Ippitsu-sen (Again), at Maruzen

Here are some new additions to my stash of Ippitsu-sen. (See my previous post for an introduction to this particular kind of Japanese correspondence paper.)

There was one more pattern to complete the quartet, which I didn’t buy. (Just so you know.) I got these at Maruzen, which, had I not listened to the Staedtler Japan Radio podcast from several years ago, I would surely have left out of my to-visit list. You see, even though I was reasonably familiar with Tokyo and its stationers, I had never felt the need to distinguish one well-stocked store from another (with the possible exception of Ito-ya). I lived along the Seibu line so I went to Loft a lot, and didn’t care if my pens and notebooks came from more general chains or department stores. But listening to the podcast, I realized that there was a hierarchy of sorts among the stationers, reflecting the history and breadth of each. The podcast featured five stores in the latter half of its season: Tokyu Hands (a DIY lifestyle store, Shinjuku branch), Mitsukoshi (a department store, Nihonbashi branch), Sekaido (an art supply store in Shinjuku), Ito-ya (stationer extraordinaire in Ginza), and Maruzen (Marunouchi main store).

Now, the thing about Maruzen is that it is first and foremost a bookstore, albeit with a respectable stationery section. I’d visited one of their branches once or twice in the past but saw nothing to mark it out as either a bookstore or stationer at that time. But the podcast informed me that this venerable institution was founded 150 years ago in Yokohama, and played a pioneering role in introducing Western culture to Japan: it was long known for its selection of Western books, and was the first to import fountain pens (Onoto, 1907). Literary figures of the time routinely mentioned visiting the store in their writings. The Marunouchi main store now occupies four stories in a glittering high-rise near Tokyo Station, in the heart of Tokyo’s old business district; they say 100,000 people pass by the building daily, of which 4,000 visit the stationery section on the fourth floor. So naturally the Maruzen store stocks more upscale goods designed to appeal to grownups (and businesspeople in particular). The stationery section was smaller than I expected, but it did feature some notable items. The fountain pen desk was extensive and tastefully done. I can’t resist adding a couple more pics:

Coming back to the Ippitsu-sen: isn’t it wonderful that there are products that just assume stationery nerds like us exist, who love pens and pencils and even rulers, and would snap these up in a heartbeat? By the way here’s another, more traditionally summer-y theme featuring goldfish.

Last but not least, here are two other items I got from Maruzen: a triangular scale from Staedtler Japan, and a Tombow Mono One AirTouch. The scale was specifically mentioned in the podcast, so I was able to recognize it when I saw it. There were other variations, longer, shorter (10 cm!), for architects, for surveyors. It’s a very well-made, delightful object. I hadn’t planned on getting the AirTouch, even though the original Mono One was celebrating its tenth anniversary and there was a display with the Ones in all the colors of the rainbow in all of the stores I visited, but then Maruzen had an eraser testing station and I fell for it. Not bad at all!

UNIQLO meets Pelikan and Tombow

Thanks to Matthias at Bleistift I got my own set of Uniqlo stationery-themed shirts. I can’t wear them now, since it’s winter here, but I am so looking forward to December when I can dazzle the good people of Montevideo with my eraser T-shirt (e.g. “who is this crazy woman?”).

I didn’t get the Mono 100 pencil shirt. I’m not such a fan of Tombow pencils or the Mono 100 (my heart lies with Mitsubishi), and what’s more, I look terrible in green. I have this theory that no Asian woman looks good in green.

The Pelikan T-shirts are really nicely done, with a great “vintage” look. Four chicks!

And you know you’re in deep when your shirt matches your masking tape…

Tombow Mono Zero Eraser

I distinctly remember two instances of culture shock when I first set foot in stationery geekdom. The first one was at a pen forum, where I came across people discussing the properties of individual inks, how some flowed better than others and how you could therefore manipulate the thickness of the strokes your pen made by changing the ink. Up till that point ink was, for me, something you just put in a pen. The pen was then supposed to write. End of story.

