Japanese Snow Myths

Hiroshige, Snow at Yamanaka Village near Fujikawa from the Upright Tokaido Series

Hiroshige, Snow at Yamanaka Village near Fujikawa from the Upright Tokaido Series

For those interested in Japanese prints it will be obvious that snow is a major subject for both landscapists and narrative artists. The most desirable Hiroshige landscapes tend to be his haunting snow scenes – these great and seemingly effortless depictions of white-out conditions… the great heavy flakes that punctuate the night sky and the laden roofs and branches rising from the mountainous drifts and buried roads and tracks. I doubt very much that Hiroshige witnessed many of these scenes in person. Travel along the Tokaido Road and to the provinces of Japan where snow can fall in great 30cm depths would have been difficult and dangerous in the early nineteenth century and yet Hiroshige (as in the print illustrated above) manages to convey the qualities and muffled density of these scenes with great skill. Technically, he does this through absence. In these great prints, the whites are left as blank paper – negative spaces. The snow is ironically conveyed not with great impasto slabs of white lead as in western painting, but with nothing at all. But there is something else going on in these prints that is not merely technical – there is a great and moving sense of mystery; like a story by Poe or Dickens, there is mystery in the very description of the scene; as in the method, it is what Hiroshige leaves out that is most moving.

In the beautiful print illustrated here, we feel the leaden sky and the great blanket of whiteness but we are drawn to the huddled figures in the foreground whose forms are barely indicated – we read their closeness and their sense of arrival even though they are draped in straw coats and blanketed in snow. In the village ahead you can hear the silence.

Hiroshige, Taira-no-Kiyomori

Hiroshige, Taira-no-Kiyomori

Chikanobu, Taira-no-Kiyomori

Chikanobu, Taira-no-Kiyomori

Elsewhere, Hiroshige uses  snow to make more directed and narrative points, evoking the Japanese superstition and fear that is associated with it. In his great triptych of Taira-no Kiyomori he uses snow to sculpt vast and terrifying skulls in the garden outside the window. Kiyomori assumed control of the powerful Taira Clan in 1153. He had the reputation for being a harsh and unscrupulous leader, eventually bringing about the Genpei wars between rival clans in 1180. He died delirious and he is associated in Japanese art with guilt and retribution hence Hiroshige’s extraordinary triptych of the elderly warrior hallucinating the skulls and bones of his victims in the snow covered forms of his garden. Yoshitoshi produced a famous image of him in hell, his terrified form surrounded by the vengeful ghosts of his many victims.

Several artists used Hiroshige’s chilling image of snow laden skulls, for example this image by Chikanobu of the same subject from his series Moon, Flowers and Snow of 1884.

Kunisada, Snow at Yoshiwara - Urazato

Kunisada, Snow at Yoshiwara – Urazato

Snow is also used to depict privation, allowing ukiyo-e artists to show figures huddling or bent over or else in distress. There are many famous myths which do not necessarily take place in the snow but are habitually depicted as such in order to heighten the dramatic effect. A good example of this is the story of Urazato. This legend was popular with   audiences in the mid nineteenth century. The plot tells of the doomed love affair between the prostitute Urazato and her samurai lover who cannot afford to buy her out of service. They have a child together and plan to escape; as punishment Urazato is bound with rope and put out in the snow. She is fed water (from the butt visible in the lower right of the bottom panel) by her young daughter whilst her lover waits in a pine tree above. He rescues her but they have nowhere to go and they commit a joint suicide that same night.

Kunisada made various versions of the story, this beautiful 1857 vertical diptych being very notable. As in all depictions of the scene, Kunisada sets it in the heavy snow to further emphasise Urazato’s suffering. It is striking how similar Kunisada’s use of the falling snow against the night sky is with that of the Hiroshige at the top of the page. Perhaps even more striking is the triptych by Hirosada of the same subject from roughly the same period. Taking both Hiroshige’s treatment of snow and the dramatic elements of the Kunisada, he stretches the scene into a vivid horizontal triptych format, contrasting the falling snow so dramatically against the vertical wooden planks of the right hand panel.

Hirosada, Snow at Yoshiwara - Urazato

Hirosada, Snow at Yoshiwara – Urazato

Perhaps one of the most famous Japanese stories that takes place in the snow is the final act of the Chushingura – the Story of the 47 Ronin. One of the most famous of all Japanese Hero stories, the play (the Chushingura) is  perhaps also the most famous drama of kabuki theatre and the real historical characters are still revered today at their shrine and in films, books, plays and cartoons.


The true story tells the suicide of Enya Hangan who in 1701 was forced to draw his sword in the Shogun’s palace by the goading  of the courtier Moronao. Hangan is obliged to commit suicide for the offence and his retainers become Ronin, leaderless samurai. They vow revenge and the play revolves around their plotting and preparation, culminating in the storming of Moronao’s house and his eventual assassination.  The attack takes place in the snow and again, ukiyo-e artists were able to use the heavy snow and the contrasting black and white uniforms of the samurai to great dramatic effect. It has been commented on that given Kuniyoshi’s extensive knowledge of Renaissance art (particularly northern European), his depiction of the scene and its many variants pay more than a resemblance to Flemish snow scenes such as Brueghel’s famous Hunters in the Snow.

Brueghel, Hunters in the Snow

Brueghel, Hunters in the Snow

The beautiful snow scene by Hiroshige at the top of the page will be in the Toshidama Gallery January sale at a 30% discount for Newsletter subscribers. The sale show opens on the 4th of January.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in 47 Ronin, japanese woodblock prints, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi, ukiyo-e art, yoshitoshi, Yoshiwara and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Japanese Snow Myths

  1. Pingback: Japanese art and culture: Snow Myths | Modern Tokyo Times

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