Not just Another Museum: a Visit to the Hokusai Museum in Ryogoku

Despite this title, I really like going to museums. Even if my knowledge is limited, I like looking at art and I also like visiting history museums as I love to imagine how people used to live in older times.
However, visiting museums in Japan can sometimes be a disappointing experience. Even at Japan’s most famous museums, English explanations are often reduced to the strict minimum, if any. As a result, visitors often find themselves looking at things without having any insight into their meaning, missing the opportunity to learn new things or be surprised (what museums are supposed to be for). Even when you can read a fair amount of Japanese, reading difficult kanji making references to people or events famous only if you know your Japanese history very well, can end up being very discouraging.
The Hokusai Museum is completely different and has managed to create an exhibition appealing both to Japanese and foreigners, no matter your knowledge of art or history. Let me explain the reasons why.

2020-01-20   Visit: Museums, Tokyo,


Who was Hokusai and why is he so important?

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, probably Hokusai’s most famous work

Even if you know nothing about Japanese art, you  have surely seen this illustration somewhere. You can find it on the JR Pass, wallpapers, tote bags, mug cups, parodies and on many other objects all over the world. It was drawn by Hokusai when he was about 70 years old, a result of his very, very long career in drawing and painting.

Hokusai was a Japanese painter and woodblock print artist. He was born in 1760 and passed away at the venerable age of 88. Hokusai was an extremely talented person, and I think of him as a genius, and he was also a very dedicated, hard-working person. Calling himself an ‘old man mad with painting’ he spent his whole life drawing and studying until his death. He is famous for saying ‘until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice’ and he hoped to live until the age of 110, when, he thought, he’d finally be an accomplished painter.

The museum’s reconstitution of Hokusai’s older days in his home in Edo (Tokyo) where he lived a simple life among scattered drawings with his daughter Oi, also a painter.

Hokusai left us with an incredible number of paintings, woodblock prints, illustrations and even drawing manuals. His most famous work is ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, a series of woodblock prints from which the ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ is from. His influence on Japanese art is huge, but he also inspired 19th century Europe’s most famous artists and movements such as Art Nouveau and Impressionism. Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Klimt, Manet, Van Gogh and many more collected his prints and were influenced by his works.

One of Hokusai’s earlier ‘great wave’ themed work that can be seen in the permanent exhibition. Visiting the museum gives an insight on Hokusai’s progression in the art of painting all along his life.

What made him remarkable among the painters of his time, except for the fact that he dealt with an unusually wide range of subjects, is that he tried and introduced new techniques. Probably inspired by paintings owned by Dutch merchants (in a time when Japan was still closed to the outside world), Hokusai introduced perspective in his drawings, something that didn’t exist in Japanese art at the time. Using this technique, he managed to give depth to his creations while keeping the typical, abstract lines and colors of the traditional Japanese style. He also experimented with colors, using colors or associations that were new at the time, or used blue instead of black for the lines on his woodblock prints. This fact about colors was something I learnt during my visit to the museum.

A peculiar building by Kazuyo Sejima

The museum as seen from the nearby park

Like the Natsume Soseki memorial museum in Shinjuku, located in the same area the writer’s house used to be, the Hokusai museum is located in Sumida ward, where Hokusai was born and spent most of his life, even though he travelled throughout the whole country and moved about 90 times.

 The building was built by the famous female architect Kazuyo Sejima. She likes to play around with slick surfaces and use reflections in her designs, features that can be seen on the Hokusai museum’s building. The building surface has to be mostly closed in order to preserve Hokusai’s paintings and woodblock prints from daylight, but Sejima’s use of reflection makes the building’s outside bright and welcoming. She also decided to cut the structure into different shapes to make it fit with its surroundings.

 The result is a modern, almost futuristic building, but that looks good in this quiet area of Tokyo.

This small triangle-shaped opening in the middle leads to the entrance of the museum.

A model in welcoming foreign visitors

The permanent exhibition provides extensive explanations in English about woodblock prints, Hokusai’s life and his works

Before I even went through the glass door of the museum, a uniform-clad museum security staff brightly smiled at me and greeted me with these words: ‘Hello and welcome to the Hokusai museum’. Wow. I think it was the first time I was so courteously greeted in English by a guard at a museum entrance in Japan.

 The ladies who welcomed me and sold me the tickets also spoke very good English. The souvenir shop staff were very helpful to another visitor who was looking for a very specific book. Free Wifi (something tourists often find lacking in Japan) is also available and visitors are encouraged to share their pictures on social media.

 The museum, especially the permanent exhibition, has extensive information in English about Hokusai and his works, and I think it was the first time I saw so much English in a Japanese art museum. Most of the information is  on display on interactive panels, letting you choose the topics you’d like to read about (more on this a little later). The information is available in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese (traditional or simplified).

