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Artist: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年)

Print: Magaki Heikurō (曲木平九郎) from the series Tales of the Floating World in Eastern Brocade (Azuma nishiki ukiyo kōdan - 東錦浮世稿談)

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Dates: 1867,created
Dimensions: 9.5 in,13.75 in,Overall dimensions
Medium: Japanese color woodblock print
Inscription:

Signed: Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi hitsu
一魁斎芳年筆
Artist's seal: kiri
Publisher Sanoya Tomigorō (Marks 448 - seal 25-157)
Date and censor's seal combined: 1867 (probably 7th month) and aratame

Related links: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Minato City Historical Museum; Yoshitoshi.net; Museum of Fine Arts - 1863 Hiroshige II print showing the stairs; Museum of Fine Arts - ca. 186o Hiroshige II print showing the stairs in snow; Museum of Fine Arts - 18th century Kiyonobu II example; Museum of Fine Arts - ca. 1839+ by Hiroshige; Museum of Fine Arts - Hokuju example; Ritsumeikan University;

Physical description:

Rutherford Alcock (1809-97) was the first British government representative to visit Edo/Tokyo. He published an account of his travels in Japan in 1863. One section describes his visit to the Atago shrine and the stairs leading up to it. Atogoyama is about one mile from the Imperial Palace and the highest spot in that city. Alcock described the view from the top of the 86 stairs constructed at a 40 degree angle.


Recent photo of the stairs at Atago

The stairs seemed to have a particular allure to samurai equestrians. “The most famous story, passed down through generations of storytellers, has it that in 1634, Magaki Heikuro swiftly rode his horse up and down the grade to fetch a branch of plum blossoms as requested by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. Iemitsu was returning to his castle from Zojo-ji temple, where his father the second shogun, Hidetada, was buried. Looking up the steep stairway, Iemitsu asked his retinue if anyone would get the flowers for him, and Magaki immediately obliged and sped up the stairs on his horse.

While Magaki is considered to be a fictitious character, and some historians even doubt the existence of the stone stairway at that time, Atagoyama was nevertheless the apparent prime stage in Edo to show off equestrian artistry.

In 1925, Iwaki Toshio, a veteran Imperial Army stableman, rode his mount to the top of the stairs in less than a minute — though it took forty-five minutes to make the precipitous descent as the anxious audience looked on, holding their breath. Successfully returning, the brave horse almost collapsed and only recovered after a lengthy rest.

The dangers of these fabled feats still thrill and inspire visitors today as they look down from the top of the stairway.”

Quoted from: Tokyo: Exploring the City of the Shogun by Sumiko Enbutsu, 2007, unpaginated.

In Yoshitoshi: Masterpieces from the Ed Freis Collection from 2011 it states on page 89 that the title of this series is Rough tales of the floating world told on eastern brocades. "The writer Kanagaki Robun (1829-94) summarised the stories in the text contained in white booklet-shaped cartouches, to which Yoshitoshi added the correstponding imagery."

"This set was issued from 9/1867-2/1868. Forty-five designs from this series are presently known... The set is unusual for its collaboration between seven different publishers. It is quite rare and was never re-published. [The choice of bold type is ours.]

The growth in Yoshitoshi scholarship in the last decade or two is astonishing. When Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi 1839-1892 was published back in 1992 only 27 prints from this series were known. Now it is 45. Maybe more will show up.

A variant account is worth repeating here. “At the end of January 1634 Iemitsu returning from a visit to the temple and mausoleum of Shiba, passed Atagoyama hill on his way back to the palace and caught sight of some plum trees which were already in bloom at the top. He suddenly had the idea of taking back some of the branches and ordered his mounted escort to climb the steps on horseback. Several of them tried but could not reach the top. Their mounts fell before even reaching halfway; some riders were injured quite seriously. The daimyo of Takamatsu had a samurai, Magaki Heikuro, an excellent rider, whom he ordered to make the attempt. Heikuro, luckier than the others, reached the top, picked the flowers, put them in the collar of his coat and returned with them. He was rewarded by Iemitsu and became famous." This comes from: The Shogun's City: A History of Tokyo by Noël Nouet, p. 75.

There are two routes to the top of Atagoyama: one is straight up and is more difficult to climb. The second is curvy and wends its way in a more leisurely manner. The straight one is referred to as the 'male' flight and the other one is the 'female.'

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Magaki was barefoot on his ride up those stairs. Fictional or real, credit must be given to Yoshitoshi's artistic intellect. If you use the enlargement tool for this print you will see that Magaki is not wearing any socks (tabi) or sandals. A most unusual representation.

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There is another copy of this print at the Worcester Art Museum.

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The text reads:

幕府の泰命。泰山を輕とし。壮士の馬術飛鳥を欺く。曲木につなぐ意の駒。心猿端綱 を採ときんバ。愛宕の石階百段を短とせん。檀溪をこゆる劉玄徳も。百生やつる一すぢの意傳心。なんぞ藝術の巧拙に依らん。遮莫曲木の馬術の精妙。彼小栗氏が碁盤乗の先手をゆく業とやいはむ