Woodblock Printmaking parties in Asakusa

By on January 22, 2015
Dave Bull wants you to have fun when you visit Mokuhankan, his new woodblock print store in Asakusa.

While there, he’s happy to sell you one of his beautiful, handmade prints, either made by him or one of his team of printmakers. But, he’d also really like for you to throw on an apron, get a sheet of paper, dab a carved block with some paint and get printing yourself.

Mokuhankan, located near the Sensoji Temple, opened its doors on Nov. 1, 2014, and now offers three print party slots a day at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. (No parties on Tuesdays). Each roughly hour-long party can accommodate up to six participants. Everyone gets to make at least one – if not more – prints to take home. Bull also offers complimentary coffee and snacks.

Dave Bull

Dave Bull

Printers Ayumi Miyashita and Dave Bull

Printers Ayumi Miyashita and Dave Bull

Final Momotaro prints

Final Momotaro prints

Bull, 63, has been making woodblock prints in Japan for nearly 30 years. As he cruised into retirement age, he realized he wanted something more. “Just before I turned 60, I thought a lot about ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I decided to shake it up,” he said. “I had the idea of making Mokuhankan, a venture where I could hire people and train them. I wanted to pass on and share my skills.”

In the last 100 years or so, woodblock printing fell out of favor in Japan. The once thriving publishing industry dwindled to a few dozen workers. Bull is doing his part to revive the industry. He has gone from working as a solo artist to helping employ 12 people. Some of his young employees are learning woodblock printing from scratch; others are experienced but benefitting from the work that Bull is able to send their way.

Part of his success is due to a collaboration with American artist Jed Henry. Henry designed and Bull carved versions of modern video game characters reimagined in classic ukiyo-e style. Launched by one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, the Ukiyoe Heroes series of prints — and subsequent collaborations between Bull and Henry — have shown that woodblock prints can still be desirable to today’s consumers.

“We’ve found thousands of people who want our products,” Bull said. “That’s the key to saving the tradition. It’s being pulled ahead by consumers.”

The shop offers prints for sale by Mokuhankan’s printers. View the prints, which start in price at 3,000 yen, under a light board or in the shop’s natural light and you’ll see the subtle textures of the washi (print-making paper), and the imprint of the ink, creating an almost 3-dimensional effect.

Some Mokuhankan printers work at Bull’s studio in Ome but one or two are always at the Asakusa shop. Attendees of print parties are welcome to step to the back of the store and watch them at work.

Bull emphasizes that the print parties led by his staff are not classes. “No one is up front lecturing. We just want our guests to get a feel for printing and have a good experience,” he said.

Guests can pick from two prints depicting either the Momotaro or the Hanasaka Jiisan Japanese folktales. For a recent print party, Bull walked a visitor through the process of creating a Momotaro print, which depicts the boy and his dog, monkey and pheasant friends. We used four woodblocks with red, blue, yellow and black ink. The blocks are carved simply to increase the chance of success for first-time printers, but the result is still a very attractive, appealing print.

Families are very welcome – Bull said even teens end up enjoying themselves – although the activity is probably best suited for upper-elementary age and up. (A long footstool is available to make the workbench accessible to kids.)

About Susan Dalzell

Susan Dalzell is an American freelance journalist living in Tokyo. Follow her Japanese adventures on Twitter, @susandalzell, or on her blog: susandalzell.wordpress.com.