Japan from the inside out

Japan’s bathhouse art

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 5, 2007


ONE OF THE MOST admirable qualities about the Japanese is their ability to turn everyday activities into an art form or an opportunity for aesthetic appreciation: drinking tea, arranging rocks and gravel in a garden, arranging flowers in a vase, watching carp or goldfish, enjoying cherry or plum trees in bloom…

Painting landscapes on the walls of bathhouses…

The English-language edition of the Daily Yomiuri once had an excellent article that presented the art of penki-e (literally, industrial paint picture). It reported the art is on the verge of extinction due to the declining number of sento (public baths), especially in Tokyo. Alas, it is no longer on line, but I saved a few quotes.

If you think painting a picture on a bathhouse wall is no big deal, you might want to reconsider:

What makes the penki-e painting method stand out from other painting methods is that the artists have to work under severe conditions. They start work early in the morning and have to finish before the bathhouse opens, usually at 5 p.m. So the painter only has about eight hours to complete a large painting, usually about 13 meters wide. Not only do the painters have to work fast, they also have to work in extremely hot and humid conditions.

“It looks easy, but you need special techniques to do penki-e,” Maruyama explained. “First of all, fabric is laminated onto the wall where the mural is to be painted. Then we smooth the surface with glue, and seal the undercoating and paint over it. Finally we paint a picture, and dry it.”

Most of the time is spent preparing the area and drying the painting. Only two or three hours are actually spent painting.

“This is one of the terrific things about penki-e painting,” emphasized Shinobu Machida, a researcher of popular culture and pioneer of sento research. “No other art can create such a big picture in such a short time.”

A pioneer in sento research? Come to think of it, another fascinating aspect of Japan is the number of experts on topics that at first glance don’t seem to be worth examining in detail.

Once again, it’s time to reconsider:

Machida stresses that penki-e is important in terms of art history.

“It adopted Western techniques, which were introduced in the late Edo period. It used light and shade to give contrast,” he said.

The technique is called shadow method, which the versatile and multitalented Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779) introduced into Japan. Shadow method gives the painting various shades of color and makes it three dimensional, in contrast to the traditional Japanese method in which the painter drew an outline and then filled it in with color.

“Before that [shadow method], pictures were flat. The technique was necessary because people viewed the painting through the steam of the bathtub. It needed to look rough up close, but clear from a distance,” Machida explained.

As with many other arts and disciplines in Japan, you just don’t decide you want to be a penki-e artist and then start splashing on the paint. Kiyoto Maruyama, the artist interviewed for the article, first served as an apprentice to his uncle, another bathhouse artist.

“During the first three years, apprentices are allowed to paint only the sky blue. Many of them quit at this point. Apprentices watch the process of painting and learn from the master. Then, they are allowed to paint sides, clouds and, eventually, the whole picture. Usually, it takes six years to get to that point.”

That’s roughly the same process and the same amount of time it takes to become an itamae, or sushi chef.

I’m a big fan of bathhouses, but I’ve never been to one that has a penki-e. I like the outdoor baths with their natural views the best. But if you live in a city like Tokyo, this seems to be the next best thing–unless it’s a mixed bath!

I scouted around the web and found these Japanese-language sites worth visiting for the photos.

The first one has several fine examples of penki-e.

The second site has a series of 22 photographs showing the process of creating one painting from start to finish.

The third site has a larger photo of a wall being painted, with many smaller ones of the process.

Oh, and before I forget: Hiraga Gennai, mentioned above as the painter who introduced the shadow method into Japanese art, is also known as the author of an essay titled Hohiron–A Theory of Farting. In the essay, Gennai described how some 18th century Edoites used to have “thunder farting” contests–in public–to see who could make the most noise. Here’s a brief description.

2 Responses to “Japan’s bathhouse art”

  1. Durf said

    There’s an impressive painting in the bathhouse now standing in the Koganei Park outdoor architectural museum. It’s the very one that was the model for the structure appearing in Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kami-kakushi (the Ghibli studio is nearby and the animators go on walks in the park when they need to refill the idea tanks, apparently).

  2. […] blogs about Japan’s bathhouse art, which constitutes a significant part in Japanese Art history. Oiwan […]

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