Friday 17 August 2018

Cooling off in the Art Aquarium: Goldfish and Edo Kiriko Glass

As the oppressive summer heat continues unabated - yesterday was 33 with high humidity making it "feel like" 36 - Japanese continue to search for ways to cool down. Watching carp and goldfish - basically mutated carp - may not strike many Westerners as a good way to do this, but since the Edo period people here have admired swimming fish as an entertaining way to keep cool. In a modern variation, since 2007, an Art Aquarium - Edo: Coolness of Goldfish (アートアクアリウム:江戸・金魚の涼) event has been held featuring 8,000 fish housed in massive multi-faceted kaleidoscopic tanks illuminated by an extraordinary light show. At night the space transforms into a club with famous DJs, "goldfish cocktails", and a Dassai sake bar.
Goldfish or kingyo - combining the characters for gold (金) and fish (魚) - first came to Japan from China in 1502, a hundred years before they made their way to Europe. At first, they were a luxury item, a status-symbol for lords and aristocrats, later spreading to samurai and wealthy merchants in the Edo period. It was only in the Meiji period that they became accessible to the general population, triggering a kingyo boom which saw goldfish images drawn in ukiyoe pictures and on furniture, kimonos - and (a summer staple) fans (pictured).

You enter the exhibition through a corridor featuring glass water tanks built into the ceiling (apparently popular with one wealthy Edo merchant) and then enter an open space with tanks of 15 different shapes, including folding screens or byōbu (pictured - 18 panels each over 5.4m in height) and various globes, prisms, and mirrors that distort and warp the fish, making shadows and reflections that are so mesmerising they do indeed momentarily help you forget the blistering heat outside. I say momentarily, since the pressing crowds and snapping camera phones are the antithesis of the cool relaxation that the exhibition promotes.

Two Edo Kiriko sake glasses, one in blue and one in red
Edo Kiriko cut glass: sake glasses in red and blue
A final interesting feature of the exhibition is the use of Edo Kiriko (江戸切子), traditional hand-crafted cut glass dating from the end of the Edo period (1603-1868) and originating in the Nihonbashi area where the exhibition is held. It is a great idea for a souvenir - then President Obama was presented with a set of Edo Kiriko glassware at the Japan-US summit in April 2014 as were world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido in 2008. In the past, dishes and vases were popular, but recently sake, wine, and whisky glasses are the most popular. For more on the history and present state of Edo Kiriko see here.