Thursday, December 31, 2009

End of the Year Favorites

Clocks wind through a last afternoon in 2009 and the day is golden in Tokyo.

And since it is the last day of the year I thought it might be time again for one of those ‘my favorite…’ lists. Nothing new about that idea. I like to think that while these lists are a dime a dozen, each one in its small way is interesting for its particular personal perspective. Sharing is what we all do in these blogs, and who can say they’ve never gotten at least one recommendation that turned up a winner.

I did the same kind of thing earlier in the month with a post called Rainy Day Favorites. I want to continue the idea of that earlier list in that today’s is not really a list of ‘the best’ but more like some things I enjoyed reading, seeing, using or listening to throughout 2009. Again, these are things that have brightened a cloudy day, encouraged some needed reflection, or just plain ol’ made things easier or more fun. Things that perhaps make our lives and experiences a little bit richer.

Favorite Book of 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, published in 2001 by Picador. I am not a big fan of the comics, but this story of two superhero comic writers in the 1940s and 50s is nothing short of dazzling. This is a book about the birth of the comic book superhero, and a good part of it is based on actual writers and their comic book creations. A memorable book, and the day I stumbled upon a signed copy was Christmas in July.

Short Stories

Two of the stories I read this year were especially memorable and I want to recommend both here. The older of the two is from that master of murder most bizarre, Patricia Highsmith. One of the many stories in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith is a little gem called, “Slowly, Slowly in the Wind” and is another of her nasty tales of murder in polite society. Highsmith was a clever vixen.

Another of my favorite stories this year was the oldie from southern writer Lee Smith, “Tongues of Fire.” No murder in this one, but lots of laughter over a young girl in training to be a proper southern lady, and who is taken to a hell fire holy rollin’ country church where she gets ‘the call.’ Pick this one up and be prepared to laugh.


Two waka from Tawara Machi’s 1987 collection, Salad Anniversary

—Typical scene at rush hour—

Pausing to vomit

a day of work-weariness

and load another

the Yamanote Rail Line

circles through murky twilight.

—Aftermath at a rock concert—

Cords and cables

flopped across the stage.

As though they’d melted

a score sheet

and let it drop


Burn After Reading

If Brad Pitt ever deserved an acting award it should be for this.

Love in the Time of Cholera

A lush and gorgeous film treatment of the wonderful book by Gabriel García Márquez.


Once again I’ve picked a soundtrack, this one from the 2006 movie, A Good Year.

This is music I play at least once a month, loving the mix of old and new. It has Harry Nilsson, Josephine Baker, Patti Page and Tino Rossi—What more could I want?

Fountain Pens

Most of the time I prefer to use a pen that has a traditional shape and design, but I discovered this year that there is one new design that I like very much.

Traditional: Pelikan Souverän 1000

New: Lamy Safari


I am showing basic colors here because we can’t always write with even beautiful violet or orange inks.

Black: Sailor Kiwaguro

Blue: Waterman Florida Blue

Red: De Atramentis Dornfelder (wine)

Green: Sailor Green Tea, custom mix

(Samples are in the above photo)


Life Premium and Life Noble Note Plain, both with unlined cream colored pages—perennial favorites

Favorite Device


Two Blogs I Enjoy

BibliOdyssey (Books, Illustrations, Science, History, Visual Materia Obscura, Eclectic Bookart)

Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (a.k.a. The Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at a City in the Process of Going Extinct)

2009 has been for me a year of discovery in the sense of my introduction to a great many blogs, and the wealth of information they offer, friendly and free. Part two came with starting my own blog, and that too has been an eye-opener. It’s been a trip!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Once Upon a Time in New York

New York City has always been in my mind the center of the world. Scrabbling about in old memories, I get the feeling that my fascination with the city began when I was about fifteen. I can distinctly remember as a high school student telling others I was going to live there one day. Well, that dream was eventually fulfilled and I spent a spectacular eleven years living in Manhattan, most of them downtown on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. Though I chose to attend university elsewhere, I still believe that my real education came with my years in New York.

I used to knock around with a guy in New York who loved walking the streets and discovering small bits of the city’s history. There must be a dozen or more places in New York’s five boroughs I would never have stumbled upon had I not been led there by my old friend, Norman. I expect it was he who instilled in me an interest in the history of New York.

