Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Smoked Bamboo

A second look at the Sailor Susudake Naginata…
In the last few weeks of long years spent in Japan a process of winnowing began with the boxes, closets and shelves of things accumulated over time. Obvious that everything couldn’t be packed and shipped to Florida, but it was also obvious that some of those accumulations had achieved special value as tokens of memory, curious tidbits or in some cases an irreplaceable tool of daily life. There was enough to fill several boxes with hard to find objects of limited number, antique bits and pieces, each carrying an unmistakable imprint of Japan.

When it came to the packing of fountain pens, I counted nine Japanese pens, most of them Sailor. Each of the nine was treasured, used regularly and soon to be carefully wrapped and packed for shipping. But something was missing.

I found it a week later at Kingdom Note, a favorite pen shop in Shinjuku. Had someone asked before that what I was looking for, the answer would have been, “I’m not quite sure.”

The moment I saw the Sailor Susudake Naginata the answer came to me. It was a pen made by Japan’s ‘god of the fountain pen’ Nobuyoshi Nagahara, bearing the patented mark of traditional Japanese craft, smoked bamboo—a pen that would mark my time in Japan and my love of Japanese craftsmanship.

For centuries bamboo has been a common element in Japanese life, showing up in poetry, proverbs, chopsticks, body armor, sword guards as well as handles, writing brushes, and following the line of poetry and writing brushes, fountain pens. The wood is known for its strength and resilience as well as beauty, and for those reasons found its place among the objects of daily life.

But the bamboo is not merely cut and quickly fashioned into useful pieces. There is a lengthy process of smoking the bamboo over an open hearth, sometimes for years at a time. The rarest examples of susudake passed as much as a hundred years absorbing the smoke of generations. This long absorption of smoke serves to harden the bamboo even more and to add elegant coloration to the grain. The result is called susudake, or smoked-stained bamboo.

From this hard and beautifully colored bamboo, Sailor’s master nib craftsman has made what is called the Susudake Naginata. Naginata is a nib design of Mr Nagahara’s, long in body and slightly reminiscent of the old Japanese halberd or naginata. The nib is 21k gold, and as with other Sailor fountain pens is offered in a range of sizes from fine to broad. For those desiring other nib sizes, John Mottishaw at Classic Fountain Pens offers the pen with a nib in a wider range of sizes.

Before buying and using the Sailor Susudake I had had some experience with another of the Naginata pens and knew it qualities well, so risk on that account was zero. Like most of my pens, the Susudake has a medium nib with good flex. The flow of ink is smooth with never a hint of skip, always generous, never stingy. It is precisely the kind of nib and ink flow that Mr Nagahara is long famous for.

In the ultimate sense, pleasure from this fountain pen comes with its value as a kind of totem or relic of the Japan years. It has its time in the weekly pen rotation, but when not inked up and lounging on my writing desk it sits displayed on its own shelf, resting on the backs of two small silver cats.

The photograph with the sample writing was done with Iroshizuku Yama-guri ink in a Faber-Castell journal.

Interested in the earlier Susudake post? Look here.


  1. Absolutely beautiful pen. Easy to see why some folks collect them--especially this smoked-stained bamboo one. But unlike many collectables that sit forever on a shelf, these puppies beg to be filled and held and used. Nice when something so beautiful is also very serviceable. I want, I want.

  2. Very nice pen. Looks like a katana in its scabbard.

    What filling mechanism does this one have, and how much is one?

  3. The pen uses a converter. As for price, you will find a jaw-dropping number at Classic Fountain Pens—the link is above. But let me say that the price is normally less in Japan. Of course, being in Japan helps, but I suppose there are ways.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America