Later on, when I ventured out into the larger world of general stationery, I discovered that there was such a thing as an eraser review. I mean, really! What was there to say about erasers? You can get them anywhere, they’re cheap, and they were either crappy or they worked. End of story, right? This seemed to be a whole new level of nerdiness to me at that time.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m now in possession of a few respectable erasers myself. Am positively discerning about them. I even know enough to recognize and get excited about a Tombow Mono Zero holder-type eraser spotted in the wild. And this is my first eraser review.

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The Mono One is so named because it can erase a single (Japanese) letter based on the parameters of a 6mm- or 7mm-ruled notebook. The Mono Zero is so named because it can erase less than a letter. The folks at Tombow say that “erasing, either at the office or at school, involves less than three letters more than 80% of the time”. Amazing, the kind of figures these eraser guys come up with.

The hyperslim Mono Zero (there are two kinds, a 2.3mm-diameter round one and a 2.5mm×5mm rectangular one; I bought the round one) is the kind of thing that would have struck me as somehow overdoing it in the past. I may have bought it, out of curiosity, but would have probably stowed it away in a drawer somewhere. But this pinpoint eraser is actually very useful! Since it took up residence in my pen pouch it has been an indispensable tool for my daily Hobonichi journaling, as it is gentle on the thin and easily stressed Tomoe River Paper. It also helps me address a daily problem:

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Exactly the kind of thing that needs the Mono Zero treatment.

As other reviews point out, the eraser itself is made of a slightly different material (elastomer, whatever that is) and so does not erase well compared to a block eraser, but does precision erasing well enough. On the package it says it “even changes the nuances of a dot”, and I agree! It not only erases wayward strokes but can make lines appear lighter and thinner without erasing them completely. A welcome tool for anyone who hates having to rewrite anything…

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There are excellent reviews of this eraser at Bleistift and Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. It is also one of the “Top Two” erasers chosen by Lexikaliker.

Some More Red-and-Blue Pencils (3)

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My first red-and-blue pencil was the Mitsubishi 2637/2667. Now, after trying many other brands, I realize that the Mitsubishis were actually on the softer side of the spectrum; on the other end are the vintage American colored pencils (such as the Eberhard Faber Colorbrite and Eagle Verithin), which are specifically formulated for writing and therefore have harder and stronger cores.

Tombow bicolor pencils (second and third from top in the picture above) seem to offer a good compromise between these two extremes. I assume that the regular Tombow 8900 V/P and the Ki-Monogatari natural-finish bicolor pencils share the same cores, since I could not detect any meaningful differences; both are very good. The Ki-Monogatari has painted bands at the ends, which make you hesitate with the sharpener – another instance of the ephemeral luxury so often associated with pencils.

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The Kitaboshi vermilion-and-Prussian-blue pencil (the top pencil in the first picture) was one of those lesser-known and seldom seen (at least outside of Japan) pencils that I would have loved to have “discovered” for myself, but it was disappointing. It is harder and fainter than the Tombows.

The 9608 bicolor pencil from A. W. Faber, and its modern successor from Faber-Castell, are both wonderful. I especially love the older, chubbier 9608; its “red” core has a bright fuchia tone to it that doesn’t show up well in pictures but sets it apart from the other red-and-blues (the blue is less inspiring).

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I was able to try the handsome modern 9608 thanks to Gunther :) May its production be assured for decades to come!

Tombow Mono Penmanship Pencils (and a comparison with Mitsubishi)

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I recently got some Tombow Mono Penmanship pencils (aka Tombow KM-KKS) along with some other Japanese pencils. The Tombows are hard to find, but they are exactly the same kind of pencils as the Mitsubishi Penmanship pencils (note the same imprint – Tombow only has “pencil (鉛筆)” added on at the end) so most of what I’ve said about the latter holds for the Tombow too. So this time I was curious as to how the two pencils compared.

