light as entertainment (kabuki, courtesans, geishas) and dissociated from the responsibilities of the everyday world. The contemporary novelist Asai Ryôi, in his Ukiyo monogatari (浮世 物语 "Tales of the Floating World", 1661), provides an insight into the conception of the floating world: "[...] Living only for the moment, turning all our attention to the pleasures of the moon, snow, cherry blossoms, and maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, turning away from everything, floating, floating; [...] refusing to be discouraged, like a gourd floating with the river's current: this is what we call the floating world..."

The roots of ukiyo-e

Towards the end of the XVIᵉ century, urbanisation led to the development of a class of merchants and craftsmen who began to write stories or novels, but also to paint pictures collected in ehon (絵 本, illustrated books), such as the 1608 edition of the Tales of Ise by Hon ami Koetsu. Ukiyo-e was often used to illustrate these books, but also postcards, kakemono-e or posters for the kabuki theatre.

The rise of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e became very popular in the metropolitan culture of Edo (Tokyo) during the second half of the XVIIᵉ century, with originally monochrome works such as those by Hishikawa Moronobu in the 1670s. At first, only Indian ink was used, and then some prints were manually coloured with a brush.

Ukiyo-e paintings were affordable because they were mass produced. They were mainly intended for city dwellers too modest to afford an original painting. The initial subject matter of ukiyo-e was city life, especially the activities and scenes of the entertainment districts. Beautiful courtesans, sumo wrestlers and popular actors were depicted in their attractive activities. It was much later that landscapes became a source of inspiration. In the mid-18ᵉ century, Suzuki Harunobu developed nishiki-e, a polychrome printing technique. These drawings are reproduced on postcards and today's calendars.

The artists of ukiyo-e

The most prominent artists of this period were Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Sharaku. After studying the European art of perspective, Katsushika Hokusai painted mainly landscapes and nature. His work Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富 岳 三 十六 景 Fugaku sanjūrokkei) was published from 1831.

In 1842, pictures of courtesans, geisha and actors were banned as part of the Tenpo reforms. During the Kaei era, (1848-1854), many foreign merchant ships came to Japan, bringing about cultural changes that are reflected in the ukiyo-e of this period. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan opened up to imports from the West, including photography, which largely replaced ukiyo-e during the bunmei-Kaika (文明 开化, the movement to westernise Japan during the early Meiji period).

The decline of ukiyo-e in Japan

No longer valuable, ukiyo-e was eventually used as packaging material for commercial goods. Paradoxically, in Europe, it was a major source of inspiration for Impressionists, Cubists, and Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. This influence was called Japonism.

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

Kōdō, an ancestral art

Kōdō (香道) is the Japanese art of appreciating scents. It is one of the three main traditional Japanese arts along with the tea ceremony and ikebana.

In a kōdō ceremony, participants gather to "listen" to fragrances exhaled by scented woods. These precious and fragrant woods imported from India and Southeast Asia are burned according to rules codified in the late 14th century. They were used in Buddhist rituals from the Nara period (710-794).

The ceremony takes place in a room where up to fifteen people can gather.

A preparer, the komoto, fills a bowl with rice ashes called kiki-gouro, then a bamboo ember is burned separately and placed inside the ashes. Traditional tracings are made on the ashes and a small dish of mica is then placed in the centre. Finally a piece of wood the size of a grain of rice is placed on top of the mica, so that the scents are produced without burning. The bowl is then passed from hand to hand and back to the komoto who has prepared a second bowl for comparison.

There are traditionally ten virtues associated with kōdō (香十徳):

    感格鬼神: Sharpening the senses
    清浄心身: Purify the body and mind
    能払汚穢: eliminate "pollutants"
    能覚睡眠: awaken the mind
    静中成友: cure the feeling of loneliness
    塵裏愉閑 : Calming restless times
    多而不厭: The kōdō is not unpleasant, even in abundance
    募而知足: Even small amounts are enough
    久蔵不朽: Does not break down after a very long time
    常用無障: Habitual use does not harm

Since scented woods are very expensive, it goes without saying that this poetic art cannot be improvised. There are several schools in fact; the Oie-ryu school founded under the influence of the Japanese aristocracy, and the Shino-ryu school, adopted mainly by the samurai and merchants of the time.

Whatever the school chosen, this art literally meaning "way of incense" requires a very long practice (up to 30 years)!

The Mame Maki; the exorcism with roasted beans

The origins of Mame Maki

Mame Maki or Setsubun is a Japanese bank holidays that celebrates the arrival of spring according to the ancient Chinese lunar agricultural calendar. Today it is celebrated on February 3rd.

