An old sake label showing a red sea bream, a lucky symbol in Japan used for celebrations. Want to know what sort of fonts those are? Simply read on!

Packaging design & Japanese font workshop#3: Sake Bottles!

Japanese rice wine, or sake labels have bold designs decorated with pictures of crashing waves, strong calligraphy letterings, gildings and whatnot. When you look closely at these sake labels, the designs are all so typically Japanese and there just seems to be a certain special feeling about it. Of course, PingMag isn’t going to let something like that go without telling the readers, so here are some of the better packaging designs for Japanese sake and some explanations about Japanese typography!

Written by Ryoko and Uleshka
Translated by Natsumi

As we mentioned before in a short article about how to recognize Japanese fonts, there aren’t that many different Japanese type faces compared to Roman style alphabets which you can basically buy at every corner. (How energetic would you feel if every time you had to design a new font, you had to carve at least 8 000 characters?)

But there are some, of course. In this article we try to talk about some of them while mainly introducing different designs for sake bottles. Here we go:

This ”Daiginjo” – the best variety of sake – is made by the Kinshi-Masamune sake brewery.

Nice old label! Look at this wild font mix!

Look at these old bottles of Daiginjo made by Kinshi-Masamune, an old brewery in Kyoto dating back to 1781. The bottles still go with this nice pop-top and the glass comes in different shades of bluish green. Now when we look at the label design, we can spot something like a white family crest underneath, perhaps they used Masamune and the name of the brewery as motifs.

Overall I love to simply indulge in this wild mix of typography! I mean – look at it! Three different Latin alphabets used at the bottom alone, a big blob of Maru Gothic fonts on red and a variety of Japanese Kaisho fonts in black dancing around the big modified character for ‘Masamune’ – the name of the brand.

The interesting thing about this big beautiful character in the middle defining the overall look of the bottle is, that it shows a skillful blend of calligraphy and graphic design. Based on a specially altered Hige Moji style character, they added some extra lines, little corners and edges that give this Japanese character a touch extraordinaire!

Now what do all these funny words mean, you wonder? The combination ‘Hige-Moji’ for example comes from the Japanese word ‘Hige’ meaning ‘beard’ or ‘whisker’. ‘Moji’ is the word for an alphabet character. ‘Hige-Moji’ or ‘Whisker Characters’ belong to the class of ‘Edo-Moji’ and refer to characters created in the Edo period. (That means that they are old!)

These dynamic swooshy-tail characters can be found on various Sake bottles and other traditional signage such as traditional ice shops.

1. Hige-Moji or ‘Whisker Characters’ on this sake called ‘Shinkame’ (The Holy Tortoise) – the Chinese character for tortoise really looks like the shape of a tortoise here.

2. Drinking too much of this might make you start dancing…? ‘Maihime’ (The Dancing Girl)

3. ‘Kaganotsuki’ (The Moon over Kaga)

4. The bottle of ‘Yukinone’ (The Sound of the Snow) is wrapped in a thin tissue paper like this.

Again, these two images on the top (1. and 2.) are perfect examples of ‘Hige-Moji’ on sake bottles. The ‘Holy Turtle’ design shows yet another very common thing – the attempt to twist and modify characters to make them look more like the real thing. Meaning, the little strokes and lines of the ‘Kame’ character for turtle are arranged in a way to resemble the image of a turtle.

The second row of images (3. and 4.) presents very light, almost floating designs. As you can see from the name ‘Kaganotsuki’ (The Moon over Kaga), the label on the left has a huge moon drawn in the middle of this simple and sophisticated design. The distinct touch of Japanese Ink brings out the hazy atmosphere of the moon as well as its hidden dynamism and tranquility. The decent black typography reminds of Mingei-Moji, looking a bit like woodblock lettering.

The beautiful sake named ‘Yukinone’ (The Sound of the Snow) has a label with an image of pristine snow falling silently to suit the name. Remember what I said in the beginning about having to design thousands of characters to create one font alone? That makes it obvious that calligraphy and various forms of handwriting are still very present today and leave more options to match the ‘design feeling’ you were just looking for.

