In the long history of travel traditions, the postcard holds a special place. A souvenir that you don't keep, but instead share with someone back home. A "wish you were here" that conveys something special about your trip to a loved one that remains in your mind despite being overseas. A simple communication on a small paper that demands concise brevity, often relying on the photo on the front to say more than the words scribbled on the back. A well-worn travel ritual that has fallen by the wayside in the modern era thanks to email and Instagram tagging.
Thankfully, the tradition of the postcard is alive and well in the timeless city of Kyoto. There's nowhere better to explore the world of postcards than at Benrido, a respected printing establishment in the city's center.
With a history stretching back to 1887, Benrido has been creating highly detailed prints using a process called collotyping. This unique process relies on the complex chemical relationship between gelatin and ink, and results in high quality images that capture exactly what the photographer saw when they peered through the camera lens. Benrido is one of the few collotype studios remaining in the world. Most printers moved on to the swifter process of offset printing over a century ago, but Benrido is still rooted firmly in the past. You can learn more on Benrido's English collotype website.
The range of designs available for purchase at this shop is overwhelming. From traditional artwork to modern designs, they have it all. I particularly liked their series of turn of the century photos of Kyoto locals; samurais, farmers, working women, geisha. They're all here in revealing detail as they once lived right here within the ancient capital. Another set that caught my eye was paintings of recognizable Kyoto buildings from various eras throughout the past century. It's fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn't.
There's a strong focus on the modern here as well. Contemporary artists are well represented, with the walls of Benrido acting as a sort of mini-musuem for the best Japanese artists today. I discovered a fascinating artist named Akira Yamaguchi who uses such fine detail in his work that you can't help but go in for a closer look. Benrido's excellent print quality is ideal for this sort of illustration, and their attention to quality really shines through with this artist's work.
Beyond postcards, Benrido also offers some excellent goods featuring many of its most famous prints. Clear folders, pens, notepads, pencil cases, cards, and other seasonal goods are on display. The decorative screens shrunk down to fit on a desk or mantle are particularly charming, especially the ones featuring choju-giga. This 12th century scroll featuring frolicking frogs and rabbits dressed like priests and noblemen is often called "the world's first comic book."
My recent visit to Benrido was meant to just be a research trip, but I couldn't escape without doing some shopping for myself. You're guaranteed to walk out of there with a selection of beautiful cards suitable for sending or framing.
Like a rambling postcard, perhaps this blog has already gone on too long. The artwork on the flipside should speak for itself. Be sure to visit Benrido for some unique cards to send to friends or to keep for yourself as reminders of Kyoto.
Address: Sanjo Tominokoji Agaru Nishigawa, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8084