Pleasures and Pastimes

Click on the images for a more detailed description.

Unprecedented peace and prosperity characterized much of the Edo period (1615–1868), and for the first time in Japan’s long history, the general public engaged in a wide array of leisure pursuits. The licensed pleasure quarters and the Kabuki theater were only part of the thriving cultural milieu enjoyed by commoners. Seasonal and religious festivals, abandoned during wartime, were resurrected and celebrated with renewed zeal. Temple schools and impoverished samurai instructed townspeople in the polite arts. Literary societies formed around famous teachers, and amateur poets gathered to compose verse for special occasions such as New Year’s. Musical performances by members of koto (13-stringed zither) and shamisen (3-stringed lute) study groups were also a common occurrence, as were dance recitals, tea ceremonies, and flower-arranging exhibitions. Once the exclusive purview of the warrior and aristocratic classes, these arts came to be enjoyed by a newly wealthy class of urban commoners.

Culinary fare improved, too, and restaurants and teahouses proliferated wherever people gathered. Major intersections and bridges became sites for impromptu performances, itinerant vendors, and fireworks displays. Specialty fairs, often within temple grounds, featured exotic varieties of flowers or local crafts and wrestling matches.

In the 19th century, woodblock print artists capitalized on the expansive interests of the townspeople by picturing these popular pastimes and entertainments. While beautiful women and Kabuki actors remained favorite themes, people also bought images that reflected their particular enthusiasms–mythological and legendary heroes, flora and fauna, classical poetry, and even ghost tales.