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For & Against: Sketching in Museums

In response to the Guardian article published online about the V&A ban on sketching in its temporary exhibitions, here are some thoughts from an Art student arguing both sides.This article was published in The Courier this year as part of my work for the Culture section.

For:

Every single arts student and schoolchild will remember that going to see museum exhibitions with a sketchpad and your art teacher meant that you would choose to sit cross-legged under some painting or other and while away your time doodling, or finely pencilling in the shadows, depending on your interest. Sketching was so important that it was given over for at least half of the time for the trip, and it is not just now that imitating the original is seen as important. During the Renaissance and in most important art periods, future artists were trained through imitating their grand masters, sometimes going so far as to complete their work for them if the artist was away with patrons. The skill of imitation trains your eye and your hand in following exact lines, learning shapes, and styles. It is a valuable part of an art education, and integral to develop understanding. It is also bizarre to note that it is not copyright that apparently ensued this ban- only congestion in gallery spaces and strict loan agreements for some pieces. This seems unlikely, as the V&A has the most spacious galleries in London arguably, and doodling children have copied even the Mona Lisa, without being sold on for thousands of pounds. The argument here is to preserve art education, not worry about money.

Against:

The V&A gains prestige as a museum year by year, and it has already become an authority on fashion in the United Kingdom. It is perfectly reasonable for it to impose more rigorous rules on exhibitions with some of its more valuable pieces, especially since the popularity of its exhibitions grows every time. It would be perfectly reasonable to ask for viewing alone, as many of the artworks are available in print form online and through the V&A shop. Although it may not be quite the same as seeing the original, sketching does not require you to be pressed up against the painting for you to draw it. If any of the pieces would get damaged, it would be the Museum’s responsibility to reimburse the owners of the artwork. This may seem like a boring reason to ban sketching but it is possible to profit off an artwork displayed in the gallery without the author’s permission. With the growth of social media, photography is an even larger problem, however sketching cannot be ignored. It is necessary to protect the valuable artworks that the Museum houses for the public to see, if only to protect its reputation and advance its influence. It is a harsh rule, but with growing numbers of national and international visitors, the museum must do what it can to help everyone have an enjoyable experience. Although sketching’s cultural history means it is hard to let go of the past, it is important to move on with modern viewing techniques if the Museum hopes to get more valuable pieces of art for its public.

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Kyoto

Kyoto is the previous capital of the old Japan and is most famously known for the large amount of temples dotted around the city, and the traditional wooden houses in the Gion and Higashiyama districts. Kyoto is very traditional in some areas, and it is worth exploring as many different temple areas as you can, as many of the smaller temples are some of the more spectacular. The city is famous for two main tourist attractions- Geiko (geisha) and matcha (powdered green tea). Geiko are found walking in Gion and Higashiyama, as the majority of temples and tea houses where they entertain wealthy business men or gaggles of tourists are located there. The green tea of Kyoto is famous around the world- matcha is one of the key exports from Japan, and much of it comes from Kyoto. While Kyoto is quite large, many of the sights located in certain areas (especially on the Eastern side of Kyoto) are within walking distance, and it is fun to explore the old districts looking for food, souvenirs and museums. If you have more time to explore Kyoto, it is worth taking the train to some of the outskirt sights, as many are truly spectacular too, like the Inari Temple located just 15 minutes away from Kyoto.

1. Higashiyama District

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Higashiyama is one of the two most famous old districts of Kyoto. While it may be busy at times (this photo was taken near New Year’s), it is still worth going as it has one of the most beautiful temples there (Kiyomizudera Temple) and the old buildings and the quiet feel during less festive seasons add to its charm. It is worth walking around some of the backstreets here- there will not be as many people, however you may find a small tea shop selling a traditional matcha dessert or a quiet gallery selling incredibly detailed flower and nature paintings.  Its a good idea to visit the area during the ten-day Hanatoro and wander the dark alleys with the pretty light of the lanterns.

