Monday, November 30, 2009

Rainy Day Book Browsing

It was a good way to get out of the drizzle, hadn’t been there in a while, so I stopped today in Shibuya to browse the big English language bookstore, Tower Books. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Shibuya is a major hub in Tokyo, a crowded, noisy, bright and gaudy mecca for young people shopping or looking to have a good time. Every kind of store you can imagine, countless restaurants both cheap and expensive, and enough Starbucks to fill the street corners of Seattle. Shibuya is also home to Tower Records, a bright yellow seven story building, with the top floor devoted to books and magazines in English. The inventory of books there is not bad at all, and getting out of the store empty handed is a rare experience for me.
I wasn’t looking for any particular title today, just wandering the aisles between shelves hoping I might stumble upon something interesting. For the first ten minutes I normally have a set route checking the sections of those writers I like: Straight over to the Bukowski shelves, a few steps to the left to check John Banville, over to the right some to see if a new Chabon title has come in, a look farther down for Philip Caputo. Today I made a point of looking for a wonderful book I read recently on my Kindle, one getting a lot of attention these days, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Mainly, I was interested in whether or not Tower might have a hardback copy. It’s one of those books I would like to have a lasting copy of. I found a paperback and only one copy, which could mean it was the last copy remaining, or maybe the only copy ordered by the store.
I won’t say too much about this book here, but it is one I recommend to those readers who enjoy a story about dogs, but who also enjoy a story about communication, devotion, loyalty, sickness, love, children and three or four other themes if I stop to think. Enzo is the narrator, a dog whose great regret is that he doesn’t have opposable thumbs, or a tongue that can manage speech. I’ve yet to hear a person say they didn’t love this book. Look this one up the next time you’re in Barnes & Noble or one of the other stores.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Ink

I have a friend who spends what is probably hours each week preparing beautifully written cards and notes for friends, family and acquaintances. I’ve never heard her describe her enthusiasm as a hobby, but by whatever name, her output is impressive and she never misses an occasion, nor ignores a season when she can pull out her stacks of different cards and notepaper, her pens and her postage stamps. I look forward to these cards and notes, knowing that a change of season, a birthday or holiday will surely bring to my mailbox a splendid match up of card, colors, ink and words, topped off with the latest stamp from the US Postal Service.

Custom and sentiment have played a big part in assigning certain colors to certain occasions and holidays, so that most of us have ideas or expectations about what color goes with what holiday. Many ignore the customary designs and colors, and create their own personal expression of what they feel the occasion or holiday expresses through their eyes. But the majority of us fall back upon the traditional and apply what the custom, or card companies suggest. I am going to pair up two inks here that I feel work well as the color traditionals of Christmas — red & green.

The green is a special season ink from Montblanc called White Forest, and is pine scented.

The red is another seasonal ink from the same maker called Seasons Greetings, this one vanilla scented.

Both inks are rich, smoothly flowing inks, easy to write with. Unfortunately, the inks do not leave the pine or vanilla scent on the paper, but the scents are very noticeable when writing. Hard to go wrong with the vanilla, and in this ink it has a delicious aroma. I’m a little hesitant in calling the White Forest pine scent an equal to the vanilla. I can’t help thinking that the pine scent is just a little too close to bathroom spray.

Both inks were bought at the Montblanc Boutique located inside Seibu Department Store in Tokyo.

I have included a snapshot of the two fountain pens used to write the sample sentences from The Night Before Christmas. The pen at the top (with green) is a Bexley Limited Edition, No. 9 of 29 in the 2008 Tea Time series. The pen has a B sized nib and was crafted by John Mottishaw at Classic Fountain Pens. The bottom pen (red) is a Sailor Naginata with an M nib, this one by Nobuyoshi Nagahara, mentioned in an earlier post.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Noodler’s Rattler Red

Noodler’s Ink seems to enjoy favor among many pen and ink enthusiasts in the US. A large number of blogs, as well as posts on the Fountain Pen Network offer reviews, comments or opinions about this American made ink. True, not all reviews and comments are one hundred percent complimentary, but enough of them are to make this one of the more popular inks among American enthusiasts. Some might jump on this statement as not completely accurate, but I can only base my assumptions on what I read, which admittedly is a moderate amount considering the number of pen and ink blogs out there.
My personal experience with Noodler’s has been limited to only two colors: Cayenne and Rattler Red, the red being the subject of this review. Tokyo is a very big city, one with a good number of pen shops, large stationery stores, and other stores that specialize in ink. Despite that, I have found Noodler’s Ink in only one store in metropolitan Tokyo, Shosaikan in the Aoyama district. I first bought a bottle of the Cayenne, but didn’t get much chance to use the ink, because for reasons unknown, the ink became corrupted within two or three weeks of sitting on my ink shelves. The original gorgeous dark and spicy orange turned to a horrible gray orange. My next try was one from the American Eel series, Rattler Red. For those unfamiliar with American Eel, it is a lubricating ink that Noodler’s began producing in 2005. I was especially taken with the color, which impressed me as an unusual red in a world where red inks are if nothing else, bountiful. Not counting the Noodler’s, I have thirteen other red inks on the shelves behind me, so a striking or unusual red will catch my eye. And that was the case with the Rattler Red.

