An ACM Experience

A 200-
year-
old
woodblock
print.

Which is
historical?

How do you
define old?

A 21st-century
photograph.

And which is
contemporary?

And what is
new?

To find your answers, let's travel through Japan – and different eras of time.

Our journey begins in the Edo period (1603–1868), a time when the mighty Tokugawa Shogunate ruled over Japan. Our first stop is the Shogunate’s capital city, Edo, which we now know as Tokyo.

Welcome to Edo.

In the Edo period, a type of woodblock print that came to be known as "ukiyo-e" flourished. Translating to "pictures of the floating world", ukiyo-e captured the modern, ever-changing present of Edo life.

In this ukiyo-e from the early 19th-century, a lively scene at the banks of the Nihonbashi river unfolds before us.

In the background, the iconic Mount Fuji is presented along the pink-tinged sky. In front of it, the Nihonbashi Bridge is teeming with people busily bearing boxes, baskets, and crates. Why such a rush?

This is where many of them are headed – to the Nihonbashi Uogashi.

The uogashi (fish market) was Edo’s original downtown area. Known as the “kitchen” of Edo, the market housed hundreds of wholesalers selling countless varieties of seafood.

A vibrant array of seafood provides a feast for the eyes. Some familiar varieties might catch your attention – squid (ika), octopus (tako), and red sea bream (tai). Imagine standing in the middle of the market, surrounded by the colourful sights, clamorous sounds, and distinctive smells.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the characters depicted in the market.

Here, a man carries a large octopus on a hook, with more in the basket balanced on his shoulder. Colourful details like these would surely have delighted Edo-period viewers of these print – just as they delight us now.

You might think the octopus are for making takoyaki (floured octopus balls), but that didn’t become popular till the 1930s. Instead, the people of Edo enjoyed their octopus in other ways.

For instance, in the popular octopus rice, aka "cherry blossom rice" (sakura meshi). Cooked octopus legs would be sliced and laid over rice. The dish reminded Edo folks of cherry blossom petals, thus the beautiful name.

Next to the octopus seller, two women in the centre of the print appear to be engaged in conversation. Perhaps they are deciding what seafood to buy today.

They both wear high, platform sandals called “geta”, ideal for navigating the wet streets of the market.

On the left side of the print, a group of dogs might catch your eye. A boy looks troubled by two stray puppies that try to play with the woman in kimono. This kind of moment from daily life is charming and funny at the same time. It adds variety and interest to the more serious business of the fish market.

Another point of interest is the man in the blue kimono helping to deliver a large black fish. A tobacco pouch called “sage tabako ire” hangs at his waist, along with a long case holding his pipe. These were fashionable accessories for people in the Edo period, and were available in a variety of designs.

The man with the tobacco pouch works with another man to haul an enormous fish on a pole. This appears to be a large skipjack tuna (katsuo), which was one of the most popular fish on Edo restaurant menus.

In particular, hatsu-gatsuo, the “first catch” of katsuo in the late spring and early summer, was a highly prized favourite.

The busy wholesalers; the frenzied haggling; the tantalising variety of seafood; the giant tuna — do these details seem familiar?

If you’ve visited Tokyo, you might know about its famous fish markets, the old Tsukiji, as well as Toyosu, where the wholesale section moved to in 2018. In fact, Nihonbashi Uogashi was the direct precursor to these modern markets.

The hustle and bustle of the old Nihonbashi fish market depicted here would definitely be familiar to anyone who has visited Tsukiji. The clothing is surely different now, but this early 19th-century scene is perhaps not so far from what still occurs at a large morning fish market in Tokyo today.

In the background, the iconic Mount Fuji is presented along the pink-tinged sky. In front of it, the Nihonbashi Bridge is teeming with people busily bearing boxes, baskets, and crates. Why such a rush?

This is where many of them are headed – to the Nihonbashi Uogashi.

