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Ukiyo-e and Life Energy

By Tim Hazell

Japan’s distinct culture evolved rapidly after legendary Emperor Jimmu founded the first dynasty in 660 BC. Many elements of Japanese art run counter to Western aesthetics, including the use of clear areas of separated color in a two-dimensional flat manner. Writing and painting are considered to belong to the same set of processes and skills. Deft rendering of line with brush and ink are taught from early childhood.

Ukiyo-e printmakers utilized themes from cityscapes such as Edo (the previous name of Tokyo) as well as the haunting beauty of Japanese rural tableaus. These artists would also sketch and divert themselves in “tearooms,” where conversation flowed in the company of courtesans. Roughly translated, “ukiyo-e” means “picture of a floating world.” Woodblock prints were a popular means of bringing art reproductions to the masses from about 1660 to 1860.

Four separate trades were required [MA1] to complete the shimmering sheets of ukiyo-e: the painter who created the design and determined color relationships, the master woodblock cutter, the printer who applied the colors used, and the publisher who financed and orchestrated the marketing. Prints usually told a story composed from daily routines. Hairstyles and fabrics reflected current fashions.

Japanese art flowed into France as trade relations between Europe and Japan reopened, brought about by Commodore Perry in the 1860s. Impressionist and Fauve artists Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh soon fell under the influence of the bold graphic statements of ukiyo-e prints. Their paintings underwent subtle changes as a result of works by Hokusai (1760–1849) and Hiroshige (1797–1858).

Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, coexisting with Buddhism. Shinto is based upon the celebration of human life and gods who are manifested as living energy in rocks, promontories, trees, objects, and natural structures. Traditional beliefs include food restrictions that advocate vegetarianism. Dishes such as soba noodles and fresh-vegetable combinations give Japanese cooking its delicacy and health benefits. Here are two recipes with light yet expressive touches!


Japanese Zucchini and Onions


2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 medium zucchinis, cut into thin strips

2 tbsp teriyaki sauce

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

Ground black pepper to taste



Heat the oil in a large skillet. Toss in the onions, and cook 5 minutes. Add zucchini, and continue to cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Stir in teriyaki sauce, soy sauce, and sesame seeds and fry until zucchini are tender, about 5 minutes. Add ground black pepper, and serve immediately.


Sesame Green Beans



1 tbsp. canola oil

1 1/2 tsp. sesame oil

1 lb. fresh green beans, washed

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted



Heat a large skillet or wok. Add the canola and sesame oils, then toss in the whole green beans. Cook until the beans are bright green and slightly browned in spots, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in soy sauce; cover, and let sit about 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.



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