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Try Making Traditional Seals in Kamakura for a Perfect Souvenir

An inkan (seal) is a traditional item that is indispensable in the life of Japanese people. It has been used in place of signatures since ancient times, and of late, it has also become a famous souvenir that will make you feel the Japanese spirit. With that, let’s delve into the experience of making handmade inkan. This experience will let you create an original inkan that is the only one of its kind in the world!

Inkan – A Traditional Item That Every Japanese Person Possesses

An inkan is an item made from a piece of wood, bamboo, stone or metal with engraved characters, pictures and other symbols. It can also called a “hanko” or “insho.” Stamped on documents and forms as a unique mark for individuals, companies, and groups, an inkan plays the same role as signatures do in the Western world. It has a very long history, having been used on public documents in Japan for over 1300 years.

Today, there are still many public documents and forms in Japan that require an inkan, so it is customary for Japanese people to make their own when they transition from being students to working adults.

While inkan are often used in contracts and other documents, they have also become deeply ingrained into Japanese life as a traditional craft, given the beauty of the design on the stamp surface (where characters and patterns are carved) and the high-class feeling of the materials with which they are made. It is also seen as a lucky item that invites good fortune.

To create your own inkan, Kamakura Hanko is a place used by many to do so. Kamakura Hanko is located roughly a 2-minute walk from JR Kamakura Station, the gateway to the Kamakura area that is extremely famous as a sightseeing destination enveloped in true Japanese atmosphere, and is popular for offering the experience of making an inkan to foreign customers. We stopped by and tried to make original seals for ourselves!

Inkan – A Traditional Item That Every Japanese Person Possesses

5-6-1A Onarimachi, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa

Let's Make a Seal with an Original Design!

1. Know the History and Role of the Inkan

In this workshop, Mr. Mitsuhiro Tsukino, a representative of Kamakura Hanko, taught us all about making inkan. Before actually starting the creation of an inkan, he explained the history and role of inkan, how to arrange the characters and place the pictures when actually making an inkan, and other matters in an easy-to-understand manner, with quizzes thrown in the mix.

The inkan workshop at this shop includes everything from the design of the face, up to the creation of a rough draft and a clean copy, and finally the selection of the material to be used for the final product. The carving of the characters and pictures into the inkan material actually requires professional skill, so the shop did it for us.

2. Think of a Design

Inkan in Japan generally have surnames engraved on the face. In this workshop, however, you will be free to design your own inkan, so you can have characters, as well as pictures and other images. You can also try to convert your own name into kanji characters with the help of Mr. Tsukino who is an expert, or you can write it down in hiragana or katakana characters! There are sample characters and pictures, and the designs of inkan made by previous workshop visitors as a reference, try to think of your own original design!

3. Draw a Rough Sketch

Before making a draft for the design of your inkan, try to draw a rough sketch on the margin. You need to decide on the approximate position and size of the characters and illustrations at this point. When designing your inkan, remember that the parts that are completely painted in black and the parts with characters written on them will be colored, while the blank spaces will be white when the seal is stamped. Take the balance of colors into account when drawing the rough sketch.

4. Write a Draft of the Characters

Using a mechanical pencil, write a draft of the characters inside the round frame for the inkan face design. Keep in mind that the actual inkan face will much smaller than the round frame used for drawing your design, so it is better to make the characters a little thick instead of writing in thin lines!

5. Draw a Draft of the Picture

After drawing a draft of the characters, make a draft of the picture to be used on your inkan. Mr. Tsukino instructed that, “For a picture to be used, the important point to remember is that the part enclosed in an outline should be properly enclosed, while the parts that you want to be blank should be clearly left blank.”

6. Perform Final Check on the Design

Once the rough draft is done, Mr. Tsukino will check your work. In our case, he advised that, “It would be better to draw the outline of the bamboo in the design in thicker lines.”

7. Make a Clean Copy

Once the rough draft has been fixed, proceed to making a clean copy using a calligraphy pen! This is the most tense part of the workshop. You need to carefully fill in the characters and pictures with a pen according to the rough draft. Concentrating to make a clean copy entails a unique kind of tension that is pleasant, similar to hand-copying sutras in Japanese temples.

8. Choose the Material

After completing the clean copy, select the inkan material on which your design will be engraved. There are various kinds of materials available, including Japanese boxwood - the traditional wood used for inkan, as well as colored acrylics in beautiful hues. In this workshop, we chose a transparent acrylic material. Thereafter, a staff member of the shop engraved the design on the material that we picked.

9. Wait for the Inkan to be Completed

It takes about an hour for the engraving process to be completed, so while waiting, you might want to check out the beautiful inkan and inkan inside the shop, or explore the surrounding area, such as by visiting the nearby Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine or Giant Buddha statue.

10. Completion

After an hour, our original inkan was done! For our seal, we transformed the name “Ken” into kanji and put an image of a very Japanese bamboo beside it. It turned out great!

Through this experience that lasts 2-3 hours from the explanation about inkan up to the completion of an original seal, we were able to learn about this unique Japanese custom in a hands-on way.

The workshop will let you make your own one-of-a-kind inkan, so as souvenir, how about buying an inkan case in a Japanese color and with a gorgeous design?

Basic Information

Kamakura Hanko
Address: 5-6-1A Onarimachi, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa
Phone: 0467-37-9297
Hours: 10:30 am - 6:00 pm (the handmade inkan making workshop can only accommodate up to two persons in a day and requires reservation)
Closed: Tuesdays and Wednesdays (with irregular holidays)
Price: 1,980 JPY + 980 JPY and above for the cost of the inkan material (instruction is in English only)

That concludes our report on the handmade inkan-making experience in Kamakura, a scenic spot where Japan’s traditions remain intact. Mr. Tsukino, who taught us how to make inkan, said that, “Every Japanese person always makes his own seal when he becomes an adult. For all of you from overseas, how about making your own seal with an original design that will make you feel the beauty of Japan, and then using it as souvenir or in place of your signature?”

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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