It has not proven itself to be a completely satisfactory ink in my experience. The flow is not what I like, and the richness does not hold from the start of a line to the end. It also has a long drying time, a problem if you don’t like smears. I have filled out a review form and put it here, and overall my comments are not altogether favorable. It’s a pretty color, but…

Turning away from ink and Noodler’s for a few lines, I got something from an old friend in my hometown today, an article announcing the closing after 76 years of a somewhat famous stationery store downtown. Wonderful article, I thought, and so decided to tack it on to today’s post. Like me, I believe many others will have some understanding of what the writer is saying.

Store stood for a long tradition

Every Monday, members of the Press Club of Baton Rouge gather at a downtown meeting hall to hear some newsmaker discuss affairs of the day. But two doors down, at Latil Stationery Co., a quieter piece of news has slowly been unfolding: After 76 years, the store that loyal customers know as Latil’s is closing on Dec. 31.

That might not seem like big news in the scheme of things; every day, across the world, businesses close their doors. But Latil’s exit also seems to diminish, by one more degree, the older and more genteel form of expression that its pens and paper came to represent.

I first came to know Latil’s as a young reporter, when my newspaper office was a few blocks over from Latil’s longtime Third Street location. For much of the day, hunched over a newsroom keyboard, I filed stories for a daily audience of readers. But during occasional lunch hours at Latil’s, I’d find what I needed for more intimate writing — the blank journal for the odd thought, a box of stationery for handwritten letters, a nice, new pen to scribble what I wished.

The journals I bought at Latil’s and filled each year now rest on a shelf, and no lock is needed to protect the private musings inside. My handwriting is so bad that no one else could fathom the passages, anyway.

Some of what I scrawled ended up as essays or stories for newspapers, magazines, or a book. But in crossing from the personal to the public, I was always aware of a line being crossed, and the boundary was easy to see. The division between my public writing life and my private writing life was as clear as the blocks that separated my office from the stationery shop.

But in typing those three words just now, “private writing life,” I’m reminded of just how quaint the concept has become. When my teenage daughter reveals what’s on her mind, it’s not in a letter or a diary, but on a Facebook page intended for multiple readers.

And in this age of blogs and Twitter, what might have once gone into a personal journal is typically a post for the world to see.

Everyone in our family, uses e-mail, of course, and I couldn’t think of doing without it. But e-mails, even those exchanged between close friends, don’t have the same aura of intimacy as a handwritten note; that “forward” button on the computer encourages disclosure, not discretion. A handwritten note can be passed around too, but postal mail carries a strong tradition of restraint, a powerful promise of secrecy.

Yet in an age when people sell their private lives to reality shows, and the Internet routinely makes publicity from the personal, whether anyone really wants secrecy anymore is an open question.

What I’m trying to describe, I suppose, is a code of conduct, a tradition, that has always made a box of stationery or a journal a little bit more than a piece of merchandise on a shelf.

Latil’s was a part of that tradition, and I’m sorry to see it go.

From The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana • November 27

by Advocate staff writer Danny Heitman

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fractured Delights

“Hi, Egg.”
As odd as it sounds, this is a “greeting” (or something) I read on the side panels of a delivery truck driving past on the street. No hints or suggestion that might explain the meaning or purpose, no company name or other identification.
This ‘Hi, Egg’ is only one of several examples seen in the past month or two. Japan is, as far as English goes, a veritable garden of fractured delights, and there are times you wonder if the writer, or speaker didn’t just toss a handful of English words up in the air and let them free-fall into ‘English’ expressions.
Perhaps an unkind thing to say, but many Japanese — and this includes those whose work to some extent involves English — struggle with the language in dozens of situations. There is the impression that many are still wrestling with the basics of lesson one, page one. But their fondness for the look of English has for years prompted the Japanese to use English as others might use Zapf Dingbats, or the decorative Wingdings. It’s all for the look of the English words and attention to meaning comes last, if at all. Often a person will wear a jacket with nutty English across the back, and never once take the time to read or examine the words.
And so you have cosmetic companies advertising make up that leads to ‘beautiful human life’ as if cows too used lipstick. Tennis schools put up subway posters calling out, “Let’s tennis!” Some other interesting combinations still fresh in memory are: vicious tumors (malignant), danger water (poison) and lamp hat (lampshade). But for all that, none can hold a candle to the restaurant I went to last year, a restaurant that had taken the trouble to prepare a translation into English of each menu item. When the waiter wasn’t looking I slipped one of the menus into my bag. Take a look at the offerings on that menu (above) and imagine the dishes as described.
However, let us not point all our fingers at Japan. Below is an advertisement for an old age home I came across during a week on the Greek island of Santorini.