The uogashi (fish market) was Edo’s original downtown area. Known as the “kitchen” of Edo, the market housed hundreds of wholesalers selling countless varieties of seafood.

A vibrant array of seafood provides a feast for the eyes. Some familiar varieties might catch your attention – squid (ika), octopus (tako), and red sea bream (tai). Imagine standing in the middle of the market, surrounded by the colourful sights, clamorous sounds, and distinctive smells.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the characters depicted in the market.

Here, a man carries a large octopus on a hook, with more in the basket balanced on his shoulder. Colourful details like these would surely have delighted Edo-period viewers of these print – just as they delight us now.

You might think the octopus are for making takoyaki (floured octopus balls), but that didn’t become popular till the 1930s. Instead, the people of Edo enjoyed their octopus in other ways.

For instance, in the popular octopus rice, aka "cherry blossom rice" (sakura meshi). Cooked octopus legs would be sliced and laid over rice. The dish reminded Edo folks of cherry blossom petals, thus the beautiful name.

Next to the octopus seller, two women in the centre of the print appear to be engaged in conversation. Perhaps they are deciding what seafood to buy today.

They both wear high, platform sandals called “geta”, ideal for navigating the wet streets of the market.

On the left side of the print, a group of dogs might catch your eye. A boy looks troubled by two stray puppies that try to play with the woman in kimono. This kind of moment from daily life is charming and funny at the same time. It adds variety and interest to the more serious business of the fish market.

Another point of interest is the man in the blue kimono helping to deliver a large black fish. A tobacco pouch called “sage tabako ire” hangs at his waist, along with a long case holding his pipe. These were fashionable accessories for people in the Edo period, and were available in a variety of designs.

The man with the tobacco pouch works with another man to haul an enormous fish on a pole. This appears to be a large skipjack tuna (katsuo), which was one of the most popular fish on Edo restaurant menus.

In particular, hatsu-gatsuo, the “first catch” of katsuo in the late spring and early summer, was a highly prized favourite.

The busy wholesalers; the frenzied haggling; the tantalising variety of seafood; the giant tuna — do these details seem familiar?

If you’ve visited Tokyo, you might know about its famous fish markets, the old Tsukiji, as well as Toyosu, where the wholesale section moved to in 2018. In fact, Nihonbashi Uogashi was the direct precursor to these modern markets.

The hustle and bustle of the old Nihonbashi fish market depicted here would definitely be familiar to anyone who has visited Tsukiji. The clothing is surely different now, but this early 19th-century scene is perhaps not so far from what still occurs at a large morning fish market in Tokyo today.

Let’s take a closer look at more of Edo’s surprisingly modern lifestyle trends.

Beauty & Cosmetics

The J-beauty trend might be a 21st-century phenomenon, but the Japanese preoccupation with beauty was firmly in place by the Edo period. Grooming, hairdressing, and the application of makeup were all essential parts of Edo living.

今⾵化粧鏡 ⽑ぬき
Woman Tweezing Her Eyebrows, from series Mirrors of Modern Make-up Utagawa Kunisada (aka Toyokuni III)

Pets

Like today, cats, dogs, birds, and goldfish were some of the most cherished pets of the time – and frequently appeared in ukiyo-e as a result.

⾵俗三⼗⼆相 うるささう
寛政年間処⼥之⾵俗

Annoying: Appearance of Girl in the Kansei Period, from the series Thirty-Two Aspects of Women
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Gardening

Think the COVID-19 lockdowns turned us all into gardening enthusiasts? Maybe not as much as the people of Edo were.

Tending houseplants was a popular pastime in Edo. Judging from this scene, the people of Edo were great gardeners, indeed!

⾒たて五⾏ ⼟ とこなつ
Earth: Tokonatsu, from the series Comparisons for the Five Elements
Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Food

The food culture of Edo was rich and diverse. Many of today’s well-loved Japanese culinary traditions can be traced back to the Edo period – such as the concept of obento (boxed meals), or eating eel on a special day in summer.

