Spending time with a world-famous printmaking craftsman while creating your own handmade souvenir is one of the best experiences you can have in Tokyo.

If you’ve been reading our site for the past few years, you’ll know we’ve fallen head-over-heels for the amazing works of woodblock maker David Bull and illustrator Jed Henry. The talented duo have made a name for themselves in Japan and around the world recently, for reigniting interest in the centuries-old tradition of Japanese woodblock printing with their acclaimed Ukiyoe Heroes series.

The series uses traditional techniques to create prints featuring characters from a wide variety of well-known game and anime franchises like PokémonMetroid, Super Mario, and Final Fantasy. While Henry designs the artwork, Bull painstakingly carves the illustration onto a series of woodblocks, drawing on over 30 years of experience in the industry to achieve a professional-looking print that looks just like it was printed in its heyday in the Edo period (1603-1868).

▼ Here you can watch Bull doing some of the intricate carving work on the woodblock print for “Infestation”.

While many traditional Japanese craftsmen prefer to squirrel themselves away in quiet workshops away from the prying eyes of the public, we’re fortunate that Bull is more than happy to share what he’s learnt over the years to people all around the world. Not only does he livestream his current projects on Twitch on a regular basis, he also uploads informative behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube so that everyone can see the process involved in bringing the works to life.

If you find yourself in Tokyo, though, you’re in for a real treat, as Bull offers special ukiyoe print parties at Mokuhankan, the business he operates in Asakusa.

After reading all the rave reviews online from happy customers who’ve taken part in these print parties, we decided to head over to Mokuhankan to see if we could learn a thing or two about the traditional craft ourselves.

Walking up the stairs to the main entrance, it’s obvious that Bull isn’t just well-known overseas; he’s also made numerous appearances on Japanese television programmes over the years as well.

Located on the second floor of the building, Mokuhankan is a beautifully renovated space dedicated to the art of traditional printmaking. There are dozens of different designs on display here, along with some of the craftsman’s prized cherry blocks, wrapped up in paper and string.

The bundle of woodblocks on the right in the picture below has been used to create “A Young Man Shakes Heaven” (inspired by Shadow of the Colossus), one of the prints in the new Ukiyoe Heroes: Boss Fights series.

What we’re here for today, though, is the Ukiyoe Print Party, which is available during a number of time slots every day of the week except on Tuesdays, when the store has its scheduled holiday. Set up in a beautiful Japanese-style room with tatami floors and shoji panels, this is where visitors get to make their very own woodblock print to take home.

All the materials required to create a memorable handmade souvenir are laid out here. There are four woodblocks, four bowls of pigment, brushes, printing barens and sheets of traditional Japanese washi paper which have been specially made by a paper-making craftsman who’s so esteemed he’s been named a National Living Treasure.

Generally, up to five people can enjoy making prints together here, with Bull and his staff creating a fun, lively atmosphere that makes it feel like you’re really at a party in a secret room in Tokyo. Whether you’re artistic or an absolute novice when it comes to creating things, the staff here will help you make the perfect woodblock print to take home.

To begin, we all have a go at mastering the basics, which simply involves positioning the paper on the block correctly, using techniques demonstrated by the pros.

Once everyone is comfortable with this initial step, which is vitally important to ensuring a clean result at the end, we move on to the next step, which involves adding ink to the first woodblock.

The four blocks we’re using today have been carved by Bull from cherry wood, using traditional techniques.

Once the pigment is on the first block, the paper is placed on top and a special tool called a baren is rubbed over the paper to ensure the ink is transferred onto it evenly.

As it’s important to keep the paper moist during the process, once the initial transfer has been made, the paper is quickly slotted into a file to keep it from drying out.

Then it’s time to add pigment to the next block, before retrieving your paper from the file and placing it on the block, rubbing over with the baren as before.

Each step of the process produces a different set of images on the paper. Here is the first impression, in red…

And after the second, blue imprint is made, we get to see a little more of the final image.

Once we’ve used the red, blue, and yellow woodblocks, the entire image begins to slowly appear.

▼ The final result is revealed after the black woodblock is used.

▼ Using the same procedure as before, we add the pigment…

▼ Then the paper…

▼ And then rub with the baren until the ink is transferred to the page.

▼ Now it’s time for the final result…

Ta daaa! The beautiful print we’ve just created shows a scene from the famous Japanese folk tale Momo Taro (“Peach Boy“), with the legendary hero setting out on his expedition with his animal friends.

But that’s not the end of the experience, as Bull takes us out to another section of the store to show us the important role that light plays in showing off the beauty of the final product.

When it’s laid out flat, as pictured above, the colours appear light and the image lacks impact. When it’s placed on a wall, however, the overhead lights hit the image so that the colours pop and the ridges and depressions left in the paper from the printing process on the wooden blocks can be seen. This brings the image to life, and highlights the textures that give ukiyoe prints their unique appeal.

It’s a fact that rings true for all the ukiyoe prints on sale in the store, which have been displayed in a way that make each one irresistible to look at.

If you’re a fan of the Ukiyoe Heroes series, this is where you can purchase all of the prints, along with their adorable little “Chibi Heroes” collection.

▼ A number of other Jed Henry originals are on sale as well.

Whether you prefer traditional scenes or images with a more contemporary flair, there are plenty of beautiful prints to choose from.

If you’re visiting Tokyo, we highly recommend spending an hour at a ukiyoe print party. Bull is an incredibly kind and entertaining host who instantly makes people feel comfortable in his presence, and it’s not every day you get to meet an esteemed woodblock printmaker who’s as eager to answer questions about the craft as he is. Bull’s passion for the tradition of ukiyoe is absolutely infectious!

You can learn a lot about the world of printmaking at a Mokuhankan print party. Best of all, not only will you have a beautiful handmade ukiyoe print to take home with you, you’ll have plenty of great memories to take home as well!

Store Information
Mokuhankan / 木版館
Address: Tokyo-to, Taito-ku, Asakusa 1-41-8
東京都 台東区 浅草 1-41-8
Hours: 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.
Print party fee: 2,000 yen per person

Photos © SoraNews24