‘Since 40 year a home of love has been open in

Santorini. It is the home for elderly people “Agios

Euthnios.” Because we had the opportunity to know

closely the beautiful establishment of love, we have

thought that it worth to be known largely owing to the

inmate but also to the other inhabitants, i.e. at the time of the earthquake.’


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sealed & Stamped

Like China, Japan has traditionally used seals in place of signatures, and while the latter has become acceptable for most foreign residents, the average Japanese person authorizes all documents, letters and forms with a personal inkan, or seal. Just as we are ready to grab up a pen and dash off a signature, the Japanese will just as quickly pull out a personal seal and apply it to the paper in question. In most cases, the impressions left by common seals made for daily use are not unusual or eye-catching characters or ideograms. But go to an art gallery featuring the work of Japanese (or Chinese) artists and you will see a wonderful assortment of very different and unusual seals, many of them extremely difficult to read correctly.

Japanese seals have always been something that fascinated me, and along with the brush writing, played some small part at least in attracting me to the country. I wanted to learn how to write these beautiful characters, wanted to understand their mystery. I had not been here very long before I searched out a place to have my own seal carved. Of course, it required some time of looking for characters that would produce a phonetic reading of my un-Japanese name, and long talks with Japanese friends about the ideograms that would add a nuance of meaning to the sound. In time, I had my own ‘Japanese’ seal, and was very happy with it.

Over the years, the characters I originally selected for my seal never changed, but I began to want more elaborate, more artistic seals, wanted to be able to apply not one but two seals to letters and cards. What you see above is about two-thirds of my collection, several of them unusual and (I like to think) rare. My two favorites are in the top row — the center one an impression of my fingerprint with the characters for my name inside, and the Japanese magnolia on the right, which has a stem tapering off in the hiragana, or cursive characters for my name. The left hand seal in the top row, which has WILLIAM on the left is the only ivory seal I have.

I expect that at the end of next month one or two of my seals will be called upon to ‘sign’ my 2010 New Year card, something I make every year. The ‘Four Roosters’ shown here is my 2005 card design. In it you can see two seals at the bottom left and bottom right. The left is my name, while the two characters on the right mean ‘January 1st.’

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Change of Pace

Lot’s of talk these days about the future of books as we know them, and whether or not technology such as electronic readers — think Kindle and the new Barnes & Noble Nook — will have a negative influence on how we read books. It’s a good question, one that no serious reader of books can ignore. It isn’t something that’s going to go away, but rather a development that requires us to re-examine our reading habits and perceptions of how the written word is presented.
As someone who has for many years loved ‘old’ things and preferred the traditional to the new, (turning my back on innovation) I’ve offered up a quick no thanks to the thrill of new inventions more than a few times. It is true that I practically had to be strong-armed into finally getting a cell phone (even now I’m not crazy about my iPhone). So imagine my reaction to something like the Kindle.
One of my passions is books, real books, hardback first edition books, and if they are signed by the author, then I feel blessed. Books as we have long known them, have to my mind, an almost tactile heartbeat and warmth that invites the reader to value them as something more than the price tag implies. I love to hold a book in my hands; love the feel of it in my lap, the sound of pages turning, the smell of binding. I don’t know, but maybe a lot of that started with my part-time job at the Los Angeles Public Library years ago. I worked with people who respected books, who taught me a lot about the life of books.
So, what about the Kindle?
Never thought I would say it, but the truth is, these days I don’t like to be without my Kindle. It sure surprised me. Basically, I bought my International Wireless Kindle because I wanted something to make reading easier on trains, buses and in waiting rooms. Well, hello to Kindle! If you’re looking for ease of reading in places that violate the private nature of reading, then look no more and order yourself a Kindle. I still enjoy my ‘real’ books in the same way, with the same degree of quiet excitement, and I haven’t slowed down my purchase of those books.
Take the Amazon video tour of the Kindle. Everything they say is true; no exaggerations. It does everything they say it will, and what impresses me most is being able to see the text perfectly in bright sunlight. Yes, you can sit on the beach unshaded and read your Kindle without so much as a squint. (and without worrying about spoiling a hardback book with saltwater and sand)
Is there a downside? I’m afraid there is. The Kindle Store, which surely will deliver your book in sixty seconds as promised, has about 350,000 titles to choose from. So, what’s the rub? Well, imagine that the majority of those 350,000 titles is made up of pot boilers, bodice rippers, and thousands of others that many of us forget two days after the last page. I did a search of my own favorite writers, and most of them are not listed in the Kindle Store. I don’t want to lead others into thinking that I am looking for rare, or highbrow titles, but I do want more than Stephanie Laurens and John Grisham. I expect that many readers will be happy with the available choices in the Kindle Store, but I also expect that others will have a harder time finding the book they want to read.