In November of this year Doubleday released a new book by Edward Rutherfurd called simply, New York. Rutherfurd is known for his other books of historical fiction centering on European cities and sites, but as a longtime resident of New York, apparently he thought it was time to pay homage to his adopted city. He has done that in an 860 page epic of the city’s history between the years 1664 and 2009, which alternately fascinates, captures and disappoints the reader. At least that was my experience as a big fan of his other books, and true enthusiast for New York stories. It is a great read, but may let you down in some ways, and in some parts of its author-manipulated timeline.

To his credit, Rutherfurd offers a good cross section of New York’s melting pot, though he slights some ethnic groups in favor of others. There is a good long section about the early Dutch, and of course lots about the English. Those characters are full-bodied and carefully developed. But the same cannot be said of the Indians who first inhabited the area. There is expectation that later generations of Pale Feather’s line will be expanded, but Rutherfurd opts instead to replace children and grandchildren with the pointless trail of a passed on wampum belt made for Pale Feather’s Dutch father. I also hoped the Black character of Quash and his descendants would be followed a little differently, or at least more fully.

The city’s history is unraveled for the most part in fascinating chapters, but here too, one gets the feeling that some actions and events are weighted too heavily, leaving little room for other spikes on the historical map. The largest sections of the book deal with the city’s place in two major conflicts, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The earlier pages are the books best, but once Rutherfurd brings the city and his characters to post Civil War history, the story becomes watery. Elevated tram lines aside, it was surprising that something as big and iconic as the building of the New York subway system would be ignored. Apart from an excellent section on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1910, pages devoted to the early twentieth century seem hurried, and by mid-century the descriptions too often bear resemblance to a guidebook stroll down Fifth Avenue.

As you might expect, the story takes us through the nightmare of 9/11, with four of the book’s characters headed downtown to the World Trade Center on that historical morning. But by this point the story is near its end, and the pages between 2001 and 2009 are fast and few.

I hope that my partially negative impressions don’t turn you away from reading this book. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s long, and it’s not perfect, but it is a good read worth the time and price.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

“Oh…really? Okay.”

What is it about a fountain pen? From a practical standpoint, most people wouldn’t even consider replacing the convenient, lightweight, inexpensive and generally dependable ballpoint stuck in their pocket or bag, with something you have to fill from a bottle. In offering a fountain pen to jot down a number or make a note of something, many times I get the impression the other person hardly knows which end to point toward the paper, as if they might ask, “What is this thing?”

Well, of course almost everybody is going to know what a fountain pen is, but it gets sticky when you come to the how and why, and even after lovingly explaining the answer to both, you still get a look that says, “Oh…really? Okay.” Then it becomes clear that a lot of people just don’t care so much about all that. All those things that some of us dislike about a cheap ballpoint and love about a well-crafted fountain pen don’t register with most.

So what is it about a fountain pen that drives some of us to buy them, collect them, rhapsodize about them, and rarely write with anything else? I can only answer that question as it applies to myself, since another enthusiast might have a different set of reasons to explain their interest. First off, speed and convenience don’t come into the picture for me. All those ‘attractive’ points listed above are not the deciding factors for some of us. Naturally, I don’t want to pay an exorbitant price and I want a dependable pen, but more than anything else I want a fine crafted pen that leaves a noticeable impression on paper, and feels good in my hand.

To my mind, how the words flow onto the paper is of paramount importance when using a fountain pen. Words spinning out with the smoothness of oiled glass bring to me a joy in writing, and I feel almost as though the pen is singing to the paper and to me as well. Never had that feeling or sensation when using a ballpoint pen. How the finished words look on the page is also a concern, and even with small imperfections that sometimes come with using ‘live’ ink, the result is inevitably better than anything scratched out by a throwaway ballpoint. Look and feel are at the heart of the matter.

Complaints abound that using a fountain pen is messy with both hands and paper. That’s very true if you don’t take precautions. When I first began using a fountain pen regularly I had ink stained fingers and hands five days out of the week. I also found myself rewriting pages because I either smeared or spilled the ink. Easy to understand that for many that’s an old fashioned problem and not something to be endured today. But if you’re in a hurry and don’t exercise a little patience that’s going to happen sometimes. Experience will show that those smears, spills and ink stained fingers will gradually become rare accidents. A fountain pen that leaves ink smudges on your fingers can be adjusted; it wasn’t crafted without consideration of that problem.

