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Snow, Sketches and (photo)Shoots at the Hokusai-kan Museum

From the 23rd to the 25th January 2024, Dr Ryoko Matsuba (Sainsbury Institute) and I travelled up to snowy Nagano prefecture to visit the small town of Obuse. Here, nestled among the fields and mountains, we found what we were looking for: the Hokusai-kan Museum. Opened in 1976, this museum is dedicated to the works of Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎, the master ukiyo-e artist best known in the West for the iconic Wave off Kanagawa. It contains hundreds of examples of his artwork, prints, nishiki-e, and even two festival floats he painted at the request of his local patron Takai Kōzan 高井鴻山. The museum also contains over 1,300 Japanese rare books, including 800 titles that Hokusai wrote or contributed to himself. It was this collection that drove us to brave the weather and make the trek north.

The reason for our trip was simple: despite the size and quality of the museum’s holdings, none of their books have been digitised. This is something that the Hokusai-kan Museum wants to rectify. As such, Dr Matsuba designed a project with the support of the Art Research Center (ARC) at Ritsumeikan University to photograph the collection and display it on a public database. Our trip in January was the first step of that project. Despite an initial mishap where our glass was nearly cut to the wrong size, over the course of only two days we used the ARC’s signature photography setup to capture the contents of 56 books from 19 different series, totalling over 1,400 discrete image files. These included gafu 画譜 (picture albums), yomihon 読本 (early-modern “novels”), kyōkabon 狂歌本 (madcap poetry collections) and more, demonstrating the wide range of Hokusai’s output. We even managed to find time to work on some non-Hokusai works recommended by the museum’s director, such as Kyōsai gadan 暁斎画談 (Kyōsai’s Treatise on Painting, 1887) by Kawanabe Kyōsai 河鍋暁斎.

This was a valuable opportunity to not only work with some mint-condition Hokusai materials but also to practice using our photography setup to achieve high-quality results at speed. As with all digitisation projects, it represents a step towards increasing public access to the museum’s incredible collection and making sure more of Hokusai’s works are visible to a wider array of people all over the world. We thank the curators of the Hokusai-kan Museum, the Art Research Center at Ritsumeikan University, the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures and of course Dr Matsuba for working so hard to make this project possible. I hope that we will continue to work together to spread the joy of Hokusai’s books as far as possible.

Joseph Bills
Special International Student/Research Student (MEXT)
Keio University
Graduate School of Letters