Though I walked by countless souvenir shops lining the streets of Kyoto near the temples, I resisted the call of the wooden shoes and candies filled with red-bean paste; I gave nary a sideways glance at the parasols and fans; and though the sake sets and chopsticks were quite attractive, their pull could not pry the precious yen from the depths of my pockets. Damn you, faltering exchange rate! But global economic catastrophes aside, I was on a mission. A mission for woodblock.
For as long as I can remember, I've always been drawn to woodblock paintings or, more correctly, woodblock printings. I was able to recognize the style at an early age, then truly felt its pull upon reading "Everett Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty", about a boy who had disappeared from his aristocratic life in California to explore the canyon country of the American southwest. He paid for his travels by making and selling woodblock prints of the landscapes he traversed (as an aside, anyone who enjoys the story/movie "Into the Wild" should really read this book). There was something about being able to paint an image by carving it from wood that instantly captured my imagination. The images he created were simple yet detailed and, above all, they were powerful. Hard lines, black ink, white paper. You can see and purchase reproductions of Ruess's work right here.
The woodblock artform originated in China but much of its current popularity can be attributed to the Japanese who really came to perfect the techniques used during the seventeenth century. Though there are plenty of westerners practicing woodblock prints, I wanted to bring one home from Japan. I even had one particular print in mind, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa". It's arguably the most famous print from this art style in the world and one that I've always admired. It was created by an artist named Katsushika Hokusai in the early seventeenth century.
Tim and I entered a gallery in one of the shopping arcades near Kyoto's Nishiki Market. It was filled with hundreds of the most incredible woodblock work I had ever seen. I could have spent hours -- and millions of yen -- in the gallery if I was so fortunate as to have an abundance of either. Though I didn't, I was intent on getting something. I decided on a pair of prints of cranes that were pre-framed and simple, yet elegant.
I wasn't completely satisfied with the choice and on my way to pay for them, wandered down another aisle and started picking through the stacks of matted prints on the floor, beneath one of the display shelves. And there I found it... "The Great Wave off Kanagawa".
The reproduction print was made in 1921 during the Taisho period. The paper has browned a bit, but other than a faint crease that can only be seen in certain lighting conditions, the print is in exceptional condition. The sandwich-style matting has a nice description on the back that explains Hokusai's works and how this was but one image from his "Thirty Six Views" book that showcased three dozen images of Mt. Fuji. Though its 12,000 yen price-tag was a bit more than I budgeted for, it was exactly what I had hoped to find. My inability to speak the language left me with no choice of haggling the price down, so I paid up. No sooner than leaving the store did I begin to worry about getting it home without damage. The security folks at the airport wouldn't let me carry it through the metal detectors so I had to lay it on the belt and send it through. It was sandwiched between two thin sheets of cardboard and made it through okay. At least at Kansai International, not so much in San Francisco where it got caught and started to bow. I caught it just in time before the conveyor belt completely folded it over. It survived without damage. Barely.
I'm going to take it to get framed tomorrow, a process that will no doubt take a week or two and cost as much as the print itself. I'll post a photo once I get it on the wall. I also have more to say about woodblock printing, but that's for another post at another time.