In the end, using and collecting fountain pens has for me a connection with the past. I like, enjoy and relish the antiquarian feel and look of fountain pens. I have few examples of what I call pens in a modern design, and that is specifically because I prefer those with a traditional or vintage look. One old Pelikan pen I sometimes use leads me to imagine what its history might be, what places or documents it might have seen, the pockets or desks it might have slept in. Like I say, for me fountain pens are a connection to the past. A bit romantic perhaps, but what harm is a little fanciful embellishment?

Monday, December 28, 2009

More From the Pages of Whatever

I have a very scratchy pet peeve. Unfortunately, being powerless to make it go away brings neither resignation nor consolation. Fact of life in the present digital age, this gripe of mine isn’t going to go away. Like it or lump it, as the old adage goes.

Cell phones today are as common as traffic jams, and to my way of thinking just as likely to annoy. Everyone everywhere has a cell phone, and my guess is, half of those phones are in use for several hours of every day. The impression is that most people here in Japan spend much more time texting, or browsing websites than they do talking on their phones. Well then, is that so annoying? Let me paint a picture…

You’re walking on a sidewalk in a busy part of town at a time when crowds are likely to be the norm. Not much room between you and others in the flow of people on all sides. It’s pretty much a stop-start-sidestep-backstep bump and halt kind of progress while you do your best not to bang into or step on the person in front of you. But hey, that’s okay—it’s a part of life in the big city.

Enter the cell phone. Suddenly you have every other pair of eyes on the sidewalk glued to the screen of a cell phone six inches from the nose and no one is watching where they’re walking, no one is aware of life beyond the small virtual world before their locked down eyes, no one hears, acknowledges or reacts to anything, but moves in a zombie pace through the crowd, oblivious to the reality around them. A person could drop dead at their feet and the phone-zombie would pass on totally unaware. And don’t look for an apology when someone walks straight into you. You are invisible.

Drives me bananas, but like I say, it isn't going to go away anytime soon. Cell phones are the very infrastructure of life in Japan and it’s hard to imagine how people could maintain their social existence and identity without them.

Public space has become a place where physically present individuals interact with other individuals in remote places. On several occasions I’ve sat in restaurants near couples at another table who passed the time texting and talking on cell phones, as if unaware they had come with the person opposite. Why bother to meet? My guess is, instead of meeting face to face, they might be more comfortable talking to, or texting each other on the phone.

People are fast losing the skills of face to face communication, not only with the people around them, but equally with the physical environment they are passing through. It’s no longer unusual to see people in museums, galleries, movies and parks busy with the buttons on a cell phone, completely unseeing of anything connected to their real and present environment.

But let me end this rant with my favorite cell phone story. Not too long ago while walking down the street, I happened to look up and notice a woman passing on her bicycle, a little girl of about three in the baby seat behind her. Since it is a daily sight here, I thought little of the fact that the woman was steering with one hand and working her cell phone with the other—eyes down, of course. But just at that moment she drove her bicycle head on into a utility pole at the side of the street. Everything went flying! Mother to one side, child to the other and bicycle upended, all in a heap at the foot of the pole. Before anyone could come to their aid, the woman was up, dusting off the wailing child, righting her slightly bent bicycle and pedaling off with the crying baby reseated and the cell phone once more active in her right hand, headed I guess for the next light pole up the street.

Photo credit: Taken from the cover of the 1995 Simon & Schuster book Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Pelikan Experience

Long before discovering Pelikan, Montblanc was the fountain pen in my pocket. At the time, it was nothing more than a serviceable tool for putting words to paper on occasion. The pen was a Meisterstuck 146 and went through two nib changes before I could even say I liked it a little. Nothing like enthusiasm, and certainly no passion surrounded the pen, or my use of it. I saw it simply as an okay kind of fountain pen that had cost too much money. Well, about Montblanc and that old Meisterstuck 146 my opinion has done an about face, but that’s another story.

After a few years of using the Montblanc, a friend led me to a small pen shop in Tokyo and urged me to try a Pelikan Souverän. I mark that as the day my eyes were first opened to the beauty and craft of fountain pens. I experienced then the particular Pelikan joy of written words generated by a well-made fountain pen. That day I bought my first Pelikan, a Souverän 600. I have never wavered in my enchantment with Pelikan, and since that first Souverän have added another five Pelikan fountain pens to my treasure box of pens.

