Winter Weather in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Print shows pedestrians walking in the snow in a street alongside a canal below Mount Atago.

Atagoshita yabukoji; Ando, Hiroshige, artist, 1857; Prints & Photographs Division

This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Educational Programs Specialist in the Library’s Informal Learning Office. 

Looking outside as I write, I can see a gorgeous combination of blue sky, snow-covered trees, and sunlight glancing off every surface, making it all sparkle. The beauty of wintry weather is widely represented in the Library’s collections, but the examples of Japanese woodblock prints in the Prints and Photographs Division are particularly interesting and present a view of long ago winters on the other side of the world.

Woodblock printing in Japan dates from the eighth century and by the sixteenth century, the technique was used for book illustrations, and later for individual, colored prints. Mass production of affordable ukiyo-e prints brought images of landscapes, folk tales, actors, and other celebrities of the time to a wide audience. The Library’s collection includes more than 2,500 woodblock prints and drawings created by Japanese artists from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. You can read about it here, and learn more from this online exhibition.

The prints are digitized, so you can easily view them. A handy “refine your results” tool categorizes the images under sixty-six specific subjects. The heading “snow” brings up 76 wintry examples that can inspire any number of activities that families can do together:

Choose a few and take a good look – the level of detail is impressive, and rewards close inspection. What do you notice? What does it make you think about? What do you wonder or want to know more about? In the example below, from 1853, there’s so much to take in and lots to discuss about the couple and their surroundings!

Ukiyo-e triptych print showing a snowy landscape with a woman brandishing a broom and a man holding an umbrella; Utagawa, Kunisada, artist; 1853; Prints and Photographs Division

Looking at the gorgeous clothing, I wondered, “are those chrysanthemums on her kimono?” I noticed the sandals that keep their feet out of the snow and the cold and looked them up to discover that they are geta (traditional raised sandals). Seeing that the branches above her look as if they are about to shed their icy load right down her neck made me think “Why is he hogging the umbrella rather than holding it over her head to protect her as she brushes away the snow? What is the artist trying to say by the placement of the umbrella?  In the central panel, most of the boats are moored, so I’m curious “what the lone boatman on the river might be up to?” These are just a few of the things that came to mind as I admired this print. Choose an image that catches your eye and explore what you notice and wonder about together.

Japanese woman in the frosted branches of a tree.

O-Yuki, the frost fairy; Bertha Lum, artist, circa 1916; Prints & Photographs Division

Whether you’re housebound on a snowy day or not, making up stories about the scenes in different prints would be a cozy family activity for winter evenings. You could select several images, and take turns spinning yarns that connect the different prints. Pictures like these could provide ideas for characters, setting, and plot. Add a beginning, middle and end to your tale, with some dialog and adventure and you’ll be off to a good start. How many different stories can you invent about the same images?

Non-Japanese artists have long been inspired by the country’s traditions and styles. American painter and illustrator Bertha Lum travelled to Japan in the early 1900s to train in woodblock printing techniques. You can read more about her here. Several of her prints in the Library’s collections show winter scenes, such as this one of children making snowballs, and this example of a group walking through snow.

If you’d prefer to exercise your imagination outdoors, try the traditional Japanese winter pastime of creating a yuki usagi, or snow hare. Find out all about this charming custom and the history behind it in this post by a colleague in the Library’s Folklife Division. Alternatively, make snow sculptures like these two prints from the early and mid-1800s, or see if you can make a snowball as big as this one! And, although they are not winter scenes, you can also color these examples of woodblock prints from the Library’s collections.

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It’s December, and that means that many of us get to give and receive gifts. And the right gift can really add to that holiday magic! I investigated what gifts people may have given each other a hundred years ago by looking at historical newspapers in the Library’s Chronicling America database. Let’s take a look! […]