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!

Pencils From Down Under

Greetings, everyone! I have been away all July and have just come back to Montevideo. The summer was hot, humid, and inspiring; we visited family, we visited lots of hospitals and got all fixed up, and we made a long-overdue nostalgic trip to Tokyo. But before recounting my stationery adventures I must start with what I came across on the long long flight home.

This incredible shot is from the Australian film Red Dog: True Blue (2016). A twelve-year-old boy is sent to live with his grandfather, near Pilbara (scorched red earth, bush and seemingly not much else), after his father dies and his mother is committed to an institution, where he befriends a very special dog. I know, it’s the usual heartwarming doggie story, and nothing about it suggested it would reach sublime heights moments later with a shot of a vintage Staedtler tin and a Möbius+Ruppert pencil sharpener.

This assortment of stationery is what Mick needs in order to do his “correspondence sets” via radio instead of attending a normal school. I think the movie is set in the late 60’s, judging from various clues such as women’s dress, one character’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco is supposed to have “just happened.” In that case we may conclude that the pencil case is a hand-me-down from his grandpa, since that particular Mars head was used until the 50’s; the sharpener is more of a stretch because Gunther (@Lexikaliker) informs me that this particular model, the 602, was introduced around 1970.

But never mind the dates – it’s simply a beautiful shot. Kudos to the good work from Down Under!

Ippitsu-sen

“Ippitsu-sen (一筆箋)” refers to a Japanese type of letter-writing pad of a specific size, of around 18 cm by 8 cm, often with guidelines to facilitate vertical or horizontal writing. I picked some up a long time ago, without even realizing what it was, and it was only recently that I learned it had a name and a specific function. I think the name means “one-line paper,” as when we say, “Drop me a line.” It probably corresponds to the Western greeting card (especially those smaller, unadorned ones that use thinner paper), but this is lighter, more ethereal, somehow less formal. This straddles the delicate middle ground between a card and a full-sized letter writing sheet.

Ippitsu-sen is meant for short messages, usually accompanying a gift, small souvenirs, business papers or samples, or things being returned to the original owner. You know, for those occasions when it’s just more polite to attach a note. The stationery firm Midori has a tutorial page on how to write ippitsu-sen, and it turns out that there is actually very little space to write down anything personal, because opening greetings take up one line, closing greetings another(“I hope for your favorable consideration,” etc.), and that’s already two lines out of a possible three or four – which probably comes as a relief for people who have to write them. So while the format seems casual (I don’t think it even needs an envelope), the content can be pretty formulaic.

Anyway, the one below is my favorite, because the loose square guidelines mean it can be used either vertically or horizontally. I was amused to find that Tsuchihashi-san had the same notepad in his article introducing ippitsu-sen for men (read non-flowery).

The square grid is also evocative of manuscript pads used by writers and journalists in both Japan and Korea (I’m curious whether the Chinese use them too). One square holds one letter, punctuation mark, or space. It’s been quite some time since the process was digitized and people started writing on computers and word processors, but industry people still refer to the length of an article by the number of 200-letter manuscript sheets it takes up (“word count” being a very Western concept).

This is another ippitsu-sen sized pad from Pilot. However, I was told (and I agree) that the paper is not particularly fountain pen friendly ;)

And this would be the stereotypical ippitsu-sen, with flowery illustrations and vertical lines. I think my mother bought this. It seems like the vast majority of ippitsu-sen users are women, and it can be hard to find something neutral and muted. I’m definitely going to add more to my collection if I have the chance.

Staedtler Initium Lignum Fountain Pen Review

This is one of those fountain pen posts I’m trying to keep out of this site, but this time you will forgive me because it features a venerable pencil brand that has made forays into a new market (or, rather, re-entered it): Staedtler’s Premium line, comprising resin, wood, and leather-accented writing instruments. I saw the new lineup for the first time while still in Canada, and was very surprised and pleased to see it; however, I had the not quite favorable impression that they were trying to do too much at once (e.g. everything from ballpoints to $2,000+ collectors’ items) instead of expanding the collection slowly and organically as they learned the ropes. I also felt the aesthetics were vaguely reminiscent of the Graf von Faber-Castell line. The price tag was outlandish: upwards of CAD 200 for a steel-nibbed pen. This particular model, the wood-barrelled Initium Lignum (the only one I considered buying, then or now), still costs CAD 279 (plus 15% tax). I liked the idea, I was a fan of the brand, but for that kind of money I could get myself a proper gold-nibbed pen (or two) from other manufacturers. So I passed on it then, until I got wind of a CultPens sale* that included a free leather-bound Atoma notebook with any Initium pen, so I took the plunge. Pricewise it was now or never.