This tradition is said to have originated in a 15th century story that a demon descended from Mount Kumara in Kyoto and was then chased away by the inhabitants with soy beans.

Modern Setsubun

The most famous modern Setsubun tradition is held on the eve of the spring equinox. During this ceremony, participants throw soybeans or roasted beans to ward off the oni. These evil forces, embodied by ogres, are suspected of invading the home at each new year and causing misfortune.

It is therefore by throwing one of their most hated foods, soybeans or roasted beans, out of the window and shouting alternately: Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! "Out with the demons! The Japanese keep the oni at bay and attract good luck into the house. It is also customary to pick as many beans as one's age and then eat them to build up strength for the coming year.

Many traditions like this are still alive and well, and the Japanese don't necessarily wait for national holidays to ward off evil spirits. Wooden or fabric amulets, lucky dolls, or koinobori to hang near the front door are available on the market.

Oni demons are no longer as feared as in the past and many masks bearing their likenesses are available in shops, especially when the bank holidays approaches!

Photo by Shrankin on Foter

The 7 gods of happiness

The Seven Divinities of Happiness (Shichi Fukujin) are the deities of good fortune in Japanese mythology.

They each have their own particularities:

  • Ebisu, is the god of fishermen, merchants and prosperity. She is often depicted with a fish.
  • Daikokuten or Daikoku, the god of wealth, trade and exchange. Ebisu and Daikoku often go in pairs and are often represented in the form of masks.
  • Bishamonten, is the deity of warriors and the protector of Buddhist law and prosperity.
  • Benzaiten or Benten, is the goddess of knowledge, art and beauty, eloquence, music, literature, arts and sciences, virtue and wisdom, prosperity and longevity.
  • Fukurokuju, is the god of happiness, wealth and longevity, virility and wisdom.
  • Hotei, represents abundance and good health, contentment and commerce.
  • Jurōjin, is the god of longevity and prosperity.

These deities of different origins (some are Japanese, others Chinese or Indian) and multiple faiths (Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism and Brahmanism) are often represented on a ship, the Takarabune, "the ship of treasures", which is said to sail into the harbour every New Year.

The origins of these gods and goddesses go back to the Muromachi era in the 14th century, where they are found in numerous works of art (prints, tableware, statues).

Opposite, stone statues representing the god Ebisu and the goddess Benten, both accompanied by their totem, a fish and a lute.

Imari porcelain - Arita

Imari porcelain is a style of ceramics developed and exported by Japan in the 18th century through the port of Imari in Saga Prefecture, located on the northwestern island of Kyūshū.

The origins of Imari porcelain

Porcelain production began in the Arita (有田町) area, a potter's town on the island of Kyūshū around 1600. According to tradition, it was a Korean by the name of Ri Sampei, who settled in the area, who exploited a kaolin deposit located at the foot of Izumiyama Hill. He succeeded in fusing the kaolin at around 1400°C to produce porcelain similar to that of the Chinese, thus ending a seven-century-old monopoly.

Until 1757, Imari porcelain was exported in abundance to Europe by the Dutch, with their Eastern Company of the United Provinces. This porcelain was highly appreciated by an aristocratic European clientele, who were fond of the magnificence of the decorations inspired by the great traditions of Asian spirituality (Shintoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism).

The different styles of Imari porcelain

Alongside Arita, two other styles with modern designs appeared in the 17th century: the Kakiémon and Nabeshima styles. Later, the Kinrande style appeared, with mainly floral, nature and animal motifs in cobalt blue, red and gold.

Imari porcelain was also reproduced by the Chinese, then by the Europeans, particularly the English, where demand exploded in the 19th century.

Wabi-sabi: asymmetry, roughness, simplicity...

Wabi-sabi (侘 寂?) represents a Japanese world view of aesthetics, centred on the acceptance of the ephemeral. Aesthetics is sometimes described as that of beauty which is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".

This is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法 印 sanbōin):

  • Impermanence (無常 mujō): everything is constantly changing, everything is fluctuating, nothing is fixed once and for all.
  • Dissatisfaction (dukkha), or suffering: it is not just physical suffering; because of the impermanence of things, nothing can satisfy us in an ultimate and definitive way.
  • The emptiness of beings and things (Śūnyatā), refers to their absence of being-in-itself (anātman), in other words the non-existence of any essence, of any fixed and unchanging character. It applies to things as well as to thoughts and states of mind. It is very much related to ainsity (tathātā).

The aesthetic characteristics of Wabi-sabi are economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the naive integrity of objects and natural processes.

Wabi means solitude, simplicity, melancholy, nature, sadness, asymmetry...
Sabi represents the alteration of time, the decrepitude of ageing things, the patina of objects. The taste for old things, for dirt, etc.