I like all of my Pelikans, but view one of them as the jewel in the crown. A year ago I bought a vintage Pelikan 100N from a dealer in Budapest, Hungary. The pen came to me in excellent condition, and from the first day became a special member of my collection.

The Pelikan 100N (N for ‘neu’ or ‘new’) was a modification of the 100, and was first produced in 1938. Some say that the 100 and 100N marked the beginning of Pelikan’s distinctive styling. The company produced the pen in a number of different versions, or models. For example, the export model was slightly different from that produced for domestic use. It was during Germany’s war years, and that fact determined things like available materials. During those years, the pens were all made with nickel or steel nibs and pocket clips.

My own 100N was manufactured in the years immediately after WWII, between 1947 and 1951. The barrel of the pen is marbled gray celluloid with a bottle green ink window (a post war feature). The cap is black with a 14 carat gold plated pocket clip and single band—both with a fluted design. The nib is 14 carat and the size is M. The logo on the top of the cap shows the traditional Pelikan design, with two chicks in the nest, and is white-filled engraving. Around the top of the cap (not seen in the photos) is ‘Pelikan PATENT’ also in white-filled engraving.

The pen measures 12.3 centimeters (5.24 inches) and 15.5 centimeters (6.1 inches) posted.

I have written in an earlier post (Rainy Day Favorites) a brief description of the 100N’s quality of writing. I will repeat that brief description here: The 100N makes a sound that I like very much as it moves across the paper. Other Pelikan pens have nibs that flow across the page without a murmur, but for some reason (related to age?), the 100N whispers to the paper in a soft susurrus as the words unfold. Ears as well as eyes bear witness to the pen’s writing.

This is one that I expect won’t allow my enthusiasm for fountain pens to wane.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Fairy Tale Ink

Poking aimlessly around my ink shelves, no real purpose in mind, I came upon an old bottle of De Atramentis Hans Christian Andersen ink. “Oh, great color… excellent ink!” I thought. At the time I wasn’t thinking about what I might put in this blog, but the Hans Christian Andersen gave me an idea. This is an ink I have long enjoyed using, one I have given as a birthday gift on a couple of occasions, and something I have recommended many times. So, it occurred to me that a review of this old ‘fairy tale ink’ might make an interesting topic for some.

Now, several hours later I find myself in the unexpected position of having to write with reservation about an ink I never doubted before today. Saying that, let me be quick to add that I blame the paper and the fountain pen chosen for this testing and review. I still have a good opinion of this De Atramentis ink, but unfortunately there is neither the time nor space to justify that opinion with different samples.

I started out using a Sailor Profit (Naginata) fountain pen with a medium 21k gold nib on a creamy high quality paper taken from an old unfilled journal. What paper? Thick, expensive, smooth and Japanese is about all I can tell you. But the point is, the Hans Christian Andersen ink worked very well on this paper, with this pen. Hopefully, the upper photo will give you a good look at both the ink’s unusual color and strong performance. At that point in my test I was optimistic that my remarks would all be positive.

Next, I printed out an ink review form on plain, inexpensive white copy paper. In less than a minute I found myself in trouble with both paper and fountain pen, not to mention ink. The first page I wrote out was an ugly mess. The De Atramentis ink clearly didn’t like that paper, and was doing everything possible to tell me so. In a nutshell, every aspect we like to examine was off. There was a lot of feathering and bleed through, and very poor shading and saturation. Honestly, nothing about it was beyond what anyone would call a poor performance.

I tossed that cheap copy paper and put the Sailor pen to bed. Next, I tried it with a Montblanc Meisterstuck 146 that has a fine 14k gold nib. The new paper was also white copy paper, but a much more expensive grade and weight. The results of that test are shown in the second photograph, however please discount the color in this scan. It is nothing at all like the true shade of blue-green you can see in the top photo. I think the scanning killed the beautiful and special quality of the Hans Christian Andersen color. (The top photo is not scanned.)

