I'm sure that most of us know that ukiyo translates as "floating world." But what exactly does this mean?
Our mother planet, Earth, is indeed floating somewhere in the Milky Way--or the River of Heaven (amanogawa), Ganges of the Sky, Birds' Path, Straw Way and countless other ways us earthlings refer to our galaxy.
But, wait, ukiyo couldn’t possibly refer to anything as grand and remote.
Back during the Age of Civil War, ukiyo meant "transient world." Unlike in the Jodo Pureland (heaven) realms, the real world was full of suffering and life appeared fleeting. After Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) united the country, the long-lived, stable and prosperous Edo Period (1603-1867) came.
With societal change, ukiyo shifted its meaning to the hedonistic: the world of pleasure. Then, with time, ukiyo began to refer to the way people saw and experienced contemporary society.
Ukiyo-e art captured the here and now of the social lives of common people. Art used to be a cultural indulgence commissioned and appreciated by nobles and upper-class samurai. Ukiyo-e changed that, and it became something to be consumed and enjoyed by the masses.
It’s the Instagram of yesterday--the capturing of an everyday moment, which may someday be elevated to art status. Or not.
I stumbled upon the Ota Memorial Museum of Art just off the main Omotesando street near Harajuku.
I was reeled in by a catchy ukiyo-e poster in front of the building. The physical size of the museum is small, but upon examination of each artwork on display, a deep and vast world opens up, and by the time you get to the last ukiyo-e, it feels as though you’ve traveled long and far.
I’ll bet that afterward many people drop by Senbikiya Fruit Parlor just steps from the museum and splurge on treats as they reflect upon the exhibit they just saw. Coincidentally, the luxury fruit shop got its start in Nihonbashi, a bridge depicted in many ukiyo-e, so it’s a fitting thing to do.
When I visited, the exhibition was "Fashion in the Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarter." I was mesmerized not only by the trending hairstyles, clothing and accessories of the times, but the depth and scope of the various scenes and the lives of the people who lived and frequented the pleasure quarters.
From "Cross-dressers in Ukiyo-e" to the classic "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," the museum puts together intriguing exhibitions that rotate frequently.
Ukiyo-e images provide a snapshot of a present moment in the past that is frozen in time to be savored for all ages.
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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the Jan. 1-6 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the series "Lisa’s In and Around Tokyo," which depicts the capital and its surroundings through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.