A new pen, like a drop of water in a desert :)

However, once the euphoria subsided, I was unfortunately reminded of all the other reasons I didn’t buy it back then. It’s not only the price. The pen itself looks very nice, but the balance feels all wrong. It’s a heavy pen, and that by itself is not a huge problem (I have some Waterman heavies that I am quite fond of), but the problem is that that weight is not distributed evenly across the pen but overly concentrated at the nib end. The cap is substantial, too, and all this makes for a very top-heavy pen: it threatens to slip out of your hand when you try to write with it, because the grip section pulls it downwards and there is nothing to counterbalance it at the back. (And no, posting the cap doesn’t work either, because it then threatens to topple over backwards.) Perhaps I tend to grip pens more lightly than other people, but this is because I was told at the beginning of my pen life that I was unwittingly wrecking the soft nib of my Pelikan M300 by pressing down on it too much, and I have had to relearn how to hold a pen since. This is important, as this is precisely one of the advantages of using a fountain pen – it allows you to write for longer without your hand cramping. If a fountain pen forces you to hold it like a ballpoint, something is wrong.

I also should have known better than to buy a pen with a metal grip. I’ve avoided those ever since my experience with the Graf von Faber-Castell Pernambuco; these kind of pens look fabulous but are less than optimal for actual writing, because they are heavy, and they slip. (Come to think of it, I always tend to gravitate towards wood-barrelled pens, but once purchased, they don’t seem to make it into my regular rotation much.) I’m very curious where Staedtler sources its nibs, or whether they make them in-house; this particular nib is smooth enough but can be a bit slippery on paper like Tomoe River. I personally find the nib a bit small given the size of the pen and the price; small nibs, like the one on the Waterman Charleston, make me feel shortchanged, and I believe they write worse too.

Well, this wasn’t a rational purchase. I had tried out the pen in the shop and I knew what was coming. But strangely, inexplicably, I still wanted it, even with all its shortcomings. Brand loyalty is a funny thing: the sight of the logo-engraved cap peeping out of my pen pouch makes me happy, and I am willing to accomodate it, get used to its quirks, and see what good I can coax out of it. Sometimes a pen proves itself better than you initially thought it to be: I didn’t think much of my Kaweco Sport at first, for example, but later on I found that it never dried out, not even for months, which was pretty impressive for a cartridge-use pen in that price range. I’m curious to see what happens with my Initium. As for Staedtler, I do wish they will stay committed to the Premium line, but learn from their mistakes and come up with better models. There must be enough inspiring material in the Staedtler archives for them to make use of in this retro boom!

* This blog is not associated with CultPens in any way. I got to know of this promotion thanks to Matthias @Bleistift – they had the same offer last November.

The Secret Lives of Colour

Happy new year to you all! I was hoping to get a couple of posts up before the year was over, but they ended up in the Drafts folder as I feared, as the past week has been particularly busy. It has been a bright and sunny Christmas and New Year’s down here, there is no snow and no hunkering down in the cold, and children are on summer vacation. We spent New Year’s Eve at the beach. It is all very pleasant but I have a sneaking feeling that the season in the northern hemisphere is more suitable for some quiet reflection at year’s end, the turning of pages, and (most important) the ceremony of starting a new diary.

Kassia St. Clair’s new book, The Secret Lives of Colourhas kept me entertained throughout the holidays. It’s a collection of short essays on 75 colors (pigments, dyes and even shades associated with precious metals or stones, like gold or amber), laying out the history and interesting facts about each, such as when it was fashionable and why it was prized. When I first started buying colored pencils, it was their mysterious, romantic names as much as their shades or manufacturing history that captivated me: Naples yellow, heliotrope, celadon green, Prussian blue, Payne’s grey. The book is by no means exhaustive, as a color is sometimes allotted only a couple of pages. But if you have ever found such names beautiful, and if your interest in stationery and the larger world has an anthropological bent, you might find it worth reading. The hardcover is only available in the UK at the moment but comes out later this year in the US.