Despite the less than praiseworthy comments I have made about the ink on the review form, and despite the problems I had with the ink today, I continue to like this ink and still consider it a worthy member of the De Atramentis family of writer-named inks. If you choose a fountain pen and paper that are agreeable to the ink, I can promise you will enjoy using it, and will especially enjoy the distinctive shade of blue green.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Enjoy a Special Day!

I heard the bells on Christmas Day;

their old familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

the word repeat

of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Hope that everyone enjoys a special kind of day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Joy of Christmas…and Cross-Dressing

Today I am taking you away from the wonderful world of pens & ink and into the weird and wacky outer-world of modern Japanese culture. Let’s say that today’s post fits into the category of “Whatever.”

Sipping a cup of coffee and casually reading the morning paper on this Christmas Eve, I came upon something that I’d like to say surprised me, but in all honesty didn’t. It was an article about a phenomenon that has been gradually showing its face in the modern lifestyles of Japanese people and society. I have been here a while and am probably a little hardened (read: jaded, unimpressed and hard to shock), but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy some of the outrageous trends I come head to head with in my Japan odyssey.

Here’s one that I guarantee you will enjoy. In lieu of pens & ink, call it my Christmas Eve present to the Scriblets faithful.

Follow this link to a world you never knew about.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stationery Hobby Box

Shumi no bungu bako is a magazine published three times a year in Japan by Ei Publishing. Because of its superior quality, it could easily be called the Rolls Royce of publications for pen and ink enthusiasts, and in fact for all those with interest in anything related to stationery. Its thick, high-gloss pages with sumptuous photographs and intelligent writing cover topics from all corners of the stationery world. Chief Editor, Shigeki Shimizu, leaves little out in informing readers of what’s available in the market, though usually at a price. Which is to say, what you find in the pages of Stationery Hobby Box (my clumsy translation of the magazine’s Japanese title) is not inexpensive pens, ink and notebooks. It is a long way from being a catalog of goods you would find at Staples or Office Depot. Advertiser names in the magazine read like an international ‘A’ list of pen, ink and paper manufacturers.
Rather than long articles on a specific topic, most of Stationery Hobby Box is devoted to introducing design and innovation, and reinforcing the continuance of traditional and vintage designs, with short descriptive passages beside the numerous photographs. However, special features are always included, such as those in the Volume 15 edition on father and son nib masters, Nobuyoshi and Yukio Nagahara and the comprehensive look at blue inks on a wide variety of paper.
My only problem with this magazine is that I’ve yet to let a new edition pass without ordering something, without spending more money to support my own hobby box of pens, inks and paper.

Shumi no bungu bako
Published three times a year by Ei Publishing Co., Ltd.
2-13-2 Tamagawa Dai, Setagaya-ku
Tokyo, 158-0096 Japan
Chief Editor: Shigeki Shimizu
Price: ¥1500 (approximately US $16.00)
Available at better bookstores throughout Japan

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Joyce Sutphen

Today began with great news that a new book of Joyce Sutphen poems will be released in January 2010. With that bright promise on the horizon, I checked the Red Dragonfly Press website and found a signed edition of the new collection, First Words available for pre-ordering. Wasted no time placing my order.
Joyce Sutphen is an American poet from the state of Minnesota, where she lives and teaches today. She grew up on a small farm, and reading her poetry one can see a style that has evolved from, and is nourished by the farmlands of Minnesota. Many of the poems describe lonely landscapes and sparsely populated locations. It is visual poetry, very imagistic, with lines like snapshots or moving pictures. About her own writing and how it happens, she had this to say in one interview:
“Two reasons keep me coming to the empty page: the desire to make a place for the glinting shard, the divine detail, and the hope that this caressing, this pressing against the visible will reveal the invisible. In the end, it isn’t hard: when I sit down to write a poem, one thing just leads to another.”
She currently has four books in print: Straight Out of View (1995), Coming Back to the Body (2000), Naming the Stars: Poems (2004) and Fourteen Sonnets (2005).

One of my favorite Joyce Sutphen poems is the very quiet, particularly visual poem, “Things I Know” which speaks of the poet’s connectivity to everything in her world.

