Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) Famous Places in the Eastern Capital (Toto no Meisho): The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, Oban. 1834.
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This very fine Hiroshige from a highly desirable series shows peasants setting out to work under the shadow of a famous temple and landmark, The Spiral Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats.
The word “peasant” has the danger of creating misunderstandings. Peasants in Edo period Japan were not the serfs of the European feudal ages. The shogunate implemented many reforms that were designed to encourage peasant families to be independent. Improved irrigation enabled peasants to prosper and acted as a buffer against the frequent and disastrous famines. Peasant farms were similar to urban family businesses and they were free to travel to religious shrines and cities. Like the townsman class, women were expected to help on the family farm... Peasant women often dominated male members of the household. The typical peasant family consisted of 5-7 people: the married couple that made the core of the family, 2-3 children, and perhaps grandparents. The social ideal for peasant families was independence. Each household was expected to survive without outside help... Men and women dreamed about earning wealth and honour. Unlike the townsman class, this dream didn’t involve breaking the class boundaries. The dream of wealth and honour remained on the farm, its continuation and the continuation of the family. The fear of losing everything remained real.
The peasant class took pride in their role and referred to themselves as honourable peasants, onbyakusho... Men and women had different labor roles. For example. weaving and papermaking - both lucrative trades - were done by women. Men gathered firewood and made charcoal - less lucrative trades than weaving and paper-making. Peasant women, like townsman class women worked in public Chris Kincaid, 2016
This print is from a sometimes overlooked series that Hiroshige worked on intermittently for ten years, between 1834 and 1843. Some prints are quite drab but some, such as this one are really outstanding. Indeed, Basil Stewart, the longstanding authority on Hiroshige, describes the series thus:
"The series of most uniform excellence is probably that entitled 'Toto Meisho' 'Celebrated (Views of) Edo'".
In this great print, travellers make their way along the winding path leading past the deep green fields surrounding the temple and the thatched roofs of the village lining the road ahead. Peasant women are seen with fishing rods and farming equipment, baskets and suchlike, very different from the geishas and prostitutes seen in other prints. The temple was famous for its panoramic views of the environs of the city, and was a favourite spot of Hiroshige's for a day trip. The strange name derives from the (probably) eighteenth century spiral stairs that gave temple visitors strange feelings of perpetual motion - so much so that it was often called Entsukaku or the "Turret of Rotating Motion". Hiroshige effortlessly creates space with the instinctive, low viewpoint and snaking path.
A terrific print, trimmed on the left margin, but the important right margin intact. Colour, impression and condition very good.
A copy of this print is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Published by Sanoya Kihei, of Kikakudo.
36cm x 24cm.