Images 1., 2. and 4. follow the TSBL – Traditional Sake Bottle Layout (ok, ok, I don’t know if such a term exists, so I just made it up – but it helps!): big name in the middle, some vertical typography from the top right, and some more information on the bottom left. Usually the elements presented are ‘Amaguchi’ – sweet taste or ‘Karakuchi’ – dry taste and the name of the sake brewery on either side. Other style elements include images (such as the flowers on the ‘Dancing Girl’ bottle), or a little red stamp (like the on ‘Yukinone’ below) to show the name of the artist/calligrapher.

more examples for calligraphy on sake bottles

‘Yamazaru’ – an energetic brush was swung across the label just like ‘Mountain Monkeys’

“And what is this white transparent paper hiding those beautiful designs?” you might ask. That is a Japanese thing nobody could really explain to me… I guess it just gives it a more mysterious, elegant look.

Uh! That was tough! Now to the next design:

’Echigo-Tsurukame’ (Crane and Turtle of Echigo) from the snowy Niigata Prefecture.

This sake is called ‘Echigo-Tsurukame’ (Crane and Turtle of Echigo – both animals are symbols of good luck in Japan) from the snowy region of the Niigata Prefecture: a brilliant design combining the crashing waves of the Sea of Japan, bold letterings and retro-looking patterns.

Try if you can recognize some fonts and elements from what you just learned!

The ‘Hanko’ – the Japanese name stamp on this design is big enough to show some seal characters, which are so typical and distinct. These particular ones look like Tenshotai seal characters.

Stepping further away from handwritten letters to a more symmetric alignment of elements – however, the main heavy bold font in the middle is kept.

Another sake from Niigata, ‘Kamotsuru’ (Crane of Kamo) with an almost tourist appeal.

The label of ‘Kamotsuru’ (Crane of Kamo) on the left features Mount Fuji and cranes as motifs and has its brand written in Latin letters. With all these clichés combined it seems as if the bottle was designed with intent for distribution outside of Japan. It’s so interesting to look at the different shapes of labels and their arrangements on the bottles.

Now, let’s take a look at what this might look like in a common ‘shop situation’!

sake bottles of many colours decorating the shop window
Various bottles of sake being chilled in the fridge – notice the strong emphasis on handwritten labels.
Again a set of very different sake bottle designs on a shop shelf.

According to the owner of the liquor shop who kindly let me take some of the photos shown, Japanese sake is usually named after either the master brewer, the master brewer’s preferences (pictures of turtles and cranes, for example) or the location of the brewery. Handwritten calligraphic letterings on Japanese sake labels are the standard. Perhaps because calligraphy is another element that brings out the atmosphere that is so unique for Japan.

Now you might think: I got it all! I can design my own sake now! – You’ll come across countless other variations of what else you could put on your label instead…

Gekkeikan – awai ” designed by Keiko Hirano

Fukunishiki” designed by GRAPH
’Kenbishi’ – the label uses the family crest of the master brewer. This slightly Western looking crest is so mysterious!

Actually the ‘Kenbishi’ label design is my favorite. Resembling a little bit a beautified Westernized version of a Japanese family crest, it looks like a giant exclamation mark, saying: “Look at me!!!!! I am the best one on the shelf!!!”

Sometimes you will find that some designers went ahead and designed the whole bottle itself – especially back in the old days…

Colourful bottles of Furisode, photo: Mukaijima Shuzo.

’Okame’ (woman with a round face) and a funny expression: photo and more examples on these bottles in the Kinomura Collection.

Don’t get too drunk! – ‘Hyottoko’ (a man with a funny and distorted face): photo and more at Kinomura Collection

expensive looking Ozeki sake in a white glass bottle

The photo on the left depict a bottle of sake for ‘Ozeki’, the title of a very high rank given to sumo wrestlers. (Since high ranking sumo wrestlers only get the best possible food and are stuffed with mountains of delicious sashimi every night, they also deserve the very best of the most expensive sakes, of course.)