I know how the cow’s head turns
to gaze at the child in the hay aisle;
I know the way the straw shines
under the one bare light in the barn.
How a chicken pecks gravel into silt
and how the warm egg rests beneath
the feathers—I know that too, and
what to say, watching the rain slide
in silver chains over the machine
shed’s roof. I know how one pail
of water calls to another and how
it sloshes and spills when I walk
from the milk-house to the barn.
I know how the barn fills and
then empties, how I scatter lime
on the walk, how I sweep it up.
In the silo, I know the rung under
my foot; on the tractor, I know
the clutch and the throttle; I slip
through the fence and into the woods,
where I know everything: trunk
by branch by leaf into sky.

Monday, December 21, 2009

From the Hearth

At this cold time of year, I often remember countryside visits with good friends in their 200 year old farmhouse situated among fields and mountains in a little village two hours west of Tokyo. One of my first visits to tiny Hakushu in Yamanashi Prefecture was at year end, a season that can be bitter cold, with both snow and ice. I remember the snow dusted rice paddies and icy streams of crystal clean water trickling past frozen banks, the snow-topped mountains near enough to reach in thirty minutes of walking. Remember too the rosy cheeks of children playing in front of a neighbor's house, and at the mountain shrine, the milky white warmth of amazake, a sweet drink made from fermented rice.

I have passed many enjoyable hours and days in all seasons with those friends, but the times I remember best are the cold, cold winter days, when we sat for long hours in the toasty warmth of the irori, the sunken hearth with its heap of glowing embers under a wire grill beneath our feet. Those were the days before centralized heating was heard of, especially in the old farmhouses, and those areas away from the hearth were freezing cold despite being indoors. For that reason, the irori was always the focal point of home life.

Many times in those days, I either watched or helped when a fresh shovel load of hot coals was brought to replenish the dwindling heat in the hearth. There remains a snapshot in my mind of those glowing embers, the hot red of burning wood blocks.

Sailor Jentle Ink has recently come out with a new shade of red they call IRORI. And in fact, the color bears some resemblance to the hot coals described above in the sunken hearth of that old farmhouse. Though it is a red ink, there is definitely some orange in it, and when I first used the ink, my initial thought was of that old methiolate or Mercurochrome that we used to put on scrapes when I was a kid. It has that orangish hint, though I would never call it a red-orange ink. A note on the photo above—The fault is with my poor photography, and the actual ink is not so orange as it appears in the photo. I would have to say that Sailor chose a fitting name for this ink. Be poetic and call it “Hearth Glow Red.”

I’m impressed by how consistently smooth this ink is on different kinds of paper. No Moleskine, Clairefontaine or Rhodia, but two kinds of high quality Japanese paper, a page in a cheap Muji notebook, and a trial on ordinary white copy paper; the Irori ink wrote evenly and smoothly on all four. Saturation is very good with this red, and shading to any degree is pretty much absent. I used a Sailor Professional Gear fountain pen with a 14 carat M nib. This is a wet nib with almost all inks, so the flow onto the page was smooth and generous, but without any feathering or bleed through. Drying time is not especially slow, but then neither is it very fast. You can pretty much count on dry ink after fifteen seconds. One thing you can say about this ink is, it’s bold and eye-catching and will definitely be noticed, maybe even with a compliment on your choice of ink.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

LO or RO, The Real Thing

In 1911, Kyugoro Sakata founded The Sailor Pen Company in Hiroshima, Japan. The engineering skills of Mr Sakata guided him and his company, and over the years the quality of Sailor fountain pens grew, as did the company’s reputation. In 1947 a fourteen year-old boy went to work at the Sailor factory in Hiroshima. Sixty-two years later he continues to work there, and now has a worldwide reputation as one of the finest fountain pen nib designers anywhere in the world. His name is Nobuyoshi Nagahara and in Japan he is known as the “God of Fountain Pens.”

One of the most desirable fountain pen nibs today is the Naginata Togi, designed for Sailor by Mr Nagahara. Like its namesake, the Japanese halberd, or long handled sword, the Naginata nib is long, measuring almost 2.5 centimeters in length. It is 21 carat gold, which naturally enhances the writing quality. At a pen clinic a few years back, I asked Mr Nagahara why one of my Sailor 1911 pens was not writing to my satisfaction, and he pointed out that since the nib was 14 carat, it wasn’t going to write as well as a Naginata with its 21 carat nib.

