Ian Ropke writes,
Japan’s ingenious and eye-catching signboards known as kanban are unique. The earliest examples avoided the use of words, presumably because they couldn’t have been read by an illiterate public, and often focused on the shape of the product, or the form of the container in which it was sold. Larger than life carvings of objects such as geta, candles, brushes, fans, and combs, were sometimes used to get the message across. Hardware stores signs still make use of this latter form, with real scissors, locks, nail covers, or doorknobs. Here are three classics to look for (but don’t stop looking!):
The signboard at Kosetsu-ken, on Nijo, east of Kawaramachi, is a large, beautifully-carved, wooden brush that identifies the shop as one catering to the needs of the calligrapher or painter. The original actually used the hair from three horse tails, but over the years, the hands of curious people ended up turning the brush bald!
Yaosan, on the northwest corner of Aneya-koji and Higashi-no-toin, a seller of yuzu (lime) miso for over 280 years, has a magnificent kanban. The original, preserved inside the shop, is the work of the famous Kyoto potter, Kitaoji Rosanjin. He is said to have written and carved the bold, confident letters at the beginning of the Taisho period (1912-1926).
The kanban outside is a copy of the original.
Lastly, from woodblock prints, we know that little roofs and folding doors were often used to protect signs from the elements. Few of these roofed kanban still exist. One good example, can be seen at Amamori Keitaro Yakubo, on Kurumaya-cho, south of Nijo. The current sign probably dates back to 1864, when the premises were rebuilt.
Full text by Ian Ropke. Pictures by Michael Lambe. All rights reserved.
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