浄るりまち繁花の図 かばやき
Grilled Eel: Characters from Plays as Merchants and Customers, from the series Flourishing Business in Balladtown
Utagawa Hiroshige I

Travel

In the Edo period, a good economy and improved road system meant people often travelled for leisure. Many of Edo’s most famous tourist attractions continue to be popular today – such as the Ise Grand Shrine and, of course, Mount Fuji.

One of the most popular routes of the time was the Tokaido Road, which connected Edo to Kyoto.

東海道川尽 大井川の図
View of Oi River, from the series Collection of Rivers on the Tokaido Road
Utagawa Hiroshige I

Continue on to modern Kyoto via the iconic Tokaido route.

click on the map to explore
Done exploring?
Continue scrolling to be transported to modern-day Kyoto.
Tap on map to explore or continue scrolling to be transported to modern-day Kyoto.
There are 53 stations along the Tokaido, which was one of the most well-travelled routes of the Edo period.
In the 1830s, each station was captured in a series of ukiyo-e by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Today, Hiroshige’s prints continue to be among the most popular works of Japanese ukiyo-e.
The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido was also wildly popular with the Japanese people of Hiroshige’s time.
In those days, of course, there were no television travel programs or internet sites to help you dream about and plan your trip. Information about the pleasure of travel was conveyed through the beautiful scenery in woodblock prints.
By arranging Hiroshige’s vistas of the Tokaido, the people of the Edo period could indulge in the pleasure of travelling via their imagination. Like them, looking at Hiroshige’s prints affords us the same pleasure today.
Use this interactive map to explore Hiroshige’s masterful series, which starts at Edo (today’s Tokyo), ends at Kyoto, and spans the 53 stations in between.
Along the way, uncover more surprisingly modern aspects of life along this iconic route.
Or, keep scrolling to travel directly to modern-day Kyoto to continue our journey through time.

Our travels have taken us from 19th-century Edo, to modern-day Kyoto.

For centuries, Kyoto has been known for its exceptional artistic traditions.

Many people associate Kyoto with Japan's geisha culture – and, indeed, it has a long tradition in the city.

Here we are, in one of Kyoto’s famously private teahouses. In the middle of the room, a geiko practices a dance.

Though they are more widely known as “geisha”, in Kyoto these professional entertainers are called “geiko”.

All across Japan, the geikos of Gion are considered to be artists and performers of the highest skill. Every gesture and element of their appearance is carefully crafted.

Dance is one of the traditional art forms a geiko must master. Others include music, poetry, ikebana (flower arranging), and performing the tea ceremony.

Geikos have passed down and preserved these skills for hundreds of years.

Let’s examine one of the most iconic hallmarks of a geiko – her kimono.

This geiko is wearing a magnificent kimono adorned with a crane motif.

As symbols of longevity and good fortune, cranes are one of the most popular motifs for kimono.

In this context, the symbolism might make you think of the longevity and timelessness of Japanese traditional arts, and how they have endured through the ages.

In the corner of the photograph, tucked away by a screen, we glimpse a kneeling figure.

She is a maiko — an apprentice geiko. Her intricate hair ornaments signal her status as novice. She shows her own natural hair, as opposed to a geiko, who customarily wears a wig.

Young women undergo about a year of lessons before they can debut as a maiko. After that, they spend an average of five years undergoing the strict training required to become a geiko.

Soon, this maiko will graduate and become a full-fledged geiko.

Eventually, she will take her turn training new maikos, carrying on the time-honoured traditions of Kyoto’s geiko community and helping preserve them for the future.

And so, even as we have travelled two hundred years forward from the Edo period, perhaps things are not as different or new as we might have expected.

Within the walls of these traditional teahouses, it is as though time stands still. This timeless quality is what Russel Wong sought to capture in his use of black and white for these photographs. The slight sepia tone turns these contemporary views a bit more old-fashioned to better match with the Edo-period woodblock prints in the exhibition.

