Haiku & Ukiyo-e

Thousand Word Project (Colors and Vocabulary)Lewiston Middle School, Integrating Art and Literacy, Katherine Cargile

Japanese Haiku and Woodcuts–Describing Nature Through Poetry And Art


In Japanese culture art and poetry often go hand in hand.  Many Japanese artworks include lines of poetry within the composition and both traditional Japanese artists and poets frequently chose the changing seasons and the natural world as a focus for their creative work.

In this lesson students will develop their ability to use descriptive language and enhance their fluency with punctuation by writing poems in the traditional Japanese haiku poetry format as inspired by Japanese woodcuts.  Students will also develop an understanding of the way that art and poetry can influence and enhance each other by designing a block print inspired by one of their haiku poems.


  1. Students will enhance their understanding of Japanese cultural history (MLR VA. A1, E1; ELA B11)
  2. Students will use descriptive language to develop ideas through haiku poetry (ELA G7)
  3. Students will expand their fluency with the use of punctuation within the haiku poetry format (ELA C4)
  4. Students will create a block print that compliments and elaborates the ideas and emotional content communicated in their poetry (VA B3, A3)

About Haiku

Haiku is a traditional mode of Japanese poetry comprised of three lines of no more than seventeen syllables: typically a first line of five syllables, a second line of seven syllables, and third line of five syllables.  Haiku contain a distinct grammatical break called a kireji, frequently represented in English by commas, hyphens or ellipsis.  The kireji is used to contrast and compare two events, images or situations.  Traditional haiku poetry typically contains a reference to a season or to the natural world.

17th century master poet Matsuo Basho’s The Old Pond is a particularly famous haiku :

The old pond–
A frog jumps in,
Sound of water

Edo Era poet and painter, Yosa Buson, is also famous for his haiku:

A summer river
being crossed, how pleasing,
with sandals in my hands!

About Japanese Wood Block Prints


During the Edo Era, Japanese society experienced a flourishing of the arts, and Japanese woodblock prints became a popular and accessible art form.  The Edo Era refers to the period from 1600-1868, when Japan’s ruling Shogunate relocated to the city of Edo (now Tokyo).

Japanese woodblock prints or ukiyo-e, (literally: pictures of the floating world) typically focused the pleasures of everyday life in Edo, Japan.  Subject matter included images of the natural world, scenes of theater actors, poses of beautiful and fashionable women in everyday settings, and scenes from Japanese mythology.

Japanese woodblock prints typically featured vibrant colors, and were created using multiple blocks.  A master artist would create the keyblock, and a team of assistants would then cut a block for each color used in the print.

Some famous Ukiyo-e artists include Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770).



Images (see slide list), LCD projector, Writing paper, Drawing paper, Transfer paper, Tape, Rice paper, Glue sticks, Black construction paper, Bench hooks, Softcut printing blocks, Printing gauges, Water based printing ink, Wooden spoons for burnishing.



Day 1: Introduction and Haiku Format

  • Introduce lesson by reading several haiku poems and showing students some example prints.  Discuss how Japanese art and poetry inform each other and that many Japanese poets were also artists.  Discuss the importance of the natural world in Japanese art and poetry.
  • Go over haiku format.  Discuss and review syllables.  Talk about the kireji (grammatical break) and correct use of commas, hyphens, ellipses, colons, and semicolons.  Encourage descriptive language by brainstorming adjectives and a variety of seasonal words.
  • Encourage students to write a haiku poem about an aspect of the current season.  Students can take turns reading their haiku to the class.

Day 2: Discussing Print Imagery and Writing Haiku

  • Show students a variety of block prints and discuss the legends and back stories for Woman by a Well, Ronin Tragedy, and Courtly Figure.
  • Students should describe what is occurring in several works and generate descriptive words and seasonal references for each print.
  • Students should write several haiku describing the prints viewed.  Students can then write haiku on seasonal subject matter of their choice.

Day 3: Sketching Ideas and Transferring Image

  • Describe the block print process.
  • Students should make several different sketches for their block print design based on one of their poems.  Students should consider how their block print design and poem can compliment and inform each other.
  • Students should choose their favorite design and transfer the image to the carving block using transfer paper

Day 4: Carving Demonstration and Carving

  • Teacher will demonstrate the carving process, emphasizing safety.  Encourage students to use different tools, creating different kinds of lines, texture marks and patterns.
  • IMPORTANT: Remind students to carve away from themselves, keeping their opposite hand out of the path of the tool.
  • Students will begin to safely carve their blocks.

Day 5: Print Demonstration and Printing

  • Demonstrate the printing process, including using the correct amount of ink, color blending and rolling techniques, and applying pressure with a wooden spoon to transfer the ink.
  • Students should print their image at least 3 times using black as well as other colors.

Day 6: Printing II

  • Students should make additional prints of their image.  Students who have three successful prints can try creating a “rainbow roll” or variegating their ink color.

