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Hiroshige Playing Cards.

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Ukiyo-e is the indigenous art of Japan loved by the common people. It originated in the Momoyama period and developed to perfection in the Edo Era (1603-1867). Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694) originated the art of the Ukiyo-e when he moved to Edo from his birth place Boshu in 1658 and began drawing single pictures of daily life activities, of scenes in the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, of famous prostitutes and of explicit love scenes. Ukiyo-e paintings were rendered by brush and were not reproduced. Portraits of popular Kabuki actors, Sumo wrestlers and famous Geisha girls were often chosen as themes of Ukiyo-e works in the early and middle parts of the Edo period.


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However, towards the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a more realistic approach to Ukiyo-e was attempted by the two great artists Hokusai Kutsushika and Hiroshige Ando. They opened the eyes of their contemporaries to the beautiful Japanese landscapes. A series of works by Hiroshige entitled "The 53 Stations of Tokaido" was the most successful and highest regarded.

"Hiroshige" playing cards may not be well known. The short item below relates to the artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), Perfector of the landscape print, who was inspired to become an artist by the landscape prints of Hokusai. Complete packs of playing cards were made of these paintings later on.

Hiroshige was born in Edo, the present day Tokyo, in 1797. He started his career as a portrait painter but soon turned to landscapes, a field which had until them been unexplored.


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In 1811, Hiroshige became a student of Utagawa Toyohiro, a leading Ukiyo-e artist of his time. In 1833, a mere two years after his debut, a series titled "Famous Places in the Eastern Capital by Ichiyusai (a Hiroshige pseudonym)", completely took over the eminence previously held by Hokusai as top landscape print artist of the day, where Hoeido Publishing House distributed Hiroshige's "Fifty-Three Stages of Tokaido". This series was a result of sketches Hiroshige had made in 1832 during his first trip along the Tokaido.


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There are many pictures and books describing scenes along this important highway, but Hiroshige's objective view of his own personal experience along the route was much praised for his rich workmanship. Before he finished the renowned series, Hiroshige traveled the Tokaido (Tokyo-Kyoto route) several times with brush and ink to make sketches of the stations, scenes in snow, rain in moonlight and at dawn and people along the Tokaido were rendered into great works of art through his genius.

During his lifetime, Hiroshige produced thirteen different series of scenes along this same highway. The highway print series caught on rapidly among Ukiyo-e lovers and was instrumental in spreading Hiroshige's popularity and fame. Another series was "One Hundred Celebrated Places of Edo", which was published in 1856 and was Hiroshige's last major work. Although many artisans continued to produce Ukiyo-e prints until 1970, it is safe to say that the tradition, technique and the power of expression of the classical Ukiyo-e print died with Hiroshige. Hiroshige died in 1858 at the age of 62.


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There have been, to my knowledge, at least half a dozen very beautiful playing card decks of 52 cards and Joker(s) made using the Tokaido 53 Stations. These have been manufactured in Japan by Angel & Co., Ace Playing Card Co, Artistic Playing Cards in Japan and others.

One pack is made of one hundred percent plastic material with a wooden box and inscriptions in Japanese.

Another pack of 52 cards and Jokers and an extra card is called Hiroshige Playing Cards and has Japanese writing on the golden coloured backs. The cards are beautifully printed and the extra card shows the names of all the 53 Tokaido Stations in Japanese inside the golden coloured frame.


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The 55 Card Pack

The most interesting pack comes in a book-like charcoal grey velvet covered box. This is the "Artistic Playing Cards in Japan" pack. Printing on the box is done in gold and displays both Japanese and English text which leads one to conclude that this deck was intended for export to the USA and other English speaking countries. The packaging is a quality piece of work. The deck itself is gilt edged. This deck seems to have been marketed late in Japan's product quality transition years which began in the sixties and ended in the seventies.

The book type box is of folding design. When opened, the right hand drawer contains the 55 cards and the left hand part a small booklet of the same tomato colour as the inside of the box. The booklet has a black and white portrait of Hiroshige and descriptions of all the 55 stations with numbers first in Japanese and in English. Most interesting is a folding chart showing the Tokaido Trunk Line of National Railways and Tokaido 53 Stations.


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The paintings on the cards are printed in their original four colour form. All of the paintings are displayed horizontally. Each of the 55 pictures is titled and numbered. The numbers appear to preserve the order of the 53 stages along the Tokaido highway, the titles referring to the places along the way.

Suits appear in the order of Spades, Clubs, Diamonds and Hearts with the stations running from Ace through King. Three of the paintings are singled out for special treatment, those being number 1, Nihonbashi, on the spare card and numbers 16, Kanbara and 46 Shone on the two Jokers.


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The descriptions of the stations appear to have been compiled by Prof. Nobumari Nochizuki ex-curator of the Osaka Municipal Museum of Arts.

The first station is described as:

1. Nihonbashi - Chuo-Ku, Tokyo

Nihonbashi Bridge was built in 1602, shortly after Leyasu Tokugawa, the first Tokugawa Shogun, entered Edo Castle. The 53 station - 496 Kilometer journey along the Tokaido Highway starts here and terminates at Sanjo Ohashi, Kyoto. The procession of a feudal lord on a Tokaido tour is seen crossing the bridge, headed by spear bearers.


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And the last station is described as:

55. Kyoto - Kyoto City

This is the Higashiyama mountain range as seen from the bank of the Kamo River. Rows of houses, temples and shrines are seen at the foot of the mountains. At the western approach to the Sanjo Bridge is a stone marker showing that the Tokaido Highway ends there.

Artistic Cards
Travel the Tokaido
See all 56 cards of the
"Artistic Playing Cards in Japan" pack.