Ito-ya, the One and Only (Feat. Bosco Wood Pencils)

There are tons of stationery shops in Japan, but people seem to agree on one thing: Ito-ya is still the place to go to. It is a place of pilgrimage for stationery nerds. How does it manage to stay on top? Real estate seems to be part of the answer: the sight of the red clip wedged in between jewelers and fashion labels on one of the most expensive streets in the world seems to signal that stationery is to be taken seriously and that Ito-ya is its ambassador. I don’t know if Ito-ya actually outsells everybody else in the business, but it is definitely influential, and an industry leader. In this sense it was interesting to see how it changed. The store underwent a thorough renovation several years ago, and emerged after it a quite different kind of store.

Ito-ya used to be one of those stationers that tried to carry everything. Its Ginza store was no exception, and every square foot was overtaken by display shelves and carts, heaving with merchandise. But with the advent of online competitors, its goal now is to be “a shop where you can experience new things,” as opposed to a store that just sells stuff. (Here is a brief message from the CEO of Ito-ya outlining its future direction.) Especially with its main shop space, the G.Itoya building, efforts were made to incorporate restaurants (they grow their own vegetables), juice bars, postboxes and other quirky services.

Reading about all this, I was worried that I would find a great blank museum-like space upon arrival. For what is a stationer if not a purveyor of goods? Fortunately, it turned out that they had enough to make me happy. The crucial difference is that Ito-ya now curates its selection more rigorously, with an emphasis on things you can’t get easily elsewhere (they had Crane’s cards!). Also, they now put more effort into marketing their own proprietary brands: one floor is dedicated to these labels, most of which are not even stationery but travel items.

Here is a partial shot of the fountain pen floor: they came up with an elegant solution to showcase the multitude of pens while preserving the gallery-like feel. The Caran d’Ache 849 fountain pen went on sale at Ito-ya (ahead of all the other shops) the day after I visited, so I missed the chance to try it out.

I wasn’t sure about their emphasis on their proprietary brands (I have yet to own an Ito-ya pencil, Romeo, Helvetica or otherwise), but after trying the book cover in their Color Chart line, I am completely won over. It is made out of an intriguing micro-fibrous material that mimics the feel of leather, and fits any pocket book snugly. I’d like to get more in this line in as many colors as possible next time!

I’m not sure whether you can tell from the pictures, but this material has a crease-resistant spring to it that is just mesmerizing. Stationery is a very high-tech affair in Japan.

The first floor of the main building has always attracted its share of tourists, and Japan-themed postcards have always been available. Ito-ya still stocks them.

Now over to the annex, K.Itoya. This is where Ito-ya’s newfound art-gallery aesthetic bows to the demands of the office- and art-supplies department, and allows merchandise to be stocked like at a good old-fashioned stationer’s. Interestingly, premium pencils from Faber-Castell, Caran d’Ache and others were displayed here along with paints and colored pencils, and not with fountain pens in the main building. I almost missed them!

In the above photo you can see the recently released Lothar von Faber Polygrades. Next to it is something called the X-Sharpener that Kitaboshi and CARL collaborated on for a TV program, which called for “an unbreakable colored pencil.” Following a series of tests involving dropping a half dozen red colored pencils from a certain height, CARL came up with this sharpener that produces a shape like a steeply inclined china pencil with a step, with only the wood peeled away and leaving the core untouched. They produced 100 of these sharpeners, at ¥20,000 each. I asked whether Ito-ya had sold any, and the salesperson replied that they got five for the store and sold three so far.

But the most amazing item was this:

The Bosco Wood Pencils, made by the same people who brought out the Colleen Woods pencils twenty years ago, is a limited edition set of 200 (or 300, depending on the source) featuring beautiful woods sourced from around the globe. It retails for ¥10,000. And Ito-ya had a sharpened sample. (Note that the Polygrades above were also sharpened.) I asked how they ever thought to do such a thing, and the salesperson said, “Oh, we had to make sure everything was OK.” I had never been interested in this particular set (as a rule I dislike expensive, ornamental pencils), but when I saw how smoothly and softly they wrote, I had to get them. The wood is fragrant, and the hexagonal edges razor sharp; altogether the tactile experience is sublime.

Back in Korea, I got together with some stationery friends for a small experiment. I wanted to try hand-sharpening these pencils, and I also wanted to know what others thought of these woods, as I knew next to nothing about them. Also, the sharpened pencils by themselves would make a marvellous souvenir. So we settled down with a pencil each, and reached some surprising conclusions.

First, the woods are all without exception extremely stiff and hard to sharpen. Sharpening by hand was positively dangerous, and I was afraid I would damage the handheld and crank sharpeners I used. Pencil #3 is a case in point: a friend started hand-sharpening it but quickly gave up, I tried with a borrowed Gekkoso 2-hole sharpener but the lead broke three times, so in the end I had to finish it off by whittling down the wood very carefully, exposing a minimal amount of lead. The imbalance between the hard wood and medium-to-soft core seems especially amplified in pencil #3, and no doubt something like this happened to the Ito-ya sample set too, as that particular pencil is shortest. I still love the artisanal details of this Bosco set, but all this led me to appreciate all over again other pencils such as the Caran d’Ache “Crayons de la Maison” series. They are expensive “premium” pencils too, but are easy to sharpen, with a good, balanced lead: in other words, they are pencils made by pencilmakers, true to the basics. The Bosco pencils are emphatically the work of a furniture-maker.

