Monday, August 22, 2022

Nintendo Kyoto Souvenir Playing Cards (1950s)

This is a story about a beautiful set of vintage Nintendo playing cards, and dealing with a certain amount of disappointment.

In a previous post, I shared a document from the 1950s, called the Nintendo Playing Cards Report.

This document is both a company introduction and a product catalogue. It provides a comprehensive overview of all products offered by the company at the time; (mostly) playing cards, as the title suggests.

Of all the card sets shown in this document, one set in particular caught my attention: the Kyoto Souvenir Playing Cards (スーベニヤトランプ). This includes a photo of some aspect of Kyoto on each card, so over fifty different photos in total.

This set of cards intrigued me for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the cards look beautiful. Within Nintendo's product portfolio, these are some of the earliest examples of themed cards, that offer more than the standard card suits with a colourful back design. [Another early example are these Nintendo Takarazuka cards.]

Also, there is a strong link between Nintendo and the subject of Kyoto, as it is the company's hometown.

Furthermore, these cards provide a view of how Kyoto, and by extension Japan, presented itself to tourists at that time. They offer a window to that past, when tourism was still largely a domestic affair. Foreign visitors came to Japan only in small numbers, and most non-Japanese tourists in Japan consisted of US troops stationed in Japan following the occupation after Japan's defeat at the end of World War 2.

From the 1950s, the Japanese government did promote tourism to foreign nationals, as it brought in much needed foreign currency, and these cards fit that promotional effort.

Very recently, I managed to find two copies of this set. The first I ever saw, after more than twenty years of searching for vintage Nintendo items. Also the first to appear in collector circles. As you can image, this discovery made me very happy.

Even more fantastic (or so I thought initially), was the fact that they are unused, old stock. [Later it became clear that I celebrated too early, more on that at the end of this post.]

The boxes are in relatively good condition, although they are somewhat dusty. Not surprising really, given their age of around seventy years!

The front and back of the box contain nice drawings of scenes from Kyoto, as well a diamonds and clubs symbols.

On the front we recognize a geisha, the Sanjo Bridge (三條大橋), the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and the bonfire conducted yearly in August on mountain Daimonji.

On the back (I believe) we see the main gate of the Heian Shrine.

The text on cards and box are all in English, there is no Japanese script to be found at all.

A sample card is glued to the back of the box. For one of the two boxes, this card is missing. There are clear traces that a card was originally attached to that one as well, but came loose at some point.

This sample card gives a good idea what to expect for all cards in the pack: a large black and white photo, showing a landmark or scene from Kyoto. This particular one features the Tofukuji temple, one of the so-called "five great Zen temples of Kyoto" (part of the Japanese custom to create "best of" lists with three, five or seven entries).

When I found these cards, I was even more happy to have found a pair. Double the fun! Although I assume that the photos on the cards are identical for the two decks.

The colour of the Nintendo logos on the top of the boxes indicates the colour of the back design of the cards inside; red or blue.

The cards inside the packs were still sealed.

The wrapper is glued shut by two tax stamps. Until more recent times, playing cards - and other items that potentially could be used for gambling purposes, like sets of dominoes or mahjong tiles - were subject to tax in Japan. The tax was levied by means of these stamps. In this case, one tax stamp is for ¥50, and the other for ¥10, totalling ¥60 of tax.

A purple rubber stamp by the manufacturer ("Nintendo Card Co." ) marks the tax stamps as used.

Up until this point, I had been very excited about this find. I was glad about the fact that the cards were still sealed, but this also provided me with a question: should I open them, or keep them as-is.

From a value point of view, leaving the packs sealed would probably be the wisest thing to do. On the other hand, opening them would allow me to admire and document all the Kyoto photos on the cards.

After some thought, the latter consideration prevailed, and I decided to open at least one pack.

However, when I carefully removed part of the wrapper, I quickly discovered that all cards had been completely fused together. They had remained pressed together for such a long time, likely under hot and humid conditions, that the ink on all cards had made them stick together completely. The stack of individual cards had turned into one solid brick. The photo prints on the cards, that contain relatively large amounts of ink, may have contributed to this as well.

It is also good to note that these cards pre-date the 'all plastic' cards. These are made from paper, and more fragile than plastic cards.

After applying some further force to the pack, and trying to bend it, it became clear that there was a real risk of the layers of paper within the card giving way and tearing, rather than the cards coming loose. The other pack had the same problem. It was a solid brick as well.

I have already received some suggestions on how to address this situation, including placing the packs in the freezer for some time, or putting them in a 'sweat box' also used by stamp collectors when the have stamps sticking together. But I believe that these packs, unfortunately, are beyond any of these methods, and will remain fused together, forever.

Maybe some time in the future, another pack of these will surface. Hopefully used, with loose cards.

Until then, I will take another look at that one sample card, enjoy the beautiful box art, and leave it at that.

Still, suggestions on how to possibly get these cards unstuck remain very welcome. Please leave them in the comments below.


I found two more decks, this time in perfect condition! Or more accurately, they found me.

Full story here.


  1. I wonder if a place like the Beinecke rare book library at Yale may have some advice.

  2. Methods used on the Dead Sea Scrolls might be worth looking into lol

  3. Damn, beautiful photos.

  4. I'm sure there's a restoration expert who would know what to do.

  5. Asked around, and was recommended you search the American Institute for Conservation's 'Find a Conservator ' page, based on their zip code and specialty need:

    Thanks to the Strong Museum in Rochester for the recommendation.

  6. You may want to consult a paper conservation expert. Fused ink, stuck paper, crumpled, torn and damaged work is all within their perview and they use techniques available only to conservators. For a price, you might be able to walk away with an intact deck.

  7. Try contacting a museum. A art curator might be able to separate the cards using a special method.

  8. I’m hooked to this story, which I really hope has a chapter 2 in which you are able to find a restorer who lets the world admire the cards

  9. Donate a pack to the Smithsonian in exchange any work that could be done to save the first pack, be done to the other as well.

  10. University of Kentucky, Dr. Brent Seales is the guy who would know the best way to make these readable. He has been using mini CT scans to attempt to digitally unwrap scrolls turned to ash in the Vesuvius eruption. He might not be interested in a deck of old cards, but his methods would be perfect for finding out what is on them.

  11. What a treasure! I hope somebody can unwrap them to show them to the world!

  12. Please contact your local historical archives, they have specialists who know how to handle, restore and preserve vintage papers and artwork. Best of luck to you, these are such amazing artifacts.

  13. Perhaps:

  14. How much did you pay for the set

  15. Ah I'm so sorry to hear :( Please find a way on how to restore them and create a series out of it, if you need help let me know in which state you are and I might send over some recommendations! Best of luck :)

  16. I am a private collector from the USA who has this deck. It does not have the wrapper, and thus had been opened sometime in the past as the cards are in nearly mint condition. The tuck box is in excellent condition as well. I was not planning to sell the deck, but you seem to have a great passion for it. I have someone who is trying to purchase it from me now as a Nintendo memorabilia item. If you want to know more, join “Playing Card Exchange” group on Facebook and I am the Administrator of the site. Regards, David

    1. Hi David, thank you for your message, and I am very much interested, if you decide to sell. Please drop me an email to get in touch (see contact section). Thanks, Erik