During the month of August, the Japanese observe an annual Buddhist event called, Obon. This is the time when many return to their hometowns (furusato) and join their family members in commemorating their ancestors. The general belief is that each year during Obon, the deceased ancestors’ spirits return to this world in order to visit their relatives. Although Obon customs vary greatly from region to region, traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors’ spirits, Obon dances (Bon Odori) are performed, graves are visited and food offerings are made at home altars (Butsudan) and temples.
At the end of Obon, floating lanterns are placed into rivers, lakes and the sea in order to guide the spirits back to their world.
Having said this, this time of year is an excellent choice to feature an exhibition on ghosts and that is exactly what The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts has done beginning July 22 – September 13, 2015! The exhibition, Urameshiya: Art of the Ghost Featuring Zenshoan’s Sanyutei Encho Collection of Ghost Paintings, is housed in the Main Gallery 1,2 and highlights the collection of Sanyutei Encho, a Japanese author and Rakugo performer of the late Edo and early Meiji eras. For those who are unfamiliar with Rakugo, it is simply a form of Japanese verbal entertainment or storytelling. The solitary storyteller is seated on stage and conveys a long and usually complicated satirical tale using only a paper fan and a small piece of cloth as props. The story typically involves dialogue between two or more characters.
Encho was recognized for his ghost stories and for his penchant for collecting paintings and various artworks featuring ghosts and supernatural creatures. Throughout his life, he commissioned works on these themes from artists of the day, including paintings by Shibata Zeshin and Iijima Koga. Following his death on August 11th 1900, incidentally, many of these pictures were left to Zenshoan, his family’s temple located in Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood.
The exhibition begins with items from Encho’s career: portraits, playbills, and various personal items. From there visitors are treated to a nice collection of scroll paintings featuring what else, ghosts! Finally as you approach the end of the exhibit, you are greeted by some of the more popular ghosts from Japanese lore including Oiwa, the young bride disfigured, poisoned and thrown off the edge of a cliff by her unfaithful husband and Okiku, the unfortunate servant who was thrown down a well after refusing the advances of her samurai master.
The exhibit runs from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily except Monday, when the museum is closed. Admission is ¥1100 for adults and ¥700 for students aged Senior High School level and older. Advance tickets can be purchased at a discounted rate.
The museum is located 10 minutes from Ueno Station. There are also other notable places worth seeing around Ueno Park such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, etc., so you can essentially completely book up a day visiting the area.
Address: 12-8 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 110-8714, Japan