Before and After – From Hiroshige to Modern Tokyo


Living in Tokyo, not only the most populous metropolitan area on Earth but the biggest in the entire history of the planet, it’s easy to forget how rapid the speed of development here has been.


Damn, Tokyo grew fast!

I still find it hard to fathom, whenever I’m reminded that only a few decades ago the urban landscape here was so very different. In fact as recently as 50 years ago one could find large areas of green, and even rice fields, in the middle of the city.

The breakneck speed of construction and development which began in the mid 1940’s continues to this day, although now consists mostly of destruction and replacement of old buildings rather than the urban encroachment into open land which came before.


Top: The surroundings of Tokyo Tower in 1960 – beautifully green!
Bottom: Five decades later, mostly concrete.


Shibuya crossing, now the busiest intersection in the world (bottom), looked more like a country town in 1952 (top).


A timelapse video of the changing Shinjuku skyline over a 35 year period.


Top: The area East of Tokyo Station was, until the 1950s, criss-crossed with rivers.
Middle/bottom: Today however things are dramatically different, the rivers which no longer exist shown in blue.


So let’s go further back in time!

Of course to see what things looked like further back in history, before the advent of photography, we can turn to works of art, some of which transport us far back to a time before Tokyo even existed; when Edo, as the place was then known, was little more than fishing villages and swamp land.

Perhaps the most famous (and comprehensive) sources of historical imagery are the works of the ukiyo-e artists Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, who created large bodies of work depicting both urban and country life during what has become a highly-romanticised period, an era when Edo was already growing at a furious rate into becoming the world’s largest city. Their work is highly valued today as a fascinating document of life at that time.

Hiroshige’s work in particular shows diverse elements not only of city life but non-urban Japan too, and his large series of prints are widely appreciated as having had a considerable influence on both Japanese and Western art. Most noteworthy are his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, and The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido.

To fully appreciate the changes between then and now of course, it sounds like a cool idea would be to see these images side-by side with modern pictures of the locations, separated only by the time between their creation.

However taking a quick glance back at the photographs above, taken a mere 50 years apart, we can easily guess that the idea is far more interesting than the reality. It would be naive to expect we could view his images side-by-side with modern photographs and enjoy spotting any real similarity.

In fact a number of websites and books exist, where one can see the transformation of the locations over the 160-odd years between the time Hiroshige saw them and the present.

There’s even an iPhone app which overlays images of Hiroshige’s artworks on the view on your screen when you visit the locations.

A couple of such examples:

As suspected, there’s a problem with such comparisons. In fact there are two problems.

Firstly, the locations are so completely unrecognisable now from Hiroshige’s that the exercise, at least in a visual sense, seems almost ridiculous. One could substitute photographs of almost any randomly chosen urban location and they would seem just as similar as the “real” photographs.

Secondly, and more importantly, these comparisons seem to ignore the fact that Hiroshige himself took artistic license. He was not illustrating every location with precise accuracy, but representing them with various elements he witnessed, and making artworks.


A better comparison

So the Tokaido Hiroshige Museum came up with a better solution: a comparison of paintings by two artists of different eras. The museum is currently holding an exhibition which features works from the master’s The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido series alongside paintings by British artist Carl Randall from his recent In the footsteps of Hiroshige: The Tokaido Highway series.

There is no attempt to match precise locations, but rather to compare the character of the locations over the decades as reflected through not only the landscape elements but through people encountered on the journey, and other contemporary motifs.

To quote the artist,

“In 2012, 180 years after Hiroshige made the journey, I traveled the route to make portraits of the people and their environments as exists today…

I decided not to aim to faithfully document the exact locations Hiroshige’s prints were based upon… I instead used the project as a framework upon which to create more imaginative portraits of modern Japan…priority being given to portraying the atmosphere of Japan and its people rather than exact physical characteristics.

Finding the modern and urban ever present in the rural, with old and new often sitting side by side, I included elements of the industrial within images of nature …to place the images in the contemporary world, whilst also helping to avoid nostalgic depictions of historical Japan.”

And it appears this approach paid off. The result is a body of work completely different in style from Hiroshige, yet from which emerge a number of distinct visual similarities. More in fact than can be seen in any photographs attempting similar comparisons.

A true document of the changing physical and cultural landscape of Japan.

(click images to enlarge)



03-Hiroshige-47_Kameyama 03-Carl-RainySeason


02-Hiroshige-25_Kanaya 02-Carl-Tetrapods1


05-Hiroshige-55_Kyoto 05-Carl-Kyoto


04-Hiroshige-19_Ejiri 04-Carl-Shizuoka


06-Hiroshige-41_Narumi 06-Carl-Yokohama

(click images to enlarge)




Carl Randall: ‘Tokaido Highway: Portraits from Edo to the Present’
The Shizouka City Tokaido Hiroshige Museum, Shizouka, Japan.
July 8 – September 11, 2014.

Read the full text of the artist’s statement on the project here.



Hiroshige Spacetime Map
A fascinating and exhaustively researched website, which attempts to locate exact locations of artworks from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series.

Hiroshige Kitarou blog
Another guy who (among other things) visits the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo locations and documents his findings.


publications and products:

iPhone app info, with screenshots here

A selection of books here, here and here.

DVDs for visiting various spring, summer and autumn/winter locations in Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series.


~ by JapanGasm on 27 August, 2014.

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