(I hand-sharpened two in this set, in addition to the aforementioned pencil #3. Can you guess which? By the way, pencil #5 was sharpened with a brass KUM 2-hole sharpener, and pencil #8 with a Deli 0668. I hope to try a CARL Angel-5 Royal on one of the remaining two.)

Speaking of sharpening, there was also a very informative display showing the sharpened shapes for each sharpener they carried.

Some other tidbits I picked up there: all the masking tapes I bought this time are from the MT for kids line 😅

And last but not least, a talisman for a well-rounded stationery life.

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14 thoughts on “Ito-ya, the One and Only (Feat. Bosco Wood Pencils)

  1. Thanks for such a great post, Sola. It brings back memories of my visit there a few years ago. Given that we took a similar photo, it’s a fun to think that we more or less stood in the same spot, thousands of miles away:

    A friend of mine (the same person who made my visit to Ito-ya possible) sent me a set of the Bosco pencils as a gift, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to sharpen them. So, thanks for sharing your sharpening experiments!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sean, thank you for your kind comment. I see from your picture that they stopped carrying two more KUM sharpeners since the time of your visit! I went back and re-read all your posts on your visit to Japan, and it’s very interesting how the sign in the Osaka Tokyu Hands store says “Writing Implements” instead of “instruments” 😉
      I was able to sharpen the Bosco pencils for a very simple reason: I have two sets (the Japanese price helped). But really, since the reason I bought them was because I liked how they wrote, there was no question of not sharpening them, at least for me. But I think you are wise to leave them unsharpened. Enjoy them as they are!

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  2. Sola, thank you for such an engaging report! What a compelling store. I love that you sharpened the Bosco pencils. Between you and Ito-ya, there must be at most 198 (or 298) pristine sets now.

    Regarding Ginza – I see the Tiffany and Bvlgari signs – how “Japanese” is the area today?

    This is another post that has me checking airfare costs…

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    1. Stephen, good question. I had to think about it for a while. Although the main street in Ginza has its share of Japanese institutions – I’m thinking of names like Mikimoto (the women of the imperial family wear their pearls), Yamaha (musical instruments), the banks and also stationers like Ito-ya and Kyukyodo – I mostly associate it with foreign luxury brands. They make a point of setting up flagship stores there: all the jewelers, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada etc. I’m looking at Google Maps right now and I see that shops like Apple and Abercrombie & Fitch have also joined the fray since we left.
      Apart from Ito-ya, I used to love visiting the Nikon and Contax salons in Ginza. This was essentially a small gallery-like space that the companies provided for the benefit of amateur photographers, where they could display their work. I wonder if they are still in operation.
      And I’m sure there are flights departing Toronto for Narita every day 😉

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      1. Sola, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Visiting London, I had the sense that there was a special area (near St. James Palace) that housed many British heritage brands – James Lobb, Dunhill, Berry Bros., DR Harris, etc., and that the international brands, though nearby (New Bond St.), were still apart. It seemed like a good arrangement (if it is an arrangement).

        And when you mention Nikon – let me mention that a favorite “unknown” California place I loved when I was there was the Leica store in San Francisco – they had regular photo exhibits, including a memorable Sebastião Selgado show with many of his most famous prints!

        A 13+ hour flight is a bit intimidating to me, but I’m thinking about it.

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      2. Oh, now I see why you asked that particular question. London does seem to have a good arrangement – I hadn’t thought about urban areas in quite that kind of way before.
        And I can only imagine how wonderful it would be, having a print of that caliber before one’s eyes! I only got to know of the photography salons because the librarian at my old primary school in Tokyo invited me to an exhibit of her work at the Contax salon. She had inherited a couple of old Contax cameras from her father and had taken up photography late in life. Even though the “amateurs” exhibiting there are already at a vastly different level than most of us, it’s still less intimidating and feels maybe a little bit within reach, even – which is probably exactly the kind of sentiment these companies want to encourage.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. What an incredible shop this must be.

    I wonder what the talisman from the last picture is. Could you tell me?

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    1. Oh, sorry if that wasn’t clear. The red clip is Ito-ya’s symbol, and you can use it just like a real clip, although this one is oversized and nicely lacquered. It’s more of an Ito-ya souvenir than an actual clip :D

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  4. I’ve always been curious about the Bosco pencils, so thank you for this post! I learned a lot. I can’t believe I missed them when I was there at Itoya.. looking at your pictures is seriously making me wish I’d spent more time there. And that display of sharpened pencils is AMAZING.

    And I, too, am a fan of MT Kids tapes. 😉

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    1. Isn’t it maddening how they save all the best motifs for those Kids tapes?! And writing about my visits only reminded me of how much I missed. Imagine, getting a Carl Angel Royal sharpener was always on my mind but I forgot to look in a certain direction and missed the sharpeners entirely! I got one back in Korea 😅

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