And another change of pace...
Life in Japan never ceases to amaze and surprise me. You go along for a stretch of days or weeks seeing only the ordinary sights of daily life, and then you look up one morning and BANG! Is this for real? Are my eyes deceiving me?
On the bus this morning, not really paying attention to much around me I was quickly shocked from my seated slump by a baseball cap perched on the head of an elderly man, a grandfatherly type boarding the bus. Do you know the look of those cartoon-like double takes we’ve seen in Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry? That was me.
Let me warn those with a sensitivity to bad language that this is the place you want to stop reading.
The old grandfather was wearing a black baseball cap with the following words stitched in white across the front:
Kind of made me wonder if the next stop would put me down on a place called Earth.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Bevy of Browns

The season is turning in Tokyo, with evidence here and there in the natural colors around us. Leaves have almost completed their metamorphosis from brilliant summer green to the sere brown of winter, with many fallen and scattered on walks and pathways, or blowing along streets in cold susurrous whispers. The trunks of trees seem dryer now, hoarding their last stores of sap for the coming cold, and along the banks of the nearby Kanda River cattails tilt in bent postures, dried and brown.

There are still hints and remnants among the branches of autumn orange, of darkening gold and deepening hues, but to these eyes brown is daily becoming the dominant color. Could it be the reason for an infatuation with brown inks? For one not too fond of cold weather, the approach of winter is, in that sense a somber business, and may turn the head toward filling pages with warm, woody brown inks.

In an earlier post I talked a little about Iroshizuku Yama-guri, with mention of it’s brother ink, Tsukushi. This time — and partly for my own desire to see them aligned — I’ve put a splash of six different brown inks on a page. No critical, or review-like comments this time, but merely a side by side comparison of different shades. I’m going to fudge it a little by confining the browns to swatches, with the names and makers in a blackish favorite from De Atramentis, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. So, take a close look at all that brown and wrap yourself in the imagined warmth of wood, bark and thistle.

From top to bottom, left to right…

Sailor - Capricorn (special blend)

Hakase - Sepia

Iroshizuku - Tsukushi (Horsetail)

De Atramentis - William Shakespeare

De Atramentis - Ludwig van Beethoven

De Atramentis - Julius Caesar

On another note…

With regard to yesterday’s post featuring the Yama-guri ink, a question arose about my choice of the Pelikan Souverän 600 for showing off the ink. Was there a particular reason for choosing that pen? Apart from it being one of my earliest pens, with a B sized nib specially ground to my liking, I chose it because it handles all ink well, because it allows me to write without concentrating on the pen and what it’s doing. Kind of like being wrapped up in a story unaware of the mechanics. And I suppose that’s why I picked up the Pelikan 600 to show off the Iroshizuku Yama-guri.

In the southeast of Tokyo there is a tiny pen shop called, Fullhalter. The shop is owned by Nobuhiko Moriyama, who crafts fountain pens to fit the needs or idiosyncrasies of individual customers. Mr Moriyama worked for Montblanc for many years before opening his shop and turning his focus to Pelikan. Two of my three Pelikans, and the one Pilot pen in my collection were shaped especially to my way of writing by Mr Moriyama. None of the Fullhalter pens have ever failed to delight me, filled with whatever shade or maker of ink I choose. I often regret that my Souverän 1000 is one straight from stock and unshaped by the skills of Mr Moriyama. Certainly a fine pen, but one degree less without the Moriyama touch.

