Revolving Display of a Transient World at the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Fri, Oct 7, 2022


The dawn of the Edo Era (1603-1868) marked a significant change in Japan. The violent power struggles of the Warring States Period ended with the establishment of the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, and with this came a higher standard of living for many of Japan’s middle class: merchants and craftsmen and commoners, immersed in a society where entertainment and leisure ranked high on the to-do list in Edo (Tokyo) and across Japan.

This more pleasure-driven, more passionate way of pursuing enjoyment in life is encapsulated in the term ukiyo (浮世), which translates as “a floating/fleeting/transient world”. The concept of ukiyo derives from the growing idea that the moment is to be enjoyed, for life on earth will soon pass. With this shift in societal interests came the art form known as ukiyo-e, woodblock prints that depicted scenes of everyday life in Japan.


You can see some of these old and treasured prints at the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, right here in Matsumoto.

A World-Class Private Collection

Yoshiaki Sakai (1776-1842) was a wealthy merchant – Matsumoto’s second-richest, it is said – and an avid patron of the arts who was the catalyst for the establishment of the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. Through several generations the Sakai family collected works of art, along the way amassing the world’s largest collection of ukiyo-e prints, paintings, scrolls and books. In 1982 Tokichi Sakai established the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in order to promote the traditions of ukiyo-e while sharing its historical significance with the world.


Portions of the vast Sakai collection, which is said to number over 100,000 pieces, have been placed on exhibition all over the world. But Matsumoto is home to this, the world’s largest collection of ukiyo-e and one of the world’ largest private collections of art of any kind. With such a vast trove of artistic treasures the museum only shows a few hundred works of art at a time, normally rotating the display about every two months. This means a new exhibit each time you visit – or if you only visit once, a temporary display that may never be shown again in quite the same way.


Making the Trip to This Floating World

The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum is indeed right here in Matsumoto, but not quite smack in the middle of downtown. Getting there involves either a short train ride along the Kamikochi Line to Oniwa Station and then a fifteen-minute walk, or a 20-30 minute bike ride from the center of town out to the fields to the west where the Sakai family built their warehouses and their fortune over the past two hundred years.


The cool thing is that while you are out there you can walk next door to the Matsumoto Rekishi-no-Sato and check out the former Matsumoto District Court House, built in 1908 on the grounds of Matsumoto Castle and moved out here in 1977 when a new courthouse was constructed (in much less interesting fashion). If you have the time and the interest (and the transportation) you can go a bit further and visit the Kametaya Sake Brewery, established in 1868. They use groundwater drawn from an on-premises well over 60 meters deep to brew some of the area’s best sake, and just may allow you to take a quick look around the adjacent former residence of one of the owners of the original operation.

More Than Woodblock Prints

While the term ‘ukiyo’ is practically synonymous with ukiyo-e prints, the term is also culturally and artistically associated with ukiyo-zoshi, a popular genre of literature of the time period comprised mainly of amusing, enlightening stories of the lives of the commoners of 18th and 19th Century Japan. Perhaps the most renowned ukiyo-zoshi writer is Saikaku Ihara, whose works can be found (at the Central Matsumoto library, among other places) translated into English.

While you’re at the ukiyo-e museum catch a video on the subject.

I’d been living here in Matsumoto for eight years before I finally made it out to the Ukiyo-e Museum – and then only because it was part of the itinerary on a sponsored tourism promotional tour. But I’m glad I went. Pair your trip with some top-notch Japanese sake and you’ll be glad you went too.