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From the 16th century on, this idea found its greatest expression in the design of bowls used in the ritual of the tea ceremony, which rejected gaudiness in favour of calming simplicity. In a room decorated with little more than a single arrangement of flowers and a seasonal piece of calligraphy, guests sit on the floor, sipping thick green tea from bowls of rustic appearance, and forget the world for a while.

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  • Jun Kawajiri’s kiln is located in Kyoto’s hilly eastern fringes. Most of the city’s kilns were traditionally concentrated here, near the temple of Kiyomizu-dera, which is famous for being partly built out on stilts from the hillside. Kyotos pottery style is named Kiyomizu-yaki after the neighbourhood temple.
  • Plus Alpha Japan can arrange programmes for groups in the art of traditional ceramics.
  • The Raku family has been making some of the most prized bowls used in the tea ceremony since the 16th century. The Raku Museum is a few blocks west of the old Imperial Palace.
  • Shops selling pottery are common in the streets below Kiyomizu-dera, and the section of Teramachi-dori between Marutamachi-dori and Oike-dori.

In the Japan of 200 years ago, the woodblock print brought art to the masses. A striking design would be copied in the thousands, and people could buy prints, it is said, for the same price as a bowl of noodles. Later in the 19th century, these prints even influenced Western artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec.

One of the joys of Kyoto is the number of cottage industries dotted throughout the city. The woodblock printing workshop of Takezasa-do is one such place. Down a dog-leg alleyway off a nondescript stretch of busy Shijo Avenue, and up one of the narrowest flights of stairs I have ever climbed, I meet the fourth and fifth generations of the Takenaka printing family.

The division of labour runs thus: the younger Takenaka, Kenji, chisels the cherry-wood blocks to old designs and new ones of his own invention, while his father Seihachi runs off the prints by hand, one by one. Kyoto’s woodblock workers have produced prints in the thousands in low-ceilinged rooms like this one for centuries.

The printing is done in stages: black outlines first, then pink for some cherry blossoms, and blue for the Hozu River running past. Each has to be aligned exactly on the block – one millimetre out and the effect would be spoiled.

The scene is the forested foothills of Arashiyama in the northwest of Kyoto – a tourist magnet even in the 1830s, when the prolific woodblock artist Hiroshige drew the master design for the first edition of this print. Most of the woodblock prints that are popular today were not considered high art in their time. Each colour impression adds a little more to the cost of a finished print, so the cheaper designs kept the number of colours low and the style as bold as possible. ‘In Japan these prints were for ordinary people, but in the West it was the connoisseurs who bought them,’ says Kenji.

The original woodblocks have long since worn out and been destroyed. Generations of carvers and printers have always been able to make faithful copies, however, and like many popular designs, Hiroshige’s cherry trees are still in print nearly two centuries on.

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  • The alleyway leading to Takezasa-do is a left turn off Shijo Avenue, west from the crossing with Shinmachi-dori and before the crossing with Nishinotoin-dori. Take a look at the Takezasado website for a map and examples of prints sold at the workshop.
  • The Kyoto Handicraft Center stocks a huge range of woodblock prints in different styles, and runs classes where visitors can try making their own prints from two designs.

Japan takes ephemeral beauty to its heart, and there can be no better example of this than ‘ikebana’, a word that means living flowers.

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