The photo above is a look at Nobuhiko Moriyama (left) in his tiny pen shop, Fullhalter.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tis the Season for Pilot's Yama-guri

I am a big fan of the Pilot Iroshizuku series of inks, and often find I can’t settle on a favorite among the seventeen different colors available now. But then, why should one have to choose a favorite when such an abundance of colors allows room to fit or satisfy the mood you’re in, or the mood you want in a letter or card. Today I bought the second shade of brown in the series, the Yama-guri (Mountain Chestnut), which is darker and richer than the companion shade of Iroshizuku brown, called Tsukushi (Horsetail). I’ve scribbled some lines, made some comparisons and sort of arrived at an opinion of this Yama-guri. In the end, I could summarize this ink in only two words: “Bravo, Pilot!”

Clicking on the photo below might bring up a larger and easier to see picture of the comments about the Iroshizuku Mountain Chestnut.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Favorite Notebook

Easy to find examples of a dozen or more different notebooks, journals, sketchbooks and notepads in blogs related to paper, pen and ink, but in all those pages I’ve yet to see something showing and describing a personal favorite in the notebook-journal-sketchbook family. Maybe not easy to find outside of Japan, and even here, many stores do not carry the Life Noble Note series, a made in Japan high quality line of notebooks. The notebooks come in three sizes: A4 (8.26 x 11.69 in), B5 (6.93 x 9.85) and A5 (5.83 x 8.26), sizes common to Japan. Notebooks have 100 pages, with either blank, ruled or graphed pages. The paper is excellent and almost always allows pen or pencil to glide smoothly across the surface. I have found that different inks tend to react differently, and while many inks neither feather nor bleed through, it does happen with particular inks. I haven’t kept a detailed record of which among my 60 different inks react poorly with the Noble Note paper, so am unable to offer a list of inks to watch out for. And of course, there will be differences depending upon the fountain pen and the type of nib. Most of my pens have a medium nib, and write beautifully in these notebooks. The Life series is available online, though I cannot say positively that delivery outside of Japan is possible. The website is ninety percent Japanese, but someone might want to take a look at Rakuten.

Bad to say, but there is a downside to ordering from this website. Experience has taught me that even an inquiry will almost assure that regular and bothersome email will follow, the kind few of us like to get.

Perhaps the three images will give a fuller description of these great Life Note Note journals and notebooks.

Hopefully, you will find them available outside of Japan.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Starting Gate

First time post in this blog and I’m a little unsure of the best way to get the ball rolling. Huge number of terrific blogs just a mouse click away, and that thought is a little intimidating for greenhorn me. Jumping around different Internet sites is nothing new, but it’s only in the last two weeks that I’ve discovered the beauty of personal blogs, and realized there are people out there I can share thoughts and ideas with, and at the same time create a cozy little personal meeting place for like minds. Can't promise my thoughts and scribbles will always be on the same target, but there’s a good chance that either fountain pens, ink, journals, books, movies, or the occasional newly discovered shop or restaurant will find a place in these pages.

I’ll stick a picture here that could be titled “Three of my Favorite Things.” Most people might say they rarely see me without this brown, unlined Noble Note journal, and the Sailor Naginata fountain pen filled with Pilot ‘Ajisai’ blue ink from the Iroshizuku series. The pen has a 21k medium nib adjusted to my preferences by Nobuyoshi Nagahara, who many in Japan call “the god of fountain pens.” Sorry for the poor quality of the photo, but this one was taken with my iPhone, and hardly comes up to most of the photos I see in other blogs. I’m looking to get some advice on how to prepare better photos for posting. Bear with me until I work it out.

Reading a 1985 Don DeLillo book now, White Noise. Once more I find myself thinking, “How did I miss this book when it first came out?”


One of the pleasures of a Japanese autumn is the abundance of wonderfully colored and beautiful persimmons. When November has trickled by and approaches its end and December is around the next bend, turn your eyes in any direction and see the persimmons—stacked in heaps in the markets and fruit shops, hanging heavily from the branches of trees along the road, or peeking from the shopping bags of passing mothers and grandmothers. The shiny-slick orange of the fruit is so bright and eye-catching we almost have to hold one in hand to believe such color. The genus of the fruit is named by the Greek word Diospyros, meaning ‘fruit of the gods’ and who would doubt that it must be so. Buddhists have given it a symbolic connection to the idea of ‘transformation.’ For a long time I wanted an ink to match this autumn orange. Osamu Ishimaru, an ink master at Sailor Jentle Ink, finally fulfilled that wish. Visiting a pen clinic in Tokyo last autumn, I handed over a sample persimmon and asked for ink that would capture its autumn shade. Mr Ishimaru juggled several stock colors adding a dash of this, a drop of that and in thirty minutes came up with a bottle of what in the end we decided to call simply ‘persimmon.’

A sample of that ink is here, written with a Sailor Professional Gear pen with a medium nib.

About Me

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