This is a special-edition bottle for the 270th anniversary of Ozeki’s sake production, reproducing the original old pottery bottle with white glass that looks like porcelain at a glance. Instead of a label, the design is printed directly onto the bottle.

Can you recognize some of the fonts? Hige-Moji is easy, but could you guess the other ones? This website might help you.

Finally, we come to our last image showing a sake label with a Daruma, a round Japanese wish doll with neither arms nor legs! Typically for the beginning of the year (oh dear – it’s almost February!), you take a Daruma doll which usually has ‘no eyes’, make a wish and fill in his right eye with a pen. Once your wish is fulfilled, fill in the other eye as well.

This Daruma however already looks as if it drank the whole bottle by himself…

A drunk looking Daruma face on a sake bottle.

I hope these sake bottle designs helped you a little in understanding Japanese typography and getting an idea of the atmosphere common to all fields of Japanese culture. Cheers to you! Kanpai! And chin-chin!

  • Aaron

    Kanpai! I barely can stand sake but the packaging designs got to have to take the cake! Another brilliant article. :D

  • Jesus

    Thanks so very much for taking your time to create this very useful and informative site. I have learned a lot from your site. Thanks

  • Christa

    Great post! I am in love with the type mixes/styles on the labels. Esp. the ‘vintage’-looking ‘Echigo-Tsurukame’

    –and sake is yummy.

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  • keanu

    aha, I like drinking japanese plum wine.

  • David Carlson

    Nice post! Just for the fun of it, here is a somewhat western version of the traditional Sake graphics and packaging by well-known German designer Konstantin Grcic:

  • yojnezla

    love it!

  • KAIS

    Very interesting article. Wish we could see the evolution of the fonts.

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  • kurt

    amazing…congratulations designer…the best

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  • cloder

    Is it right Sake is made of rice?

  • Helen

    These japanese fonts look quite different and attractive too!

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  • Yuu

    nice! I like nihonshu called “MA SU MI”, just like my girlfriend’s name..

  • Lisa

    I have small glass sake bottles that
    look like people. The tops are made of
    wood. They are all different flavors &
    colors. Are these valuable?

  • MMK

    I have a 7″ milk white bottle of Sake, (similar to the one you have listed in the above article),that was produced exclusively for Pan American Airlines..the bottle has all it’s labels etc., it has never been opened. I contacted the company that produced this for the airline. The company at that time was called “Okura Shuzo”, it is now known as Gekkeikan Sake. I am trying to get as much informaiton as possibnle on this particular bottle. The bottle has a paper label with B 8 B printed/stamped on it. The only information the customer service rep. from the company could offer was the bottle was approximately 22 years old, but there wasn’t anyone who worked at the company now who would remember or know anymore than that. I would appreciate any information. Please respond to:
    Thank you for your help

  • http://CherryBlossoms&MetingSnowSakeSeminars Toni Ettore, Sake Sommelier

    Great information, as a Sake Sommelier & Sake Educator, I get so excited when people become curious about this amazing and complicated beverage. Even if it is just the writing on the bottle that captures your amazement, you will find that sake in it’s pristine state smells like cherry blossoms and tastes like melting snow. It is all I study these days! Arigato gozaimasu,
    Toni Ettore, Kikizakeshi

  • Ralph

    Thanks for the article! I can’t get enough sake! Any suggestions on how to get the label off the bottle? Would like to collect them, but don’t have room for the bottles.

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    You you could make changes to the webpage name title PingMag – The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things” » Archive » Packaging design & Japanese font workshop#3: Sake Bottles! to something more suited for your content you create. I liked the blog post however.

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    You you could make changes to the webpage name title PingMag – The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things” » Archive » Packaging design & Japanese font workshop#3: Sake Bottles! to something more suited for your content you create. I liked the blog post however.

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