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The back of the box was taped shut, making it impossible to open it from that end. The pencils were tightly packed together and it was difficult to get them out at first.

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The printing is surprisingly messy for a Tombow Mono. You’re supposed to write your name (なまえ)… on the blue barrel?

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This seems like a more logical place:

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The first glimpse I had was pretty impressive. Thick lead!

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But then, I remembered that the Mitsubishi had very thick lead too, despite their being the same degree (4B):

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No comparison. The paint job and printing of the Mitsubishi are also superior (the Mitsubishi 9850 wins over the Tombow 2558 in that regard too. Tombow just doesn’t seem to care that much about such things). The Tombow writes smoothly enough, but to me it seems to be around 90% to Mitsubishi’s 100%.

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The thick lead of the Mitsubishi gave me an idea…

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Why? Because none of the carpenter pencils or chisel-point pencils I tried so far really gave me what I wanted, which was the graphite version of a Pilot Parallel pen. They were on the whole not dark enough, even the grades that were supposed to be darker (2B, 4B). But maybe this thick, dark, smooth and break-resistant lead could do the job? Tapered to a chisel point:

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And… action!

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Now this would qualify as a Penmanship Pencil in the Western sense. Either this, or a German 2H pencil that keeps its point forever, for cursive practice :)

Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship Pencils

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I’m taking a break from writing about vintage pencils and turning to some currently available ones. I first saw the Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship (Kouhitsu Shosha-yo 硬筆書写用) pencil on Lexikaliker and have left comments on other blogs about it since then, but maybe this is a good time to organize the information scattered here and there in one place.

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Calligraphy in Japan consists of the writing of Chinese characters and Japanese kana, and have traditionally been taught using ink and brush. However, with time other instruments have been introduced into the classroom for convenience’s sake, pulling traditional calligraphy in the direction of everyday “penmanship”: felt-tipped pens, ballpoint pens, and pencils, categorically called “hard pens (kouhitsu)” as opposed to the soft brush. Of all the Asian nations that teach Chinese calligraphy, I think Japan stands out for the emphasis it places on everyday hard-pen penmanship, and its use of pencils in practicing this art. There is a Kouhitsu competition held each year, separately from the usual brush calligraphy competitions (you can see some writing samples here). The pencils seem to be used mostly in elementary schools (and no doubt demand is driven by teachers who designate exactly which kind to use); older students move on to more sophisticated instruments.

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These penmanship pencils are intended to mimic the feel and effect of the brush as much as possible: to clearly indicate the movement of the stroke as it starts, stops, strengthens or weakens, widens or fades out altogether. In doing this, it channels two seemingly contradictory demands: the need for the lead to be very dark and soft, but resistant to the pressure exerted on it. The legend “Pressure-Proofed Lead” indicates that while the lead may be as dark and smooth as any art pencil, it is strong enough to withstand any child’s sweaty effort. This is actually quite a feat! Let’s see what else Mitsubishi says about this pencil:

  • The lead breaks down evenly when it comes into contact with the paper, resulting in very dark, bold, and distinct lines.
  • The lead is imbued with a special oil that reduces friction when writing.  
  • The thicker lead allows you to make both fine and bold lines, depending on the way you sharpen it.  It is also capable of producing the effects characteristic of a brush (stops, sweeps, etc.)
  • High-quality clay makes the lead stronger, saving you the trouble of frequent sharpening.

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The interesting thing about these pencils is that there are specific variants available only in certain parts of the country (and, needless to say, seldom exported abroad). The prefecture of Saitama, northeast of Tokyo, is said to be a strong supporter of penmanship instruction; accordingly, Mitsubishi manufactures two deluxe versions of the Penmanship pencil, the Super DX 8B and the Fude-Enpitsu (Brush Pencil) 10B, for distribution in Saitama only. Even Tombow seems to have made some sort of special edition for Fukuoka. (These special editions don’t show up on official product pages.) I haven’t managed to figure out why these particular prefectures should be so enthusiastic about penmanship or how they got the pencil companies to cooperate, but in any case you really have to marvel at the kind of market that generates such specific demands and the manufacturers that oblige them.

