Sôshi the Philosopher

I went 'back to the books' again for this month's print - what you are seeing is a double-page spread taken from the book 'Hokusai Shashin Gafu' by Katsushika Hokusai. This book, first published in 1814, is an interesting puzzle for me - it is a collection of 15 images which appear with no accompanying text, and there seems to be no theme to the book; the illustrations cover a range of landscape, religious icon, flora and fauna, and 'snapshot' scenes of people caught in some activity. I have no idea at all how such a book was received back when it was published, or to whom it was aimed. There is nothing in our modern bookshops even remotely similar to this sort of thing - a selection of diverse images with no common thread, and no accompanying explanation. It doesn't seem to have been intended as a painting manual, and one can only assume that it was purchased by people who simply wanted to enjoy the prints ... maybe actually not so different from this Surimono Album!

At first glance, I wasn't quite sure what this particular image was supposed to represent, but a bit of reflection leads one to think of the Chinese philosopher Sôshi. Dreaming of butterflies one day, he awoke to wonder if he was a butterfly dreaming about being a man dreaming about butterflies ... but you know the story, I'm sure! What is not so easy for me to understand though, is just what that object in the background is ... a small container of some kind with a feather resting on the top of it. If anybody can solve this mystery for me, I would appreciate hearing from you!

There is something else a bit interesting about this print that I should tell you; it was 'Made in Canada' - or at least mostly so. I carved the key block here in Japan in early June, and then left for a three-week trip to Canada, taking with me the block, a stack of blank printing paper, and a collection of tools. The trip was a 'working vacation', with the first half spent relaxing and sightseeing, and the rest of the time as 'printer in residence' at a woodblock printmaking workshop. I carved the colour blocks first and then did the printing during the course of the workshop. The students were quite busy with their own printmaking projects, but of course they came over to my corner now and then to watch the progress of my work. For most of them this was their first opportunity to see a professional printer at work, reminding me of that time nearly twenty years ago when it had been I who had been desperate for a chance to see 'how it was done'.

For the students at this workshop, having the chance to actually see a print coming to life in front of them was a wonderful opportunity - one worth years of trial and error experimentation. I have any number of chances here in Japan to see experienced workers, but those students overseas can't possibly come here, so this time, Japan went to them! They watched, talked, and made notes, and I am sure that there will be an improvement in their prints - not copies of old prints like I am making, but their own new and interesting designs.

By the end of the week my own printing was finished, and I carefully dried the sheets and wrapped them for the return trip to Japan. So this new print has already had quite a travelling experience - started here in Japan, finished up in Canada, and then returned to Japan for packing before being shipped out to the collectors (including many back overseas!).

And now I sit here at my computer writing this little story and wondering if I am really here in Japan again, or am still asleep over in Canada dreaming about being back in Japan!

June 2000