Discovering America in a Uruguayan Estancia

Recently we went on holiday to an estancia up north, near the town of Cerro Colorado, Florida. (The Uruguayan “Florida” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable. The rest of this post is going to be about old books and Hereford cattle, so if you’re not interested, stop now.) The ranches around here, whether “working” (i.e. still a sheep, cattle & horse operation) or rehauled as a hotel catering to the tourist trade, generally offer a tranquil respite in a bucolic setting, with horseriding, sports facilities, four square meals a day and spotty Internet coverage. However, this particular estancia had an unusually illustrious history behind it. San Pedro de Timote started out under the Jesuits in the 18th century, and after being sold to an English immigrant in 1825, stayed in that family for more than 160 years through five generations. It was sold and converted into a hotel in 1997, but the estancia still has a family-owned feel to it, and many artifacts remain from its former life, including an impressive, dark-panelled library across from the main house. I spent many delightful hours there while my family was engaged in sunnier activities.

The collection reflects the fascinating lifestyle and pursuits of the landed gentry at the far end of the world. They were the descendants of English, German and Spanish immigrants who transplanted themselves across the ocean, but they still considered themselves Europeans, and sent their children abroad to study when the time came. There are books from throughout the 20th century in the major European languages: French medical books, old German photography magazines,  TIME (a young Edward Kennedy!), international tennis and boxing journals. Someone took up gardening, and collected reference books in English. All in all they were surprisingly connected to the larger world, in a place where it is even now difficult to get any reading material in any language other than Spanish. 

The bulk of the collection, and what made for some unexpectedly riveting reading, was made up of leather-bound volumes of periodicals relating to cattle husbandry and rural life. There were seventy years’ worth of the Herd Book of Hereford Cattle, as well as The American Hereford Journal, Farm & Country, The Pastoral Review, Meat & Wool, Hoofs & Horns, The Cattleman, Vie à la Campagne, El Campo, La Hacienda, El Chacra and various other almanacs. I spent most of the second day absorbed in the issues of The American Hereford Journal from 1939While later issues (post-1940’s) mainly list upcoming cattle auctions in a brisk, businesslike manner, the earlier journals have more romance to them and feature historical overviews of the industry and bits of wisdom from veteran cattlemen that even a lay reader finds interesting.

(The lighting wasn’t great inside the library. I apologize for the fuzzy pictures)

Have you seen a Hereford cow? I had not up until that point, and this happens to be a breed that looks very exotic to my eyes. Herefords look expensive and quite cuddly, with its head of plush cream-colored fur and a plump belly held up by short stumpy legs. I wanted to know why the owners of San Pedro were so crazy about them.

Western beef producers like Herefords. That fact is proved conclusively by the overwhelming predominance of cattle bearing the Whiteface trademark in western range areas. Herefords won their spurs early by going into a vast territory where beef was made the hard way – on short pastures and scant water supplies – and thrived on the hardships they found. So satisfactorily did they meet every requirement of the beef maker that their position as the “beef breed supreme” is to this very day unchallenged.

To me it has long been a wonder that Scotchmen didn’t adopt Herefords as their own breed, for Herefords are extremely economical converters of grass and forage into beef, and they can pick up a living where the picking is poor. The Scots, however, developed a breed in Scotland which shares with the Hereford a trait or an instinct of the highest practical value. That breed is the Ayrshire which can also maintain itself under hard climatic and feed conditions.

As breeds, Herefords and Ayrshires possess an almost miraculous power – a kind of unconquerable will – to live. Call it vitality, survival ability, hardiness, stamina, “rustling qualities,” resourcefulness, constitutional toughness, or what you will. The fact has been widely established and accepted that the Hereford breed is capable of “carrying on” and giving a creditable account of itself where living conditions are exceedingly hard and precarious.

And Herefords seem to inspire some pretty serious devotion. This from another fascinating article entitled “Why I Do What I Do With Herefords,” by Sam R. McKelvie, of Wood Lake, Neb.(I later found out that he had once served as governer of that state):

I have not built my herd. I am working at it and expect to be for the rest of my lifetime. The longer one works with purebred livestock, the more he realizes that the job is never finished. I hope the time never will come when we think that our herd is good enough.