The rest of the country makes do with regular Penmanship Pencils in 4B and 6B, hexagonal and triangular. The writing experience is enhanced with a plush writing mat that provides a sort of cushion underneath the paper. Specially ruled penmanship practice pads are also available. In other words, this is a highly specialized pencil dedicated to a very specific purpose, and I really don’t understand the reasoning behind the decision to bring this pencil to North America. Yes, it is a very well-made pencil, dark, smooth and break-resistant, but the culture or the script system that gave birth to it doesn’t travel. Here, it’s probably too dark for everyday writing and needlessly strong for drawing or sketching. If you happen to have this pencil, I recommend that you get hold of a Chinese-character primer and practice a few strokes. Then you’ll see what this guy can really do.

Vermilion and Prussian Blue

Why do Japanese red-and-blue pencils so often incorporate these two particular shades? Why not scarlet, carmine, ultramarine, or cobalt blue? In the case of vermilion, it’s easy to answer: the pigment was available from ancient times, and was the orthodox “red” to the primary black of sumi ink in East Asia. Even today, personal seals are stamped in this particular color. Western manuscripts also make heavy use of this pigment: in fact, the use of vermilion is so pervasive across cultures that we might ask why Western pencilmakers don’t use vermilion more often.

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(Splashes of vermilion in manuscript fragments, McGill University Library)

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(Modern vermilion ink, and a calligraphy textbook written in the medieval bicolor scheme of black and vermilion)

The case of Prussian blue is more interesting. I recently came across this paragraph in Sarah Thompson’s catalogue for the exhibition of the ukiyo-e master Hokusai that just ended at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (yes, I live within driving distance of Boston but didn’t get to see it. *sob*):

One major source of inspiration for the Fuji series seems to have been the introduction of a new pigment to the printmakers’ palette, the synthetic color known to the Japanese as Berlin blue and to Europeans as Prussian blue. Invented in the eighteenth century, the pigment had already been known in Japan for some time, but when the Chinese as well as the Dutch began to import it, the price dropped sufficiently to make it practical for use in prints. Around 1830 there was a craze for “blue-printed pictures” (aizuri-e) done entirely, or almost entirely, in shades of blue. (p.21)

This exciting new pigment, which did not fade easily, got Hokusai started on the series that he became most famous for: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. (There are actually forty-six pictures in all.)

The first designs in the series were printed almost entirely in shades of blue, to capitalize on the fad for the newly introduced pigment. A little later, when the public had become accustomed to the new colorant, additional colors were used for subsequent designs in the series, and for reprints of the earlier ones. (p. 21)

In other words, Prussian blue made a pretty sensational entry into Japan. One of the major appeals of Hokusai’s art is surely the dramatic and abundant use of that particular color: the most famous picture in the series (and at the same time arguably the most recognizable image in all of Japanese art), The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is practically awash in Prussian blue.

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However, it would be simplistic to argue that Mitsubishi and Tombow chose Prussian blue as their standard just because it was Hokusai’s signature color. According to stationery journalist Tsuchihashi-san, the answer is more prosaic: when the Mitsubishi 2667 was first produced in 1914, it was still difficult to manufacture bright, vivid colored cores for pencils, and therefore Prussian blue had to stand in for a brighter blue. Perhaps they chose it over other blue hues simply because the pigment was cheap and easy to handle. But I’d still like to think that Prussian blue lives on because of this small but very real connection to the nineteenth century, when it, however briefly, ruled the world.

Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils

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It was through using the Hobonichi planner that I came across Prismacolor Premier colored pencils. Prismacolor happens to be the successor to the Eagle and Berol brands, and therefore the Eagle Verithin line lives on in Prismacolor; but I was unaware of all this before I actually went looking for them, because I only ever noticed Faber-Castell pencils in art supply shops back home.

First of all I liked the way they looked: round with silver lettering. They are pretty soft (one of the softest colored pencils currently available, it seems), and I use them mostly to highlight entries I write in ink in the Hobonichi, because I don’t like using actual highlighters and using colored ink or colored pencil alone to write doesn’t make the words pop enough. Most erase easily too. Another interesting aspect of Prismacolor is that they sell themed sets; there’s a Portrait Set made up of flesh colors, and there’s a Manga set with hard dark pencils for outlining and soft pastel-toned pencils for coloring. I don’t know if manga artists actually find this set useful, but for people like me, who are intimidated and bored at the same time by all those full-color-spectrum artist tin sets, this kind of thing is endlessly appealing. I toyed with the idea of purchasing the Manga set but ultimately settled for a bunch of pale pastel colors bought individually. (By the way, Tombow also markets unconventionally arranged colored pencils sets in their Irojiten series).

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Prismacolor does seem to have some issues, though – they are supposedly not as lightfast as other brands, and the soft cores break easily (I had a dud too). However, they are affordable and pleasantly soft. If I ever use them up I might try a couple of Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils.

The Joy of Inexpensive Pencils

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Two office-grade pencils I’ve discovered fairly recently are the Mitsubishi 9850 and the Tombow 2558. In Japan they cost about 50 cents each or less, occupying the lowest end of the quality-pencil cost spectrum. They are not THE cheapest pencils that Mitsubishi and Tombow produce (for example, the Mitsubishi 9800 and the Tombow Mono J, 8900, and Ki-monogatari pencils are cheaper) but they remain very affordable and is possessed of a quality that is way over what their price sticker may suggest. I personally don’t derive that much satisfaction from either the Hi-Uni or the Mono 100, but am bowled over every time I use either the 9850 or the 2558.

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Of the two, if forced to choose I would opt for the Mitsubishi 9850. I have more affection for the brand itself, and I love the color (a very unusual reddish burgundy), the precise silver lettering, and even the slightly raised barcode in white. There is another model with a slightly different number, the 9852, that has been in production for almost sixty years and which Mitsubishi has been commemorating this year in limited editions of four additional colors (I got the navy blue as a gift from a friend – thank you BM!). However I don’t think the lead in the 9852 is identical to the 9850, which I find more satisfying. Maybe the legend – “for office use” vs. “master writing” – really do point to differences in the formula?

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That said, there are days when I do feel the Tombow 2558 glides better on the page. The Tombow is not very lovable, at least to me – it has the kind of color that belongs on an American pencil, not a Japanese one, the imprint can be uneven, and the ferrule is dull compared to the 9850’s bright silver with rounded white eraser. However, it writes well, so well in fact that I was tempted to try the H and B grades too. While I still feel that the HB is best, the H is also a good choice. It writes very clean. The B grade was a surprise though – not in terms of quality (which is predictably good), but because it reminded me so much of the Palomino Blackwing from the very first stroke. Could it be…?

Tombow 100th Anniversary Book

Last week I got a surprise gift in the mail – a good friend in Japan was kind enough to send me her “Tombow Perfect Book”, published in commemoration of Tombow’s hundredth anniversary in 2013. The book is actually a special edition put together by Ei Publishing, a house that specializes in various lifestyle and hobby magazines, and well known to stationery geeks through its magazine Shumi no Bungubako (趣味の文具箱). I am not sure if Tombow has published its own definitive commemorative issue – it may be different from what I have.

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It consists of a book and three pencils reproduced in the first-generation vintage style (but with current Mono 100 lead), an Olno mechanical pencil and an eraser also printed in the vintage style.

