This very unusual, rare print by Hiroshige is full of enigmas. The print comes from an aborted series of Tokaido Road prints illustrating the comic novels of Jippensha Ikku about the misadventures of two travellers on the Tokaido Road – the main highway between Kyoto and Edo in the nineteenth century. The two characters (seen in the print), are called Yajirobe and Kitahachi. The book is both a traveller’s guide to the journey on the 53 post-stations and a series of comic vignettes. As they make their way, they leave behind a trail of crude jokes and plentiful puns. For example, they make fun of a daimyo procession, cheat shopkeepers out of money, and get cheated in turn. At one inn, they make fools of themselves because they do not know how to use the bathtub, they burn themselves and debate how to eat the hot stones that they have been served by an innkeeper and so on… comic events often ensue when Yaji or Kita try to sneak into bed with women, which happens at various inns along the road.
The books were published between 1802 and 1832 and no doubt gave rise to Hiroshige’s extraordinary and ground breaking prints of the same journey in 1832. This print is from a mysterious set of prints of which very little is known. The series, City Sparrows Walking the Tokaido Road was no doubt commissioned by the publisher Koshodo in the late 1830’s. Only one print is known to conform to that description: Outskirts of the Inn at Kumotsu (below).
Another print from the series, Stopover at Odawara, is in the collection of the British Museum London. The BM date this print to 1845 – 49, a full decade later than the MFA print and by a different publisher: Sanoki Kikakudo. The series is described in the Watanabe Memorial catalogue of 1917, (item 81) where seven known designs are mentioned. Three more designs from the series are at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which suggest that the series was re-printed late in the 1840’s by Sanoki as the British Museum print also suggests. One further image can be found at the Alamy-photostock library online, without attribution.
The three Met’ drawings, plus the MFA print, plus the B.M London print and the Alamy drawing give a total of six known designs plus this woodblock print, giving the full seven designs alluded to in the Memorial catalogue, brought together for the first time.
What of the print at the top of the page, on show for sale at the Toshidama Galelry this month? It seems the only other copy of this print is an identical design in the Waseda University Library in Japan. The title of the print is the Hamamatsu station and the print shows the hapless Yajirobe and Kitahachi terrified of drying clothes on a rail at night on the veranda of the inn that they are staying at… mistaking the flapping garment for a ghost! Neither the Waseda Museum nor ourselves can date the print because there is no publisher seal nor date stamp. It is likely that the print is from the same issue as the British Museum design – late 1840’s.
The print has been backed with a thin Edo period backing paper and also appears to have been re-margined… the print may have been trimmed to the edge and then mounted onto a new, larger surround which may explain the absence of publisher seal. The finding of this print has led the Toshidama Gallery to scour the net and to assemble for the first time all seven of the original designs for the first time. The seven designs identified in the Memorial Catalogue of 1917 are clearly the remains of an aborted commission; what then caused the three known designs to be printed in such small editions remains a mystery.
The exhibition, A Spring Selection is online at The Toshidama Gallery from 21st March 2022 for six weeks.