Summer Street Studio
Home | Up
Letterpress - Japan
On the Hunt for Japanese Type 3/2004
Recently I had cause to spend a week in the Tokyo area for work. One afternoon, I had some free time which I spent trying to track down some japanese type. Last year, I took a year of Japanese in night school through Harvard Extension, and have had some chance to practice it at work. With my new interest in letterpress, I thought it would be cool to have some katakana and hiragana type for my Pilot. Kanji are great, but on one hand I don't actually know that many and on the other hand it seems like an expensive and slippery slope to get on when it comes to aquiring type. So with two hands against kanji I decided to stick to the phonetics.

The company I work for, E Ink, has a partnership with Toppan Printing of Japan, so I thought Toppan would be a good place to start my search. I had never been to the printing museum, but I read on their website that they had a printing workshop where you could see and participate in letterpress printing.

Toppan building near Iidabashi station

The Printing Museum is in here

Inside - before they told me not to take pictures

I popped inside and went straight to the printing workshop. It looks really cool, and they have many beautiful machines in there which presumably can be used at some time. Unfortunately printing workshop participation time is only from 3pm - 3:45pm and I had arrived at 4 so I was out of luck there. They had a Pearl, some nice handpresses, and like 20 Adanas which I assume are for use by guests. Anyway, I talked to the old guy in an apron in the print shop and after going back and forth for a while with my baby level japanese he went in the back and got me a flyer from a print shop. In conversation I also learned that the term for type in japanese is "katsuji". The following is from a Japanese-English web dictionary:

The first character means 'raw' or 'fresh', and I have also seen it in sushi restaurants. One meaning of the second kanji is 'character'. So the combo could read 'raw characters'.

I took the flyer upstairs and talked to the receptionist to get directions. She pulled out her map and jotted down a mini-map for me to get in the general neighborhood. Directions in Japan are complicated by the fact that adresses are not in order on the street, but rather by age of construction within a general vicinity. This shop was near Waseda station on the Tozai subway line. I walked around for a while asking people in the area without much luck, and finally just got in a taxi and had him call the shop for better directions. The place was in a tiny alley with no sign, but I got there.

Inside was a huge amount of type in tilted trays. One really nice thing about chinese/japanese characters is that they are monospaced and square, which makes line justification wicked easy.

At Sasaki Katsuji-ya

A few trays of sweet katsuji

A nice old guy name Tsukada-san helped me out. He had an ancient booklet with the full fonts, and a nice poster with samples of the several fonts available for japanese characters. The poster was letterpressed itself, and very well done on glossy paper. I asked him for some extras for friends!

Tsukada-san helping me select a font

I picked out a nice printed style face, and got full katakana/hiragana plus kanji numbers x 2 of each character in 10 pt and 4 pt. The 4 pt just because it is cool that it is so small. Altogether this cost about $200. Not cheap! But not crazy either I suppose. Besides it was a great adventure. I felt kind of bad making Tsukada-san pick 4 pt type for me for like an hour...

Packing up my 4 pt type - not a good job if you need bifocals!

The 4 pt tray

The booklet we used to look at available fonts

Close up of back of booklet - 1957!!

We chatted a bit while he was selecting my type. I asked him if many people came in to buy type now, and he said no, most people just do it on the computer. When I was there though, some people came and dropped off some artwork for printing so I guess they get by as a print shop. We were having a good time hanging out, so after I got my type Tsukada-san invited me to check out their typecasting machines. I didn't realize they actually cast the type there, so I was psyched to check it out.

Typecasting Machine, second floor

Not sure what kind of machines these are, but they had like 15 of them crammed into a tiny 2nd floor workshop. I have no idea how they got them up there. They used smallish ingots.

Their oldest typcaster

Not sure what this is

Storage for the brass matrices

Tsukada-san checking out the machines

I asked him if these were monotype machines and he said no, but that they had a monotype setup on the first floor. We then went to have a tour of that.

Monotype caster - first floor

The tape generator for the monotype

Monotype caster - front view

Monotype caster - side view

Proof press in the Monotype room

So that was it, and with a domo arigatou gozaimashita I was off back to my hotel with my bag considerably heavier with lead type. For future reference, you can get to this place by going to Waseda station on the Tozai subway line and exiting to Waseda-dori. Take a left on Waseda-dori and walk maybe 0.5km. The "Mansion-Gallery" store seen below is on the right side of the street at an intersection:

Shop across the main street from the alley

Stay on the left side of the street and take a left into the next alley, then left in the next sub-alley. Walk almost to the outlet of the sub-alley to the next street and the shop is on the left, maybe one or two doors back from the street.

On the way back to the subway I stopped in a 100 yen (~$1) comic book shop packed with people. I sure with I could read Japanese!

100 yen comic book shop

Design partially original and partially ripped off from other websites
by Holly Gates