Totally vague and obscure

Travel notes, Tokyo, Japan


13:15 - Edo-Tokyo Museum

  • Jinbaori jacket to wear over armor → example of a functional item that became ceremonial, wonder how many ceremonial items start this way, or if any don't
  • Great demonstration/layout showing process of woodblock printing!
  • Sennin-bari or one thousand people stitches

15:45 - Sumida Hokusai Museum

  • Ukiyo = floating world
  • Asai Ryōi, Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World, c. 1661): "living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo."
  • Water themed exhibit shows Hokusai’s depiction of rivers, waves, ocean -- but framing each work as a “prototype” or precursor to The Great Wave feels false and misses the point that this wasn't some crowning work he was building toward but simply a distillation of many influences and ideas, an exemplar of an existing style, etc -- tone down the tone!

Under the Wave Off Kanagawa



  • Use of shading, e.g. in the tendrils of the wavebreak, a very pale blue
  • Subtle color gradations really jump out and add depth (at least in this print), see also the papery color of the sky that creates a soft cloud shape with negative space
  • There's a mathematical appeal to the curves and arcs, the way Mt. Fuji is situated at the base of a nearly perfect circle
  • I never knew the smaller second wave in the foreground resembles Mt. Fuji, and now I also notice how Mt. Fuji is colored with the identical Prussian blue as the waves -- clear harmony
  • Interesting that water is dynamic and Fuji is static, and this sense remains even in a static image!
  • There's really not that much blue in it, in terms of area… yet it feels so dominated by the water
  • The spots of sea spray stand out against the blue wave but you can actually see them against the sky, another example of very very subtle color differences that add depth
  • The boundary outlines of the wavebreak are themselves interrupted, unlike the wave crest which is solid, emphasizes that the wave is really at the moment of breaking 
  • Interesting to realize that this wave shown here with such majesty is in fact on the brink of self destruction, it only holds this grand form for a brief moment, which has been captured here → Hokusai gives the wave a life and legacy in his image that long outlives it
  • I really love that balance between the mountain’s permanence and endurance  (especially in the context of the 36 Views series) with the wave’s transience → in a way, it argues that the grandeur of the wave can also graft onto Mt. Fuji, that it too is a striking creature, just one that's not in motion
  • Outlining technique almost reminds me of Botticelli (a favorite); why does this appeal to me so much?
  • Also worth noting that this piece creates one singular impression, unlike many woodblock prints which have multiple things going on and several focal points
The Ghosts of the Heike Appear in Daimotsunoura Bay in Settsu Province, Hokusai.jpg

The Ghosts of the Heike Appear in Daimotsunoura Bay in Settsu Province


  • Faces of ghosts have such striking character
  • Red (living) vs blue (dead) color contrast very stark and effective 
  • Angular lightning blasts (red) add energy but also composition, circular/arced waves (blue) also
  • Living are active, passionate, while dead are dispassionate but far from emotionless, vigor vs. sadness or resignation or knowledge or whatever these faces contain
Dragon Flying over Mount Fuji, Hokusai.jpg

Dragon Flying over Mount Fuji


18:30 - Dinner at Torigin Honten in Ginza (yakitori, uzuranatamago-yaki, yasai-yaki, and Nama beer)


08:50 - Fukagawafudodo

  • Shook the dust out of my soul
  • Music/sound as entry into other plane, confluence of architecture, design, costume, audience, etc etc
  • Buddha with the glowing eyes
  • Sparks drifting upwards

10:00 - Kabukiza Theater - Narukami Fudo Kitayama Zakura (Act One)

  • Operatic, deliberate pacing with dramatic expression 
  • Love the rotating stage, simple yet effective set design, gives sense of drama
  • More humor than I expected, plays high and low similar to Shakespeare
  • Ichikawa Ebizō is imposing even from the back row, power through stillness -- how fascinating to be groomed one's entire life to be a performer like this, strange sense of fate and confidence in manner
  • Subtitle device was interesting, simple and effective, not distracting 
  • Red lanterns hung along the seating balconies
  • Hard to figure out how Ichikawa is playing these multiple roles → did they swap him out for a body double in Kiyoyuki’s death scene?

12:15 - Lunch at Rokurinsha, Tokyo Ramen Street (tokusei tsukemen)

13:30 - The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Sannomaru Shozikan

13:45 - Imperial Palace East Gardens

14:30 - National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo - The 150th Anniversary of his Birth: Yokoyama Taikan and permanent collections

  • Life in Seclusion (1902), Yokoyama Taikan
    • Such a different sensibility of framing, silk hangings, no wood → totally different from Western styles, even tapestry, this feels luxe yet simple and pared down, not so much a window (like wood frames often are), but a concept, like a story written on paper
    • “Is there a way of painting the atmosphere?” → no outlines, use a brush to apply color → criticized as “totally vague and obscure” → which I love
  • Riverside District in the Evening (c. 1911), Yokoyama Taikan
  • A Crane Set Free (c. 1912-13), Yokoyama Taikan
    • 12 paneled screen implies narrative, distance, time, yet here is highly simplified to one scene
    • Reads right to left
    • Exquisite gold background, pink clouds so soft, not realism but sublime somehow, it almost sings

Horse Coming out of the Water (1937)

Hanjiro Sakamoto

Ikenohata at Night, Shinsui Ito.jpg

Ikenohata at Night (1921)