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With a book of this nature you can’t escape the adoring blurb, but nevertheless there are some very interesting bits of information. I note some below – my apologies if the post is a bit more scattered and “bullet-point” than usual.

First, the nomenclature among the various Monos (first introduced in 1963): Mono J stands for “junior”, R for “regular”. The Junior (4H~4B) is at the lowest end of the Mono spectrum, intended for students and office use. The Regular(2H~6B) is of higher quality but has the same customer base.
The Mono 100 (9H~6B) is so named because there are 10 billion particles (100 oku (億) in Japanese) per one square millimeter in the lead. (The Mono had 8 billion per square millimeter.)

Oh, and of course “Tombow” in Japanese means “dragonfly”, hence the dragonfly logo – everybody knew that, right? ;)

One of the most incredible things about Japanese classic pencils is that they were designed by the most famous industrial designers of their day. The Mitsubishi Uni had Yoshio Akioka, designer of the Asakaze bullet train. The Tombow Mono 100 had Takashi Kono, of the Olympic design committee(1964) and the Japanese pavilion at the Osaka World Fair (1970). This may be one reason that Japanese pencil designs change so rarely, if at all.

The 8900 (introduced in 1945 and nicknamed “hachi-kyu” after its first two digits) was so named because it was the follow-up model to the 8800, which in turn was named after the height of the Everest. They also considered the number to be a good omen since “89” could also be a homonym for “破竹 (hachiku)の勢い”, which describes an unstoppable force such as that of splitting bamboo, and therefore they hoped the pencils would sell in such a manner. The 8900s had “Highest Quality” written on them up until the moment the Mono made its entrance – from then on it was demoted to “High Quality”.

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During the Second World War, English was deemed an “enemy language” and pencils were graded using Chinese characters. H was “硬”(hard), B was “軟”(soft) and HB was “中庸”(middle-of-the-road, balanced).

Tombow pencils improved in tandem with imported machinery from America. Machines such as the speed-line mill and grooving and slatting machines, imported in 1950, made the Mono possible. The yellow 2558 came into being thanks to an eraser-and-ferrule machine, also imported from the US. (In the book, there are pictures of vintage Tombows with big, round ferrules identical to old Eberhard Fabers!)

Current Tombow pencils use mostly German clay, Chinese graphite and Californian incense cedar.

One final interesting tidbit: you know how many Japanese pencils have this innocuous but completely pointless imprint saying “For General Writing”? I always wondered about that, and up till now I thought it was because of this Japanese tendency to overdesign everything (e.g. cannot leave a blank space alone), but at least for the Tombow 8900 there seems to have been a definite reason. Because it was released right after the war, it was subject to price controls, and the manufacturing costs of the 8900 meant that it could not be priced within the limits set for drafting pencils. So Tombow opted to classify it as a “photo retouching pencil”, which was not subject to the same kind of controls, and so for some time after that the pencils carried the legend “retouching pencils”, and, later on, “for drafting and retouching”. After price controls disappeared and the usage evolved, I guess they changed the wording rather than to take it out altogether.

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During the “golden age” of Japanese pencils, in the early 60’s, they produced seven times as much pencils as they do now. It was not only the volume; looking back, I think we can see in the pencils the immense optimism and faith in the dawning prosperity of their age, their growing confidence. Japanese pencils improved and matured exactly in tandem with their own economy, and the rivalry between Mitsubishi and Tombow gives you a sense of the heady one-upmanship of that time: the Tombow Homo-Graph came out in 1952, the Mitsubishi Uni in 1958, the Mono in 1963, the Hi-Uni in 1966 and the Mono 100 in 1967.

Pencils like the Mono and the Uni survive at least in part because their customers retain these positive cultural associations; in many instances I sense more than a whiff of nostalgia. Of course the consistent quality has helped, and the companies have proved adept at developing new products and markets in order to survive long after the heyday of pencils has passed. But I do hope that we won’t have to wait for another Japanese economic boom for a new premium pencil to be introduced…