Vegder's Blog

December 20, 2016

Shinobazu Pond – Shinobazu no ike – 不忍池 – a favorite place for artists and others

There is not a lot of information printed in English about Shinobazu Pond, but that won’t stop me. To lure you in, I will start off with one of my favorite images, a diptych by Sadatora, of two elegant women who have probably just finished their lunch in one of the establishments looking down on the pond with its beautifully positioned shrine to the goddess Benten smack dab in the middle – well not exactly in the middle, but… – of that watery setting. Then I will begin to examine this place, often with extraneous comments and superfluous remarks, and a ton of relevant imagery. In time a clearer image will start to come into focus. You’ll see. So here we go…

Utagawa Sadatora diptych from the Lyon Collection

There is, however, one decent description of this area by Paul Waley in his Tokyo Now and Then: An Explorer’s Guide:

Centuries ago when Ueno [pronouced ‘Way-no’] hill overlooked the Bay of Tokyo, the expanse of water
at the foot of the hill was an inlet of the bay. In later days, when Ueno hill was known as Shinobugaoka Hill
of Endurance, the seawater inlet, which had become a freshwater pond, was named Shinobazunoike, Pond Without Patience, in verbal opposition to Hill of Endurance.

When the abbot Tenkai looked down over this expanse of water from his new temple of Kan’eji on the hill, it reminded him so much of the great Lake Biwa near Kyoto that he had an island constructed in the middle of the pond in order to complete the resemblance with Lake Biwa and its Chikubu Island. On this island he had
a shrine built to Benten, the goddess who is closely associated with Chikubu Island and Lake Biwa and is an expert player of the musical instrument after which the lake is named. In 1670, a causeway was built linking the hall to the shore, and Shinobazu Pond island was an island no more. Embankments were constructed around the pond, and the embankments were lined with deaijaya, teahouses where lovers could spend the night together and enjoy the lotus plants for which the pond was famous then as now.

Harunobu (春信: 1725-70)
The Mistress in the Evening at Ueno – ca. 1769-70
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Once a year each samurai is given an annual 3 or 4 day leave in the 3rd month. He can either spend it at home or in an inn, like this one perhaps, for some much needed rest and relaxation. Even the Edo term for such a leave, yadosagari, is mentioned in the poem.

David Waterhouse wrote:

The pond known as Shinobazu-no-ike was created from a marsh at the foot of the hill at Ueno,
and was famous already in the Kyōhō period (1716-36) for its lotuses… On the island in the middle
of the pond there was (and is) a shrine to Benzaiten, and the tea-houses which were also on the
island served ‘lotus meals’ (hasu-meshi) to guests. However, Shinobazu Pond was above all famous
from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards for its ‘meeting tea-houses’ (deai-chaya), where
men and women made secret rendezvous, and which had rooms overlooking the lotus pond. As a
result, there came to be a special association between lotus ponds and deai-chaya.

Hasu-meshi is 蓮飯 and deai-chaya is 出会茶屋.

The tradition of the deai-chaya has continued down to this day in the form or ‘love hotels’ – David West has written about these establishments.

“Love hotels, or at least “adult hotels” exist in the United States as well, but they are often seedy low-rent joints in the wrong parts of town. By contrast, Japanese love hotels, often enveloped in blazing neon and gaudy architecture in the style of such landmarks as the Disneyland castle and the Statue of Liberty, are situated so that couples can quickly dart in off the street without attracting attention. In other areas, they are often set back from the highway to allow inconspicuous entrance through the rubber-curtained doors that close just in time to prevent passersby from glancing at one’s license plate. In either setting, for about $50 for two hours or $100 for the entire night, a couple gets a fully-furnished room, often furnished with rotating beds, mirrored ceilings, glass bathtubs, and entertainment extras such as large-screen televisions and karaoke machines. For a little extra, theme rooms are available, featuring everything from traditional Japanese furnishings to Cinderella fantasies to medieval torture chambers.”

“Once inside the hotel, customers choose a room. At smaller and older hotels, the decision may be made through a sort of “front desk” at which a clerk, usually shielded from the waist up to avoid exposing a customer’s identity, simply slides the customer the key to an available room. At most hotels, however, the system is more sophisticated. Upon entering, customers are faced with an array of photos of the hotel’s room accompanied by a description of the room’s amenities and the fee schedule. Available rooms are backlit. (If no room is available, as is often the case on weekends and holidays, many hotels have a clock that gives approximate waiting times, the determination of which is a science in and of itself.) To choose a room, a customer presses a button under the appropriate picture. The button triggers a trail of lights that direct the customer from the lobby to the appropriate room.”

Quoted from: Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes by Mark D. West, 2010.


One more thought: since my last post was entitled “Hell: An Introduction” and was filled with some pretty gory images I thought it might be nice if I went to the other extreme and gave you some really interesting and beautiful images. Of course, I know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but still..

