Many impeccable examples of traditional Japanese architecture can still be seen today, and the innumerable temples, castles and old homes of Japan have become some of the most visited spots in the country.
But have you ever wondered how these places looked before the tourist crowds and modern buildings grew up around them? Luckily you can. For centuries, ukiyo-e artists have been faithfully chronicling the scenes and colors that they experienced, including some of Japan’s most important architectural gems.
Take a look through the eyes of these woodblock print artists and enjoy historical Japanese architecture how it was originally created.
1. Ueno Park
If you’ve ever been cherry blossom viewing in Tokyo, you too may have strolled along this promenade in Ueno Park. Renowned artist Hasui Kawase, however, was less interested in smelling the flowers and more in capturing the sensation of the city’s shifting moods.
The architecture of the temple buildings that you see across the pond seem very sturdy for a place of worship. This is because the temple complex was originally constructed as part of the fortifications guarding the northern approach to Edo Castle, now the Imperial Palace.
2. Inokashira Pond
Across the other side of town, and a century earlier, Utagawa Hiroshige enjoys the winter view at another temple dedicated to the same deity: Benzaiten, goddess of wealth. But the simple wooden structure shows the variety of architectural styles employed in temple design, depending on the building’s status and purpose.
This is no violent snowstorm, as the white-capped treetops are calm and still, and the snow falls thick but unhurried. In a gentle winter flurry you can experience the same serene landscape today.
If you enjoy ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period, find out more one of the acknowledged masters of the genre, Kitagawa Utamaro.
3. Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto
Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple is an unbeatable sight in any season, although such is its popularity, you’re unlikely to get such a shot with a camera these days. Ukiyo-e artist Tokuriki Tomikichiro captured this sultry summer view in the 1950s.
The buildings that you can see today date from the 17th century, although the temple in some form has existed for 1200 years. The wooden platform at Kiyomizu is a great place to look over the city. It has a darker history though. In the past some desperate visitors would through themselves off the platform believing that if they survived their wish would be granted. Sadly many did not.
4. Shoren-In Temple, Kyoto
Gardens in the west are not usually considered part of the architecture, but they are integral to the design of traditional Japanese buildings. This woodblock print by Ono Bakufu effortless conveys the serenity of Kyoto’s 800 year old Shoren-in Temple Garden.
The wooden buildings of Shoren-in have been rebuilt over the centuries, but the style of the temple endures. What is more amazing is some of the trees in this garden have been there since before even the temple, when the area was virgin forest!
5. Japanese Castles
This print from an unknown artist vividly captures the grandeur and beauty of Japan’s feudal era castles.
The medium of Japanese woodblock printing was revitalized in the twentieth century through technical experimentation and artistic innovation. Such prints, often reimagining a view of Japanese architecture, are now often more in demand than their mass-produced predecessors from the heyday of ukiyo-e art in the nineteenth century.
One of the most famous buildings in Japan, the Imperial Palace, looks very much the same today as it did in 1930 when Kawase Hasui created this view of the Nijo Bridge. You can still photograph this iconic bridge on a sunny day in Tokyo, although you’ll be hard pressed to find it so tourist-free!
Another artist who excelled an promoting a certain vision of Japan was Tsuchiya Koitsu. Find out more here:
6. Heian Shrine, Kyoto
When print artist Tokuriki Tomikichiro recorded this imposing view in the 1950s, the scarlet torii gate in the foreground had only been part of the scenery for 50 years.
Built in 1895 to commemorate 1100 years since the founding of Kyoto, today this enormous structure is one of the city’s many unmissable attractions!
7. Wooden Farmhouses
Fumio Fujita’s stylized landscape print captures the beauty of the traditional wooden farmhouses in Gifu, central Honshu.
The deep slant of the roof is the only way to withstand the thick layers of snow deposited here every winter. This used to be the predominant style of domestic Japanese architecture throughout the country’s more mountainous regions, but sadly today is confined to a handful of remaining villages.
8. Tokyo Streets
Visitors to Tokyo may not find this vision of Shimbashi very familiar, as the wooden houses of yesteryear have been replaced with shiny department stores and office blocks.
Maeda Masao’s stylized print contrasts this to a time tree-lined alleys and cobbled streets. The power of this image is to convey a sense of atmosphere so clearly even when artist, art and viewer are all so far removed from the scene in question.
Which prints do you like the most? have you seen any of these buildings in person? Let us know in the comments below!