Kyōto Meisho no uchi is a series of 10 landscape prints by Utagawa Hiroshige celebrating the parks and scenic vistas of Kyōto.

Hiroshige may have worked up ideas for this series from his trip to the ancient capital as part of a delegation to present a sacred horse to the Emperor sometime during the 8th month of 1832. However certain designs were also taken from pre-existing illustrations found picture-books by past artists. Such borrowings are not uncommon in the history of Ukiyo-e printmaking.

Kyoto has been a place of scenic natural beauty since ancient times inspiring artists of all trades with its fairy-tale magic. Hiroshige’s focus was to depict the intimate interaction between the people and the changing seasons throughout the year across various locations while keeping an air of tranquillity across all scenes, a key aspect of his distinctive style. 

Tofuku-ji is the headquarters of an important sect of Rinzai school Zen Buddhism. In the Edo period, the Tsuten (“Link to Heaven”) Bridge led from the lecture hall across Sengyoku (“Wash Jewel”) stream, in a valley that was a favoured place for viewing the brilliant maple folliage in autumn. Once again, Hiroshige’s view is based on the black and white illustration by Oku Bummei in “Miyako rinsen meisho zue” (1790), adapted for the colour-print medium. As is frequently the case, the red lead pigment used for the orange folliage has tarnished almost black.

Fantastic Hiroshige night view of travelers along a footbridge across the Tadasu River. A heavy rain falls and travelers run for shelter. Lovely print with excellent color and fine detail.

The official season for enjoying the evening cool by the Kamo River, where it is crossed by Shijo Avenue, was in late summer – from the evening of the 7th day of the 6th month until the evening of the 18th day. Restaurants hung out lanterns and extended platforms from the riverbanks on either side for parties of revellers. On the shallow island in the middle of the river a small city of temporary theatres, teahouses and sideshows was erected, together with additional wooden platforms. The permanent Kabuki theatre was also close at hand on the east bank of the river. As with many designs in the series, Hiroshige leads us diagonally into the composition.

The famous platform of Kiyomizu Temple is seen from the south, up the hillside filled with clouds of blossoming cherry. In the foreground, revellers admire the view from the Ukamuse tea-house, located in the Nanzo-in sub-temple. The main elements of the composition were taken by Hiroshige from an illustration by Oku Bummei in “Miyako rinsen meisho zue” (1799).

The large umbrellas and bright kimono of the Kyoto women form an eye-catching focus in the otherwise subdued scene of thickly falling snow. Through the stone “torii” gateway on the south side of the Gion (Yasaka) Shrine can be seen the Niken-jaya (Twin teahouses).

Though it has many local names, the Yodo River is the main river flowing out of Lake Biwa and passing through Kyoto and Osaka out to the Inland Sea. Here passengers in a large ferryboat are being hawked refreshments from one of the small Kurawanka boats that plied the river. Hiroshige has copied almost line for line the illustration by Shunchosai in “Miyako meisho zue” (1780), eliminating the famous waterwheel of Yodo castle from the background and inserting a full moon, cuckoo and clouds to evoke a more lyrical atmosphere.

“(Shui) Miyako meisho zue” (1787) describes how women came from the villages around Yase and Ohara, north of Kyoto, to sell their wares in the streets of the capital. Sometimes leading packhorses, they carried the items for sale – bundles of firewood, ladders, round mallets, etc. – on their heads. As if to illustrate this passage, Hiroshige shows the women carrying just these specific items, dressed in their picturesque headscarves, leggings and arm-cloths, and making their way through open country from a distant village, presumably Yase. The publisher seems to have realised that careful gradated wiping of the colour blocks was vital to enliven an otherwise somewhat generalised design.

The gorge at Arashiyama, in western Kyoto, was a popular place for flower-viewing in spring, the blossoming cherry trees scattered among darker pines on the hillside. Though Hiroshige’s design takes a hint from Oku Bunmei’s black and white illustration in “Miyako rinsen meisho zue” (1799), he replaces Bunmei’s pleasure boat with a simple log raft punted by workmen. In early impressions the blue of the water is carefully wiped to leave a dramatic band of white down the centre of the river. But even here the green eddies in the bottom right corner suggest the swiftness of the current, contrasting with the fallen petals in the shallows.

The Shimabara Quarter was the single officially licensed pleasure quarter in Kyoto in the Edo period, removed from the Rokujo Misujimachi in 1640 to a more isolated location on the Tamba Highway, surrounded by fields. The main gate on the east side was marked with a willow tree. A comparison with the black and white illustration by Takehara Shunchosai in the gazetteer “Miyako meisho zue” (1780), suggests that Hiroshige took most of the main elements of his colour print from that source. The foreground group of figures surrounding a drunken customer, for instance, appear just inside the gate in Shunchosai’s illustration.

The ethereal “Golden Pavilion” (Kinkaku-ji) was built at the orders of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, as part of a ten-year project to convert a site in the northern hills of Kyoto, previously owned by the Saionji family, into a complex of villas. The three-storey pavilion was covered in gold leaf and the pond at the foot of Mt. Kinugasa enlarged and landscaped with exotically-shaped rocks. By the terms of Yoshimitsu’s will, Kinkaku-ji subsequently became (and has remained) a Zen Buddhist temple. Hiroshige’s composition is an enlarged, simplified and, of course, colour-printed adaptation of a black and white illustration in the gazetteer “Miyako meishi zue” (1780).

Originally published by Kawaguchi in 1834, Each woodblock print is in horizontal-ōban format of about 15″ x 10″ (38cm x 25cm). The title, Kyoto Meisho no uchi, and sub-title are on the face of each print with the accompanying publisher’s seal of Yeisendo or Kawaguchi. These prints are rare with not many circulations as publishers focused more on Hiroshige’s other and most popular work “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido” released that same year.

This collection is part of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in the United States and owned by the Billings Family that was either given to them as a gift from a family friend Sho Neomoto, a member of the National Diet or perhaps purchased from him during their trip to Japan in 1898.