"I call these my jewels," said Joanna H. Schoff, as we bent to catch a gleam of silver in the softly lit museum. Treasures indeed, but instead of the brilliance of diamonds we were looking at far gentler beauties: rare gems of Japanese printmaking from the 1800s.

Two other American ladies, Virginia Shawan Drosten and Barbara Bowman, had also flown in to Tokyo to see prints from their private collections in the Ota Memorial Museum. With its tsubo-niwa pocket garden and pleasant architecture, this museum is a calm oasis in busy Harajuku, and the perfect setting to discover the little-known masterpieces that are surimono.

If you like ukiyo-e you will love surimono. Ukiyo-e were mass-produced prints in the popular taste, but surimono were the creme de la creme of woodblock prints, for the private delight of literati. The golden age of surimono was the early 19th century, when members of fashionable poetry circles commissioned the best artists and printers to incorporate their playful kyoka verse into original designs.