Another print, which I find equally charming, is by Hokkei.

Hokkei surimono of the poetess Kiyogaki, ca. 1833
Harvard Art Museums

Roger Keyes wrote of this print that one of this poet’s work appears in the upper right corner. “She is standing on a hill named Mukaigaoka, looking at a plum branch which has grown through the ramshackle matting of a fence. Behind her is the shrine of Benten on an island in the middle of a frozen Shinobazu Pond; embossing is used to suggest cracks inthe melting ice. Since the snake was the messenger of Benten, the print may have been published in 1833, a Snake Year. There is a pun in the second poem on mukai, which means ‘greeting’ but is also the name of the hill.”

A breeze which was invited to come;
the fragrance of plum blossom fills the hollow of the hills
Tōjuren Kiyogaki

The second poem reads:

The birds, the flowers and the views
all seemed beautiful  to the herdsman

greeting the Spring at Mukaigaoka

So, where is Shinobazu Pond and what does it look like on a Google map?

Shinobazu Pond is in Tokyo in an area filled with universities, museums, temples and shrines. It is a couple of miles northeast of the Imperial Palace. It is even further to Tokyo Bay to the south, but it hasn’t always been this way. There was a time about 500 years ago when this area was on the outer limits of that bay. But over time this marshy location became separated from the salty seawater and is now a fresh water pond. However, it still retains some of that marshy nature as you will see.

Google map of the immediate area

This area has a history of topographical experiments starting back in the 18th century and some of them are truly unusual.

I don’t why, but for some reason artists seem to enjoy pushing the envelope, so to speak, when it came to representations of Shinobazu Pond… more so than most other locations. It was almost like each artist was trying to outdo some of his predecessors. Just take a look and you will get what I mean. To start off let’s look at a Kiyonaga print from 1781 as though we are looking at it through a telescope – a Western import.

Kiyonaga’s Tairei no bansho (台嶺晩鐘) or ‘Evening Bell at the Heights’
from 1781 – the British Museum

There was a fascination for Western art, especially that of Holland (Oranda)

Hokusai – this is a very small print 3 3/8″ x 4 1/2″ from ca. 1802 was done in an exotic Western style.
This is from a series entitled The Dutch Picture Lens: Eight Views of Edo (阿蘭陀画鏡: 江戸八景).
Those straight horizontal lines are meant to imitate the engraved lines on European prints.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In the 1830s Keisai Eisen produced an unusual woodblock design focusing in on Shinobazu Pond and the Benten Shrine.
As you will see – how could you miss it – the border is made up of Japanese renditions in woodblock form of Western lettering. One thing we can see clearly on the right side of the top of this print is the word ‘Holland’ with the ‘n’ printed backwards and the ‘d’ with a bit of a flourish. Should we credit the artist with all of this invention? Maybe… maybe not. There might have been a patron who commissioned such a work. Or maybe it was the publisher who decided to take a risk on such an extraordinary composition. Or… maybe… just maybe it was the work of two or three minds or more working together to create something a little bit different than usual.

mfa_eisen_shinobazu_dutch_style_7bEisen from the 1830s – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Tōeizan Temple seen from Shinobazu Benten Shrine in Edo
from a series of famous places in Edo with borders with Western letters.

Or, how about that eighteenth century samurai who decided he wanted to paint Japanese pictures in the Dutch mode –

Odano Naotake (小田野直武: 1749-80)
This painting of Shinobazu Pond is listed as an Important Cultural Property.
重要文化財 不忍池図
Akita Museum of Modern Art

Naotake had been sent to Edo by his lord to study metallurgy, but preferred studying art instead – Western art to be exact. Good thing he did, too.

Anyone have the munchies? If so, this next one is for you and is unlike any other traditional Japanese woodblock print I know of. It is by Hokusai and dates from ca. 1833. It shows an autumn moon over the Benten Shrine at Shinobazu and is printed on the front of a confectionery bag. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston says of it:

“The MFA has four prints from the series. [This one] is the entire front side of what was once a paper bag
for snacks corresponding to cookies or crackers; the top of the bag was apparently folded twice and secured with a string through the small holes that can still be seen. Three other prints in the series have been cut completely out of the original bag, leaving only the landscape picture…”

Hokusai – Moon over Shinobazu – ca. 1833
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Hiroshige ‘had a thing’ for Shinobazu and some of them are among the most beautiful examples ever

I didn’t even start to count the number of various Hiroshige woodblock prints I was able to find while searching for material for this post. Some of them are stunners and others far from it. Mainly I stick to the top end of his production. Below are two which I find exquisite and are so different from one another that it speaks volumes about this artist’s artistic range.

Hiroshige – Tōeizan Temple and Shinobazu Pond, Ueno
Achenbach Foundation

Hiroshige snow triptych, ca. 1848-49
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A clear change in style can be seen in a Chikanobu triptych done about fifty-five years later. While beautiful I don’t think it has the same impact as the Hiroshige one.