It was in 1931 that we acquired By The Way Ranch in the heart of the Sandhills of Nebraska. That region is incomparable as a cattle country. The Sandhills are entirely different from the farming locality in which I was reared. Primarily and wholly, it is a cattle country. God intended the terrain there to be left green side up, and those who violated that rule saw their land wafted away on the wings of the wind. We produce no grain. This fact has a bearing upon the manner in which we must handle our breeding and range herds.

Wow. 

And indeed, after skimming thousands of pages on such issues as the relative merits of cottonseed meal vs. cold pressed cake and gazing into some soulful bovine eyes in three-fourths profile with names like Princess Domino and Belle Blanchard, I do think I’m falling for them, a little. And I never thought I could understand the appeal of a life on horseback, either, but then again, listen to this:

With the possible exception of the fur trade, no industry requires so few men for its successful operation over a large area as does ranching, and perhaps no other industry has employed so few men for the amount of capital invested. The lean, hard-bitten men who rode the great ranges of the West never numbered more than a few thousand though their great pastoral empire was larger than all of Western Europe.

(An interesting pictogram, from 1954)

I look forward to furthering my education on my next visit. Oh, I did look for pencil ads everywhere (the journals looked very promising at first), but it doesn’t seem like pencil manufacturers thought much of ranchers as a potential market. Maybe pencils and field notes were more for grain and produce farmers. I did see a typewriter ad but that was as far as I got regarding the stationery front.

Another fascinating subset of books that I found in the library was a prewar selection of travel guides, mostly in French, to Italy, Germany and the like. This included a series of illustrated books (“Le Monde En Couleurs”) intended to serve as a general introduction to certain countries. Of particular interest was the installment on the U.S., Les Etats-Unis d’Amérique (1946), which gives the vast country a state-by-state overview. Nowadays in this multicultural, politically correct age, any such article would read like a dry, factual Wikipedia entry heavy on the statistics, but a few pages into this book and you realize that people had a different attitude towards truth back then. The authors dispense few figures but simply know Kentuckians are like this and Vermonters are like that, and the anecdotes can be quite amusing.

Un vrai Vermonter répond «oui» ou «non» aux questions d’un étranger. Il ne supporte pas la vaine curiosité et ne se laisse jamais aller aux paroles inutiles. Ce n’est pas qu’il soit désagréable, loin de là, mais il n’a pas l’habitude de discourir sur des sujets qu’il ne connaît pas parfaitement et de première main. Le président Calvin Coolidge est le type parfait de ces paysans peu loquaces.

(A real Vermonter answers “yes” or “no” to the questions of a foreigner. He cannot stand vain curiosity, and never engages in useless talk. It’s not that he is being disagreeable, far from it, but simply that he is not in the habit of talking about subjects that he does not know perfectly and firsthand. President Calvin Coolidge is a perfect example of this kind of taciturn peasant.)

I regret the fact that I am not of the generation acquainted with President Coolidge. And while Emerson is quoted as saying that “Boston’s destiny is to lead the civilization of North America,” I get the distinct impression that Boston’s crown has passed on to New York since then… but what do I know. The below is from the chapter on “Le Massachusetts”:

Even today, there is not one young man or young woman who does not aspire to a “tour” of Europe in order to complete his or her education, and the New England accent rings out high, chanting the pages of the Baedecker, in front of all the sites and monuments that esteemed little book suggests for the tourists to admire. Even soldiers hailing from New England distinguish themselves from the rest of the American army in Europe with their eagerness to see and know all.

Hmmm, interestingly enough the only people I ever noticed as having this notorious NE accent in and around Boston were the cops and the subway conductors, the student population having long since become mixed and internationalized. 

And yes, America was king of production at that time. From the chapter “Le Pennsylvanie”:

Today, the ten million inhabitants living on its 45,000 square miles have helped Pennsylvania to take the lead in global production in numerous areas. The state, by itself, produces one-thirds of the nation’s coal, and half of all the steel that it consumes. Powerful Pittsburgh is the world’s biggest center of steel and glass. Hershey is the capital of chocolate, Lancaster the metropolis of linoleum. Allentown, Easton and Philipsburg take the lead in cement production. Three-quarters of all the slate used in the world come from the quarries of this state.