Sailor released a new fountain pen in 2007 called the Realo (ree-ah-ro) to commemorate its 95th year of making quality fountain pens. The name is at first a little strange, but I understand it comes from a combination of ‘reliance + and + locus.’ Thus, the name RE-A-LO. Of course the English ‘L’ is a difficult sound for the Japanese, and so the reading of the name became ‘ree-ah-ro.’

The Realo is the first Sailor pen to have a piston filler, and one with a large 1.5 millimeter capacity. It also has another feature new to Sailor, an ink window (clear band around the lower part of the barrel) to show when the pen is getting low on ink. The pen weighs 35 grams, is 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) long capped, and 15.5 cm (6.1 in) posted. The body of the pen is made of black acrylic resin, with 24 carat gold plate on the clip and the band. It is a good-looking fountain pen, resembling the older Sailor 1911.

No surprise for me to learn that the Realo with its Naginata nib writes like a dream. Mine is a what I call a broad, or B nib, but the letters H-B are engraved on the side of the nib, and I believe that means, ‘hard-broad.’ The term ‘hard’ refers to the nib’s lack of flex, which some fountain pen users do not like. However, it is exactly the nib I prefer and I have nothing but praise for the feel, the flow and the line of this design.

Of the photos all are self explanatory, except for the one above. This is an autographed page in one of my older journals from a time when NAGAHARA NOBUYOSHI repaired my older Naginata pen. The 2007 release of the Sailor Realo came at the same time Mr Nagahara won the Japanese Modern Artisan Award for his ongoing contributions to fountain pen and nib design.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Gray’s Purpose

Some say that black is black is black. Considering a near cousin in similar light, one might also say that gray is gray is gray. At the risk of adding more to plenty, I am giving this space today over to another look, comparison and consideration of two gray inks: J. Herbin’s Gris Nuage and Sailor’s Jentle Ink Gray.

I should say from the beginning that this won’t be a review that encourages anyone to run out and buy gray ink. Not that I have particularly negative things to say about either of the two grays mentioned above, rather that any description offered isn’t going to alter the fact that gray—excepting perhaps slate gray—is usually an impractical color for any document where words must be read to get the full meaning. In short, gray inks are all too often hard to read.

Think for a moment of ink as serving a basic purpose similar to the choice of font in a printed document. Readability is an important characteristic no matter how you look at it, unless you are talking about decorative fonts, where legibility might be secondary. If the purpose of your ink is more toward decorative or artistic purposes, then you don’t worry as much about a squinting, stumbling reader trying to make out letters and words. I exaggerate, but without a doubt, like the choice of font in printing, visibility and sharpness play a part in words written with pen and ink.

For me then, a gray ink is most suitable for those times when I write for myself only in a mood best supported by gray ink. Terrific for putting down a somber thought in my journal. Maybe not even a somber thought, but just a descriptive accent.

The J. Herbin and Sailor inks shown on this page are both fine inks. Shading is better in the darker Sailor gray, as is the flow of ink from the pen. The Sailor is a wetter ink. I usually find myself wishing for better saturation in gray inks, but might that come from the lack of depth?

If I had to write a note to someone with only these two inks to choose from, ten out of ten times I would opt for the Sailor ink, but wish for something even darker.

I said something in these pages a while back on the subject of gray inks (The Brothers Gray), something to the effect of their having potential to heighten atmosphere. I believe therein lies the true purpose and enjoyment of gray ink. More often than not, don’t we hope for something that won’t make us work too hard at seeing the words?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lovers Beware!

Cold day. While it was a little chilly for strolling outdoors, the sky over Tokyo was blazing with sunshine, and thoughts of Inokashira Park were bobbing about in my head. I had some errands in Kichijôji, so decided to make my way there through the park. Kichijôji is a thirty minute walk from home, the last ten minutes of it inside Inokashira Park.
Though it is a part of greater Tokyo, the neighborhood of Kichijôji is situated in Musashino City in western Tokyo, and is one of the more desirable residential areas. Inokashira Park is a five minute walk south from Kichijôji Station.
The park first opened in 1918 and covers an area of 383,773 square meters (ninety-five acres) shaped around an elongated lake. In addition to the 10,000 square meters of open lawn, the park has over 11,000 tall trees of cherry, cypress and red pine. Visitors also enjoy the beauty of almost 12,000 shrubs, many of them azalea. There is a small temple situated in the park dedicated to Benzaiten, who is at times a goddess bestowing monetary fortune, and in another guise a vengeful goddess of love who fires arrows of discord at courting couples strolling through the park. Some say that lovers spending a day in Inokashira Park will soon split up.
Boating is popular on the lake year round in either the standard rowboat, or in a giant swan boat with pedal-paddles. (photo on the right) In spring when the cherry trees are in bloom Inokashira Park becomes a seething mass of people, many sitting under the trees, or browsing the dozens of ‘blanket vendors’ who spread their goods out on a blanket.
The photos here show the main entrance to the park, with steps leading down from Kichijôji; one of the broad walkways beside the lake; a narrow trail following the bank of the lake, and a small coffee house-snack bar nestled under the tall trees.
As metropolitan parks go, Inokashira Park is a splendid example.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Kanda’s Winter Face