Chikanobu triptych of The Four Seasons: Snow from 1894
National Diet Library

Whose stupid idea was it to turn the walk around Shinobazu Pond into a race track? Wait for it… it might have been Ulysses S. Grant’s fault.

Julia Meech-Pekarik wrote:

“In November 1884 the emperor attended the opening of the race track around Shinobazu Pond and his attendance that year and the next was advertised in advance with colour prints… The distant bleachers are crowded with high government officials recognizable then as now by their identical dark suits. There are festive sightseeing boats on the pond and Japanese fireworks (paper figures shot from bamboo cannons) materialize from puffs of smoke overhead. The emphasis, however, was on the artist’s imaginary conception of the splendid royal box in the reviewing stand, crowded with the brilliant colors of hte empress and her ladies. Their inclusion was often a matter of artistic license. The emperor still felt uncomfortable with the modern notion of appearing together with his wife in public, and they usually attended such functions on successive days.

Apparently it was General Grant who first suggested that hte ground around Shinobazu Pond would be suitable for a racetrack, resulting in the destruction of much of hte natural scenic beauty. The track was in operation for ten short years and seems to have been intended less as a recreational facility than as a place for the display of horsemanship, a good, healthy sport associated with martial skills and the national defense.”

Chikanobu triptych from 1885
View of the Horse Track at Shinobazu in Ueno Park (上野不忍競馬図)
Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to one source, it is about 1 1/2 miles around the pond. That would make it about 12 furlongs. The Merriam-Websters says that ‘furlong’ is of a strictly English origin:

“…a combination of the noun “furh” (“furrow”) and the adjective “lang” (“long”). Though now
standardized as a length of 220 yards (or 1/8th of a mile), the furlong was originally defined less
precisely as the length of a furrow in a cultivated field. This length was equal to the long side of an
acre-an area originally defined as the amount of arable land that could be plowed by a yoke of oxen
in a day, but later standardized as an area measuring 220 yards (one furlong) by 22 yards, and now
defined as any area measuring 4,840 square yards. In contemporary usage, “furlong” is often
encountered in references to horse racing.”

How the furlong got to horse racing is beyond me – so far.

Hokuju (北寿: 1763-1824) – visitors walking around Shinobazu
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Chikanobu – 1884
Illustration of the Opening Ceremony of the Union Horse Racing Club’s Racetrack
around Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park

Ueno Shinobazu kyōdō keiba kaisha kaigyōshiki no zu -上
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Paul Waley, cited earlier, noted:

The “love hotels” of the Edo period failed to outlast the change of regime, and in the seventeenth year
of the Meiji era (1884) a racecourse about 1,700 meters long and 18 meters wide was built around the
pond. Prizes totaling at least¥ 300 were offered, and Meiji high society was able to enjoy its day at the
races here in Ueno. In 1890 the Emperor himself was among the spectators on the occasion of his visit
to the third national exhibition, held in Ueno Park. The racecourse’s short existence came to an end in

1,700 meters would make the course a little over a mile and not the 1 1/2 miles suggested above.

The racetrack around Shinobazu Pond
ca. 1884-91 – I found this at commons.wikimedia

The walkway has been reclaimed today 

Photo posted by K. Suzuki at Flickr

You can’t stop progress: The Second National Industrial Exposition

Chikanobu – 1881 – Second National Industrial Exposition
Notice Shinobazu Pond with the Benten Shrine in the lower left 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Joni Mitchell factor: they almost paved paradise and put down a parking lot – Sometime in the mid-1980s someone got the bright idea that this area needed more parking and that the obvious place to put a major underground garage would be below Shinobazu Pond. This pitted two major forces in urban Tokyo against each other. One was the commercial side which would do just about anything for progress and the other side which was represented by the preservationists. The preservationists finally won out in about 1997. Yea…

Into the 20th century: an artists’ tradition continued

Prominent artists, starting with Harunobu in the 18th century, were drawn to Shinobazu Pond for inspiration. That tradition continued into the 20th century and probably is ongoing. In the first half the 1900s men like Hasui and Shiro made their contributions to this sub-genre. Shiro gave us his several woodblock prints of this site with great atmospherics.

Kasamatsu Shirō  (笠松紫浪: 1898-1991) – Shinobazu-ike – 1932
British Museum

Shirō – 1938 – Night Rain at Shinobazu Pond
Harvard Art Museums

Hasui – 1932 – Night at Shinobazu Pond

Photo posted at Flickr by 佳 佳. It was taken on November 20, 2013.

“There are festive sightseeing boats on the pond” – That’s what it says above. So what about now? Classy, eh?

Posted at commons.wikimedia by Daderot


Today is December 20, 2016 and I have just started this post. Please come back often to see what we have added.

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