2. Ginkakuji

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While it may be the smaller and less garish out of the two well known temples (the other being the Kinkakuji), it is also the more beautiful in my opinion. The temple was meant to be covered with silver foil, just as the Kinkakuji is covered in gold foil, however this was delayed as a result of the Onin War. The little path up to the temple is full of shops and places to relax and sit down, while the temple itself is surrounded by a beautiful garden, said to be designed by the great landscape artist Soami. The walk around the garden is short, and gives more time and space to reflect on the temple’s surroundings, as the crowds are far fewer here. The mountain of sand in the garden symbolizes Mount Fuji, which is closely linked to both Kyoto and Tokyo.

3. Gion

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Out of Gion and Higashiyama, Gion is certainly the most famous, known primarily for the Geiko flitting around the narrow streets in beautiful red and black kimono, with highly decorative headdresses, rushing to their next business appointment. You may see young Japanese girls and tourists in similar garb or in brightly coloured yukata (light summer kimono) and kimono (in the winter), however they are only dressing up, and are certainly not geiko. Gion is also a great district to buy some local snacks- many of the shops along the way sell Japanese rice crackers, sweet sugar sweets, dango (rice balls with sweet soy sauce) and wagashi, as well as umeboshi (pickled plum) and sake. The majority of the shops have been around for decades, and are worth visiting for their traditional production techniques and amazing natural flavours.

4. Tenryu-ji Temple

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As one of the many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, Tenryu-ji stands out in particular because of its serenity and its beautiful garden. As with many of the Kyoto gardens, the temple house is linked to the garden through a small passage across the tatami mats to the engawa where you can sit and relax and view the garden from all angles. A special day trip to Tenryu-ji will guarantee a chance to visit Arashiyama and the Togetsukyo bridge, where in the spring you can see the cherry blossoms bloom along the shore. While in the area, visit the local shops along the way to the bridge, then cross it and climb up the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where you get to see monkeys roam completely free at the top of the mountain.

5. Fushimi Inari Shrine

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The Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most visited shrines outside of Kyoto (although it is a very short trip so don’t worry) and yet the climb up up through the thousands of tori gates is very secluded, especially along some of the less travelled paths. You do not have to complete the route all in one go, as there are a few different paths, and a couple of stops along the way. You can grab a drink and have a rest before you climb up to the top where there is a small main shrine lined with thousands of individual family shrines covered with Inari statues. Over a third of the shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari, and the Fushimi Inari is the head shrine, worth paying particular attention to.

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Sights

There are a few key sights in Japan that are not perhaps restricted by prefecture, and which are key to getting to know Japan and seeing what there is to see.

  1. Fuji Mountain

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The highest mountain in Japan is at the same time the most climbed mountain. Its beautiful white peak can be seen from Tokyo Skytree on a clear day, and it reigns between Tokyo and Kyoto. You can see it on the way to Kyoto if you are taking the Shinkansen train. The mountain can be climbed, and both locals and tourists go up to the top to take photos of the view from the highest point. This journey is no trifle- the most popular route takes five-seven hours and is only advisable to do in the summer, between July and August, when the mountain has no snow and the weather is mild. It is best to research the climb first, making sure to take a good shoes, a jacket, a headlight, water and snacks at the very minimum. An entertaining version of the climb is shown here from Abroad in Japan, and here you will be able to get more information about the route.

2. Kinkakuji

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The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji is a must see when in Kyoto. Built originally as part of a retirement villa for the shogun Yoshimitsu, it is now under protection of UNESCO and the National Special Historic site. The pavilion is not the only thing to see at the estate- the garden is a perfect example of the Muromachi period design, and is worth viewing in all the seasons. Perhaps use this as an opportunity to taste some green tea among the beautiful surroundings at the tea shop at the end. For directions, check here.

Todai-ji

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Todai-ji is the landmark of Nara, and is one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in Japan. Its great size and the famous ‘Golden Buddha’ make the temple worth the train trip from Kyoto to Nara. The Daibutsuden or great hall is the largest wooden structure in the world. The road up to the temple is equally picturesque, complete with the Nandaimon gate, largest wooden gate leading you up to the temple. The road is also full of Nara deer, all begging the visitors for crackers and food. A must see when in Kyoto!