Here we are, in one of Kyoto’s famously private teahouses. In the middle of the room, a geiko practices a dance.

Though they are more widely known as “geisha”, in Kyoto these professional entertainers are called “geiko”.

All across Japan, the geikos of Gion are considered to be artists and performers of the highest skill. Every gesture and element of their appearance is carefully crafted.

Dance is one of the traditional art forms a geiko must master. Others include music, poetry, ikebana (flower arranging), and performing the tea ceremony.

Geikos have passed down and preserved these skills for hundreds of years.

Let’s examine one of the most iconic hallmarks of a geiko – her kimono.

This geiko is wearing a magnificent kimono adorned with a crane motif.

As symbols of longevity and good fortune, cranes are one of the most popular motifs for kimono.

In this context, the symbolism might make you think of the longevity and timelessness of Japanese traditional arts, and how they have endured through the ages.

In the corner of the photograph, tucked away by a screen, we glimpse a kneeling figure.

She is a maiko — an apprentice geiko. Her intricate hair ornaments signal her status as novice. She shows her own natural hair, as opposed to a geiko, who customarily wears a wig.

Young women undergo about a year of lessons before they can debut as a maiko. After that, they spend an average of five years undergoing the strict training required to become a geiko.

Soon, this maiko will graduate and become a full-fledged geiko.

Eventually, she will take her turn training new maikos, carrying on the time-honoured traditions of Kyoto’s geiko community and helping preserve them for the future.

And so, even as we have travelled two hundred years forward from the Edo period, perhaps things are not as different or new as we might have expected.

Within the walls of these traditional teahouses, it is as though time stands still. This timeless quality is what Russel Wong sought to capture in his use of black and white for these photographs. The slight sepia tone turns these contemporary views a bit more old-fashioned to better match with the Edo-period woodblock prints in the exhibition.

Let’s continue exploring other historical and timeless facets of modern Kyoto.

Architecture

As the former imperial capital, Kyoto is home to many historical monuments, including the 600-year-old Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Kyoto, Kita ward, 2020

Nature

Long renowned for its natural beauty, Kyoto’s scenic vistas include magnificent mountains and enchanting bamboo groves. But even simple scenes like the one on the right have an enduring charm.

Gion Shirakawa
Kyoto, Higashiyama ward, 2010

Teahouses

Strictly regulated teahouses, called ochaya, operate within Kyoto’s five kagai (geisha districts).

These highly exclusive establishments only accept new clients via recommendation from a regular customer. Members are hosted at banquets with menus appropriate for the occasion, guest list, and season, while entertainment from geikos and maikos complete the dining experience.

Geiko and maiko on their way to the teahouse in winter
Kyoto, 2014

Seasonal Activities

The Kyoto calendar is packed with traditional festivities, which usually revolve around seasonal changes, local history, and religious rituals and ceremonies. One of Japan’s most important events is the Gion kagai summer festival – Gion Matsuri. Other highlights include the Jidai Matsuri and annual dance performances held in each geiko kagai.

Kitano Odori performance
Kyoto, Kamigyo ward, 2012

From Edo to Kyoto via the Tokaido, from the early 19th-century to the present - we have come to the end of our journey.

Having travelled 200 years through time, let’s reconsider the questions that we began with - How do you define old? And what is new?

Is a 200-year-old
woodblock print that
reflects the modern,
forward-looking spirit
of its time “old”?

Is a contemporary
photograph that captures
the traditions of a carefully
preserved world “new”?

We’ll let you answer these questions.

Share with us — which collection did you relate to more? Pick a side and we’ll take a guess at your travel style.

We hope you enjoyed the digital experience of

Russel Wong in Kyoto
Life in Edo
Visit the special exhibition virtuallyfacebook
Available till 31 December 2021

Follow us

Credits
All woodblock print images are courtesy of the Nakau Collection.
All Russel Wong photographs are courtesy of Russel Wong.