Day 7: Preparing for Presentation

  • Students should mount their print and a clean copy of the related haiku written in black or red ink on a piece of rice paper.  Back with black construction paper for strength.

Day 8: Critique

  • Students who need more time can finish up their project while finished students can work on the extension project.
  • Halfway through the class students should hang up their work for a constructive critique.  Ask students to identify prints and poems that successfully compliment each other.  Which poems or prints create a definite mood or emotion in the viewer?  Which prints work well to evoke a season?



The teacher will assess student learning based on the answers to the following questions:


  • Does the student’s poetry follow the Haiku format?
  • Does the poetry include descriptive language, including adjectives, and sound words?
  • Does the poetry convey an mood or emotional tone?
  • Does the poetry contain a reference to a season or the nature world?
  • Is the student able to use correct punctuation to create a grammatical break?

Block Prints

  • Does the student’s block print evoke a similar mood or emotion to the student’s poem?
  • Does the print expand on or compliment the description in the poem?
  • Is the block print well carved and printed carefully in order to communicate effectively?

Extension Project


Students who finish any step early can work on researching and preparing a three slide show using the programs presentation, key note, slide show, or powerpoint on one of the following topics:

  • The biography of Basho
  • Life in Edo, Japan
  • The Ronin warriors/Samurai code
  • Noh and Kubuki theater
  • The history of Ukiyo-e
  • The role of the Shogun
  • The biography of Kuniyoshi
  • Japanese print influences on Vincent Van Gogh and other European artists

Students can be assessed extra credit based on their effort, aesthetics and depth of research for their slide show.

Additional Information about Images


Kunisada, Woman by a Well This print depicts a woman by a well with offerings of wine and rice cakes, as described in a poem written at the top of the image, as well as a description: last year she dropped a hair ornament into the well and she has come back to see if it can be found.  However,. the story may be a metaphor for a lost love the woman is longing to find.  This metaphor is suggested by the festive decorations hanging from bamboo in the upper left corner of the print.  These decorations are for the Tanabata festival on the seventh night of the luna month.  On this night two stars–Kengy and Shokujo–meet in the Milky Way for their amorous one night rendezvous each year.

Utagawa Yoshitora, Courtly FigureThis print may depict Sugawara Michizane, a scholar-official of the imperial court during the Heian Period (794-1185).  At the height of his career he was maligned by a rival and exiled by the emperor.  As he left his home, he dedicated this poem to his favorite plum tree

When the eastern breeze blows
Release your fragrance
Even when your
Master is not at home
Don’t forget spring

The poem quickly became famous and, to this day, Sugawara is associated with the plum blossom, seen in this print as a motif on his robe.  After his death in 903, he became revered as the patron saint of scholarship.

Ronin Tragedy

This image refers to an important event in Japanese cultural history–the revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin or Samurai.  The event took place in the early 18th century, when a group of Samurai were left leaderless when their lord or daimyo was forced to commit seppuku or ritual suicide after assaulting a court official.  The Ronin sought revenge, killing the court official.  The act of revenge forced the Ronin to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) as well for committing murder.  The story demonstrates the belief in honor and filial duty associated with the samurai code and Japanese society overall.

Utagawa Kunihiro, Osakaactor Sawamura Kunitaro

Actor, Sawamura Kunitaro, is depicted playing a Heian woman and is dressed in the juni-hitoe kimono with an elaborate outer robe decorated with a dragon flying in the clouds. Dragons are seen as mystical, sacred animals with power and energy. In this motif, the dragon flying through the clouds could be a reference to the heavenly domain of the dragon of Buddhism.

The kimono he wears is called juni-hitoe. These kimono consisted of 12 layers, and the colors chosen would be significant for the season or occasion. The layered colors were called kasane no irome, and though the inner robe colors were important the design of the outer layer was given special attention.

Gakutei, Oiran with pipe & Oiran Playing Biwa

The oiran’s outer robe is covered in a grass motif called karakusa. Natural scenery and motifs are prevalent throughout all kimono designs. The importance of nature is a Japanese traditional belief that essentially originated  in the Shinto religion. It is believed that deities reside in nature and this importance has led nature imagery to be an inherent appreciation in Japan.

The Japanese maples on the musician oiran’s outer robe signify the autumn season. Autumn foliage in Japan is one of the most beautiful sights thereby making it an important visual subject.

High ranking courtesans were called oiran. They were trained in different forms of entertainment such as singing, dancing, flower arranging, calligraphy, tea ceremony, painting, and could play various instruments. Oiran set standards for popular dress, hair, and make-up. They were depicted as goddesses in woodblock prints. Typical characteristics of oiran were fair complexions enhanced by white make-up, rouged lips, crescent moon shaped eyebrows, coiffed hair, and beautiful, extravagant, highly fashionable kimonos.