The Great Torii Gate

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The Torii Gate at the Itsukushima shrine is a true sight to behold- the red outlines reflects on the lake and rises up against the trees and buildings in the background. The first shrine in the area goes back all the way to the 6th century, and the setting is perfect to show the contrast between the structure and the woods. The gate can be enjoyed at two times during the day, during the high tide when the gate is viewed from the shrine on land, anat the low tide, when the island shrine is accessible on foot.

 

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Osaka

Osaka is known to be the Kansai Japanese city- with its particular accent and laid-back vibe, Osaka is a contradiction to Kyoto’s tradition and Tokyo’s mainstream feel. Throughout Japan it is known as the food capital, as it has excellent links to the sea and to the countryside, where it gets its produce from. It is the second largest city in Japan, and one of the biggest metropolises in the world. Osaka for tourists is mainly known for its food and night life around Dotonbori, however it has a few sights that are worth visiting before you paint the town red on your night out.  Ideally it is best to make Osaka a day trip from Kyoto, as the main attractions can be visited during one day, and then you would be able to go back to Kyoto to visit some of the less-visited temples and sights.

1. Dotonbori

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This is the road that represents the entertainment district of Osaka. Osaka is known for its party attitude, with drink and food flowing out of every shop lining this street. The sheer quantity of food here is ridiculous- you can find crab, takoyaki, teppanyaki in every stall, and each owner has a slight variation to the recipe, making it a must-do to try every one. After all the food you may feel a bit stuffed! These Osakan ‘food parties’ last until dawn, so there is a continuous flow of food over the night, mixed in with the nightlife and drinking.

2. Osaka Aquarium

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The Kaiyukan Aquarium is particularly spectacular in Osaka, as certain fish and wildlife are only kept there in their specific environment. The walk-through exhibits are truly spectacular, and it is mostly the sheer size of the main aquarium that attracts tourists all the time to see the whale sharks and other marine life. The displays are very well organised- every tank has a specific theme, and the fish are not crowded in like in some other tanks. It is really worth taking a day out to go to the Tempozan Harbor Village to see the whale sharks, the seals and the jellyfish displays in particular. If you have enough time, head to the nearby shopping centre, where there is an a animal cafe on the top floor.

3. Osaka Castle

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This wonderful castle can be seen from all around the park, in particular the Nishinomaru Garden, which is a favourite for locals and tourists alike in the cherry blossom viewing season, since the garden boasts 600 cherry trees. The castle can be accessed through a continuous climb to the top, and for a small fee, you can learn about the history of the castle and take in the view of Osaka from the top. The inside has been modernised, so access is easy for all tourists. The displays cover the life and of Hideyoshi Toyotomi and the numerous Osakan wars. There are all kinds of artifacts displayed from the past, and numerous official scrolls are rolled out and displayed in the cabinets. This would be a perfect relaxing day trip to see the castle, learn about the history of Osaka and relax in the park outside.

4. Umeda Sky Building

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The Sky building is one of the tallest buildings in Osaka, and the views from its topmost floor are legendary. It is particularly worth going at night, since the lights around Osaka are only really visible then. The rooftop floor is filled with tiny pieces of reflective material that shine under the UV light to help people across the round walkway. If you are scared of heights this may not be ideal for you, as the elevator that goes up to the top still has a panorama of Osaka, and the walkway at the top is only separated by glass from the fall. However, if you do brave it, the views are truly worth it, and you can calm your nerves later in the little Showa Period replica village at in the basement floor, where different restaurants serve up their speciality.

5. Universal Studios

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Now obviously this is a personal choice- however Osaka is not Kyoto, and the commercial theme park is really worth going to, even if it is just to get a taste of Butterbeer in the relatively new Harry Potter part of the park. Although Osaka does have traditional temples and the Osaka Castle, it is also a great place to relax and have fun! The rides in the park are really wonderful and the different characters walking around give you a good chance to snap a cliche picture with Hello Kitty. The other great part of the Osakan Universal Studios is the Citywalk just outside, where on the fourth floor you have the Takoyaki Museum, letting you try different kinds of takoyaki, all coming from different vendors around Japan.