Shinsui Ito

16:45 - Watarium Museum

18:45 - Mori Art Museum - Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of Its Transformation and permanent collections

20:30 - Tokyo City View


21:00 - Dinner at HONA azabu in Roppongi (raw beef tendon and spring onion, beef tendon and spring onion okonomiyaki, and dry ichinokura sake)

Evening takeaway:

Questions of arrangement vs. chance → powerful choreography and ceremony of goma ritual, kabuki performance, imperial royal court events, layout of garden, woodcut painting, Japanese architecture, even manners/politeness → and yet within these tightly constrained and ordered contexts there can emerge something sublime, even spontaneous, risky, thrilling, e.g. chaos of goma fire, heron in the garden, emotion of painting


05:00 - Breakfast at Sushi Dai (egg, fatty tuna, salty snapper, red snapper, horse mackerel, sea urchin, lean tuna, scallop, yellowjack, sea eel)

  • People in line are all speaking English! (Canada, Argentina, Hong Kong …) → some Japanese arrive later
  • I like how they serve the sushi based on the guest’s handedness (left-handed people served at a different angle, easy to grab)
  • This (like the palaces in Seoul) does seem like another photo taking opportunity → restaurants in the age of social media → I guess you lean into it

10:30 - Sensō-ji temple and Asakusa Shrine

  • Love the use of smoke as blessing → recalls (perhaps directly) the goma ritual
  • How can people genuinely express their faith when there are cameras everywhere?
  • Very different feeling here from the spiritual suspension at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul → maybe I need to return in the middle of the night?
  • What do we call ritual devoid of belief?

11:00 - Nakamise Shopping Street

11:30 - Kappabashi Kitchen Town

12:30 - Tokyo National Museum

  • The hanging painted silk scroll dates back so many centuries -- amazing, actually, how similar these are to the later Taikan works, at least in materials, dimension, presentation
  • I love the monsters and spirits, with giant heads or long robes, they feel uncanny yet unmistakably real, baleful yet knowledgeable

15:00 - Ueno Park, Ueno Toshogu Shrine, and Gojoten Shrine

16:15 - Nezu Museum

  • Beautiful gardens, but why no place to sit? Encourages movement, perhaps
  • Love the idea of a square plate (for tea) used as a “canvas” for painting -- feels different somehow from other decorative ceramics, maybe because they are generally round?
  • Interesting to note that virtually all domestic items (kitchen stuff, tools, wall partitions/ folding screens, etc, not to mention everything else) have been decorated to the point of fine art → are there any items this hasn't applied to? Toilets, maybe? There must be an exception

17:15 - Harajuku


18:30 - Ueno

19:00 - Shinjuku

20:00 - Shinjuku Golden Gai 

21:00 - Dinner in Shinjuku (tempura)

Evening takeaway

Unlike yesterday where a dominant theme was sublime existence or insight emerging from ritual, choreographed performance, or artistic convention, today has been largely about questioning authenticity

  • The transformation of sushi dining into a shareable/documented -- and primarily visual -- experience, as opposed to an ephemeral in-the-moment appreciation of amazing food
  • The hollowness of ritual gestures at the Senso-ji temple
  • The difficulty in gleaning relevant contemporary insight from ancient artifacts at the museum (with a couple notable exceptions)
  • Harajuku as a commercial temple absent any evident authentic subversion


08:45 - Meiji Jingu Shrine

  • The votive tablets are amazing -- I could read these all day
    • Almost everyone wishing for health -- such an important part of life that actually seems to be discussed a lot less in day to day life than when people are asked to articulate their deepest wish
    • Everyone is wishing for things for themselves and for their families, prayers keep to the personal realm -- e.g. nobody wishing for an end to conflicts in the Middle East, a resolution to climate change, hunger, etc -- should this be surprising? 
    • Lots of people referencing (the Abrahamic) “God” -- at least in the English prayers
    • Some of these have hashtags! (e.g. #Bowmanstrong for someone fighting cancer)
    • Someone hand drew emoji! (e.g. health *arm flex*)
    • Quite a few people wishing for children
    • People who drew images under short text
    • Kids really are so funny  (I wish “for Infinity War to be good”)
    • One woman using the grain of the wood as writing guide lines
  • So much negative space in the shrine complex -- really feels like a clearing out of space, making room for the spiritual 
  • Beautiful sound of the wind in the trees
  • The gates everywhere here are amazing -- the shape, design, proportion
  • The Emperor’s “divine soul is enshrined here” → not his body, but his soul?!

09:30 - Yoyogi Park

10:00 - Mocha Cat Café

  • Do these cats live here 24/7? What a bizarre existence -- but for a cat, probably not bad
  • Strict protocol, feels odd to pay for time, harder to fully lose oneself and immerse

10:30 - Ōta Memorial Museum of Art - One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Hiroshige

Onmayagashi (1857), Hiroshige.jpg

Onmayagashi (1857)


New Year's Eve Foxfires and the Changing Tree, Oji (1857), Hiroshige.jpg

New Year's Eve Foxfires and the Changing Tree, Oji (1857)


The wood grain in the dark ink adds such character. The foxes’  faces so evocative and individual; their heads have similar shape and color to the fire. Strong sense of magic and mystery, yet again, possibility and plausibility, like with the ghosts.

Evening takeaway

One thing I'll take with me is the use of negative space → in art, architecture, even language.