I had only ever heard of Wilkes-Barre, PA in connection with Eberhard Faber, but I was delighted to find it on the industrial map :)

Stationery Shopping in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, city of 3 million people, the Paris of South America. We visited the city for three days last week. I don’t know if BA had its own Baron Haussmann at one point, but the wide, wide boulevards, stately mansions, and leafy parks did indeed remind one of the French capital. It was fun being in a big city again!

There were even pencils in front of the Casa Rosada (the pink-toned Presidential Palace).

This time I had the opportunity to visit some bookstores, stationers and pen shops. Bookshops in BA are alive and well, and both the big, established chains (El Ateneo, Cúspide) and the smaller independent stores seem to be thriving, at least compared to those in other countries. It was great to see the “neighborhood bookstore” still alive.

For my pen searches, I relied on this list I dug up online before the trip (¡Gracias!). The first one on the list, Casa Pintos, seems to have closed (there was a new building at that address on Avenida de Mayo), but I hit the jackpot at Librería Catalinas. It was a delightful store chock-full of deluxe art supplies (Caran d’Ache sets!) and both current and vintage pens. They carried Parker (including a shelfful of vintage 51’s), Pelikan, Faber-Castell, Lamy, Cross, Sheaffer, Caran d’Ache, some Visconti, and I forget what else. Granted, the stock isn’t huge compared to a pen shop in Europe or Asia, but I tend to have a high opinion of stationers who carry Pilot Parallel pens. If we were to live in BA for any length of time I would undoubtedly be making regular pilgrimages to this shop.

Judging from the display, it looked like Catalinas had been in business for a long time. The most intriguing item in this store was a box of vintage Staedtler jumbo pencils – the owner’s personal collection, and not for sale. They allowed me to take a picture though :)

I also spotted some vintage pencils in a couple of stalls at the awesome San Telmo antiques market. Several Johann Fabers and some Argentinian Van Dykes, mostly colored. I would have picked some up but due to a miscalculation we had no cash on us and couldn’t buy anything. If I ever get another chance to come here I will work through this neighborhood again – porteños don’t seem to throw anything away, and the most amazing stuff comes out of those stately old homes!

My stationery souvenirs from BA are mainly notebooks. Speaking of notebooks, there is one mystery about this city I cannot figure out – there are no Moleskines or Paperblanks or any other internationally known paper brand to be found anywhere. I’m not saying that Moleskine is so great that every nation on earth should import it, but rather that this brand and several others like it have so taken over the world that it is nearly impossible to escape it – and I wonder why this country in particular should be out of the loop. Every time I saw a Moleskine-like rotating display in a bookshop I made a beeline for it, but it always turned out to be a lookalike called BRÜGGE. (I think the line is manufactured in China, but I’m not 100% certain.) The notebooks I did get are both made in Argentina.

This is a notebook in my favorite format: spiral-bound, square grid, lots of pages. The paper feels above average, but I won’t be too disappointed if it bleeds or feathers. One advantage of being a pencil user is that you become much more tolerant of various kinds of paper.

The pencils are both unfamiliar variants of familiar brands. I actually got the Brazilian-made Eco in place of a one-peso change at a bookstore; Argentinians hate small change and will go to some lengths to avoid dealing in coins.

The second is a regular lined and banded notebook, but with cute illustrations inside, from a brand called Monoblock. I don’t know if I’ll actually be using this notebook for anything; this is just a souvenir to remember the city’s great cafés and pastries by :)

The last item of note is marketed as an iPad case, but I have something different in mind. The factors that make Argentina one of the best places in the world to have a steak in also enable it to produce a lot of leather, and BA is known for its multitude of leather-goods shops selling jackets, shoes, bags, wallets, etc. Now, I’ve always wanted a leather desk pad that cushions sheets of paper against a fountain pen nib, ever since I saw one back in Seoul (the brand was Italian). BA shops carry that too – aptly named carpetas para escritorio – but they were too large, and often too complicated (with lids, sleeves, gilt-edged corners etc.). I wanted a smaller pad that was more portable, like a leather clipboard without the clip. And this is just the right size, and at around US$43, quite a bargain I think. (I might still work myself up towards a proper carpeta in the future.) 

And, with all that leather in search of a purpose, I certainly hope the artisans across the river will be interested enough to make other stationery-related articles in the future – notebook covers, pencil sleeves, pencases, and heck, why not sharpener cases? :)