Interactive panels give all sorts of information in several languages, helping visitors understand the art and its context

As a matter of fact, when I was there, at least half of the visitors seemed to be foreign tourists. Obviously, the museum curators are aware of Hokusai’s popularity around the world and the museum’s potential in attracting foreign visitors and really did their best to accommodate them. As a result, you don’t only admire the paintings but also learn a lot, which was very satisfying.

An interactive permanent exhibition

The permanent exhibition space

The permanent exhibition costs 400 yen, which is a great deal for a museum in Tokyo. Actually, it occupies quite a small space compared to other museum’s permanent exhibitions or the temporary exhibition. The number of paintings or prints is also comparatively small.

 However, the permanent exhibition’s main interest resides in the diversity of information and interactions provided on touch panels all along the exhibit, allowing the visitors to learn at their own pace and according to their interests. Some also provide activities to put some of the exhibits into context, and enjoyable both by adults and children. Here are a few examples in the pictures below.

At the entrance a touch panel connected to a wall projection of a map of Sumida ward allows visitors to check different neighborhoods that were important for Hokusai during his life. Senior visitors seemed comfortable with the screens too as the menus are very user-friendly and instinctive
The information available for each work is detailed without being overwhelming
This panel allows the visitor to enhance some famous woodprints by having a closer look at the small details. Hokusai had a great sense of humor and some details can be very funny
Some panels also allow you to draw. On this one, you can learn to draw like Hokusai following the instructions of one of his drawing manuals
One of Hokusai’s drawing manuals put on display (I’d love to have one)
Hokusai was also a ‘designer’ and he created many patterns to be used on fabric. With this activity you can test combining different designs for a kimono

Is the temporary exhibition worth it?

When I visited the museum, the temporary exhibition was commemorating the 170th anniversary of Hokusai’s death by exhibiting some of his masterpieces owned by the Mogi-Honke museum (located in Noda city, Chiba prefecture).

 The temporary exhibition ticket is  more expensive. Prices vary depending on the exhibition but should be around 1200 yen. However, discounts are available under different conditions. Some of the conditions can be funny: when I visited, you could get a discount if you were wearing clothes or accessories with the color purple. Sadly I didn’t know about it prior to my visit so I could not benefit from it. If you plan to visit, make sure to check the temporary exhibition information page on the museum’s website to check the discounts!

 The temporary exhibition usually shows many famous or rare pieces of art from other places in Japan. The current one shows masterpieces that can usually be seen only if you go all the way to Obuse in Nagano prefecture. If you’re a Hokusai fan, it’s definitely  worth a visit.

Even if you’re not a fan though, the temporary exhibition is worth its admission price. First, the exhibition area is much bigger. Secondly, it’s much less crowded than Hokusai exhibitions when they happen in the other Tokyo art museums. Thirdly, there is a lot of information in English there too. When I visited, for the works that were especially important in Hokusai’s career or in his time, there were clear explanations on what they depicted, why this picture was special or what unusual technique was used. It gave a lot of depth to my visit and being able to understand  what I was looking at made it a very valuable experience.

Including the visit of the Hokusai museum in your visit of Ryogoku

If you are visiting the Ryogoku area, the Hokusai museum is definitely worth the 5mn walk from Oedo Line’s Ryogoku station (try to avoid the JR station if you can as it is further). However, I’d advise visiting it before the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The latter is really great too, but it’s so big it may discourage you from visiting another museum just after. Some information on the woodprint blocks shown there are also similar, and it will be easier for you to skip them if you visit the Hokusai museum first.

 My suggested visit to Ryogoku would be: The Hokusai Museum → Kokugikan (sumo stadium) → Get chanko nabe for lunch (sumo food) → The Edo-Tokyo Museum

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AUTHOR

Amelie

Amelie

Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.

Information

Address 2 Chome-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida City, Tokyo 130-0014
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Hours 9:30 am – 5:30 pm (Entrance gate closes 30 minutes before the closing time)
Price Permanent exhibits
1. Adults: 400 yen (Group fee: 320 yen)
2. High school, university, and vocational school students and seniors (age 65 and above): 300 yen (Group Fee: 240 yen/person)

Special exhibits
The admission fee varies by exhibition. Please see the webpage of each exhibition for details.
Close Mondays (on the following day if it falls on a national holiday or a compensatory holiday), year-end holidays (Dec. 29 – January 1) The museum may close on a temporary basis besides the dates above.
Access 5-minute walk from Toei Oedo Line Ryogoku Station A3 exit
9-minute walk from JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station East exit
Phone 03-6658-8936
Language Japanese
English
Chinese
Website https://hokusai-museum.jp/