Took a walk along the Kanda River today. In warmer months I enjoy a few hours each week strolling the pathway over the distance between Inokashira Park and Hamadayama. I was curious this time to see how much the face of things had changed as we move deeper into winter. The Kanda is not a large river, and in the section I’m most familiar with, is not wide nor deep enough for even a small boat. The river runs for a little over twenty-six kilometers through Tokyo and is locked into tall concrete walls along either bank. But despite its small size and those concrete walls it is well-endowed with trees, flowers and wildlife. Most visible are the giant carp and the ducks. Birds are plentiful, and on more than one occasion I’ve spotted snakes swimming leisurely downriver, or slithering across my path. But the most remarkable characteristic of the Kanda riverbanks is the great number of cherry trees which for three weeks in April turn the river into a long winding cloud of pink.

At this point those trees are skeletal in their bare branches, and most of the pathside flowers well past their season. Still, there is green enough in the river and on the tiny islands built to channel the flow of water, to paint a picture of more than just dried brown, cold water and concrete walls mottled with moss and lichens.

Small bridges appear every several hundred meters, and many of those are decorated with old wrought iron panels of the local wildlife. The first photo at the top shows one of those panels with water, duck and ayame (pink iris). Growing in spots along the path at the top of the concrete walls are “Fatsi” or Japanese Aralia shrubs with their peculiar white flowers which the Japanese call yatsude (eight hands). A third photo gives an idea of how small maze-forming islands have been built into the river channel. I’m not sure if they’re meant to confuse the carp and the ducks, or to offer a scenic view for walkers to look down upon.

The last photo is an interesting composition of shadows, the one to the left of the tree really catching the man with the camera off guard.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What’s in a Biker’s Pocket?

Met a friend for lunch today, and by coincidence the restaurant we went to was not far from Kingdom Note, the pen shop mentioned in these pages a few days ago (December 12). Finding myself nearby came with good timing because I was thinking to buy a bottle of ink to give as a Christmas gift, and there is a wide selection to choose from at Kingdom Note.

I enter a pen shop with the same idea that comes with going in a bookstore, in that both are a paradise for browsing, so it was hardly likely that I would walk into Kingdom Note, ask for a bottle of ink, pay for it and then walk right out. Before even thinking about choosing and buying the gift ink, I began to make my way slowly along the glass cases filled with fountain pens, new, used and vintage. Recently I find myself drawn more to the makes, or brands of fountain pens I don’t already have in my collection. Perhaps it is my loss, but to be perfectly honest my interest is more in European pens than American, and I am not often tempted by any of the American models I see or read about. Today I spent a while looking at Waterman pens, and one in particular first caught my eye because of it’s interesting black and white checkerboard design. Looking more closely I saw the words ‘Harley-Davidson’ written in big white letters on the barrel of the pen, immediately below a bold orange stripe. Who wouldn’t be slightly thrown by the combined images of a motorcycle and a fountain pen? It was so incongruous, so bizarre that I couldn’t help loving it. The shiny tin case had the traditional Harley Davidson logo with the words, ‘Powered by Waterman’ just below it. Found myself imagining a burley whiskey voiced biker slamming his beer down on the bar, whipping out his Waterman fountain pen and scratching a phone number on the inside of a matchbook cover.

I was in luck because the pen was priced very reasonably, the medium steel nib with a feel to it that I like.

Checked later and learned that the pen was made by Waterman in 2000.

A surprise find, and a happy one.

About Me

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