Raku (楽焼, raku-yaki) is the result of a glazing technique developed in 16th century Japan. Its main use is related to the manufacture of bowls for the tea ceremony.

The origins of the word

The word raku comes from an ideogram engraved on a gold seal that was given in 1598 by Taiko, a tea ceremony master, to Chōjiro, a Japanese potter and founder of the raku-yaki style.

The raku technique

Discovered in Korea, the raku technique is a fast-paced firing process with a final temperature reached in a short cycle of 15 to 20 minutes.

The glowing pieces, which are taken from a small, high-powered kiln firing at about 1,000 °C, undergo thermal shock when they are soaked in water, smoked, burned or cooled in the open air. The phase in which the burning of the molten glaze is prevented by limiting the supply of oxygen with sawdust is called the oxidation-reduction reaction.

The main characteristics of Raku are the appearance of more or less metallic colours, cracks and glazes. After cooling, the pieces are cleaned with an abrasive product to remove all residues of soot and ash.

The results of this technique vary infinitely due to the multitude of parameters involved, which gives the piece its uniqueness.

On the left, two potteries with the typical roughness of the raku technique.

Omizutori, the Nara festival heralding spring

The Omizutori (お水取り) or Torch Festival was first held in 752 in the Nigatsu-do of Todai-ji Temple in Nara. This festival inaugurating the arrival of spring is the final rite after the observance of a two-week Shuni-e ceremony to cleanse people of their sins. Today it takes place from 1 to 14 March.

How the festival takes place

Eleven priests called Renhyoshu are appointed in December of the previous year to participate in the event. They are responsible for cleaning the area in preparation for the upcoming ceremony and are forbidden to speak or leave the area. On the last night of the Shuni-e ceremony, the main rite takes place, the "Otaimatsu".

The monks carry torches, lit on the first day of March, and come under the Nigatsu-do hall, from which, according to legend, sacred water gushes out of the front only once a year. The attendants hold up and wave torches in large circles of fire. The spectators who watch this ceremony and are exposed to the sparks are then protected for the year against bad things.

The next day, the sacred water rite takes place: the monks draw water and offer it first to the Buddhist deities, including Bodhisattva Kannon, and then offer it to the public for its healing powers.

Once the Omizutori is over, the cherry blossoms begin to bloom, a sign that spring has arrived.

Hina matsuri: the girls' festival

The Hina matsuri or doll festival is an annual festival held in Japan on 3 March. For the occasion, Japanese girls display on a multi-level platform dolls that have been passed down from generation to generation or given to them at birth.

These dolls, representing the imperial court during the Heian era, are only taken out of their boxes for this occasion. At the top of the platform, on the left, is the emperor with the empress on his right. On the second level are three court ladies carrying bottles of sake, while on the third step are four musicians and a singer. Various figures fill the three lower levels. This mode of display is not obligatory, and it is very often the case that only the imperial couple are shown.

During the Hina matsuri festival, people traditionally drink low or non-alcoholic beers made from rice, and eat hina arare, rice biscuits and sushi. It is believed that dolls must be put away on the evening of March 3 or the daughter of the house will not be allowed to marry for a year. This festival is celebrated in most households, whether there is a married girl or not, and replaces an older tradition: the peach blossom festival, momo no sekku, marking the change of season.

Although the symbolism tends to change over time, the peach blossom can still be found in the decorations of the dolls' altar: a nice way to perpetuate the traditions.

The Sanno Matsuri Procession

The Sanno Matsuri (山 王 祭?), also known as the Sanno Festival, is one of the largest Shinto festivals in Tokyo along with the Fukagawa Matsuri and Kanda Matsuri.

The festival takes place every year in mid-June, but the main parade, called jinkosai or Shinkosai is held every other year in mid-June only in odd-numbered years. Participants dressed in ancient costumes parade through Tokyo, accompanied by mikoshi (portable shrines) adorned with phoenixes, as well as raised dashi floats with unusual details that are not to be missed. There are also people dressed as the legendary tengu demon, known for its supernatural powers and characterised by a red face with a long nose.

Once considered an evil being, he is now seen more as a protective spirit. It is a face that is often found on everyday Japanese objects (ceramic bowls, figurines, masks, amulets, chopsticks or fans).

During the week of the festival, various Japanese traditions are honoured, notably in the gardens of the sanctuary, an emblematic place where one can admire an exhibition of ikebana (traditional art of flower arrangement), or even savour a Japanese tea.

It is an opportunity to see Japanese people passing their heads through a large thatched ring to purify themselves of all the sins committed in the last six months and to pass the evil on to the doll they are holding in their hand, all the while tasting many specialities.