Penman No. 349: Pen Hunting in Japan

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Penman for Monday, April 15, 2019

 

MOST TOURISTS visit Japan, sensibly enough, for the sushi, the sakura, and the swords. I like all of the above, and chased after all of them during our recent trip to Tokyo (a highlight was seeing a 13th-c. Masamune katana at the Tokyo National Museum). But I had one more item on my personal agenda that I couldn’t possibly leave Japan without—or at least, without looking for it.

That desideratum, of course, was the fountain pen, and there’s a very good reason why fountain pens should be on the discriminating tourist’s Japanese shopping list. Just as they’ve excelled in practically all the arts and crafts, the Japanese have made some of the world’s best fountain pens, many with uniquely Japanese materials and production processes, and some very special nibs.

With fountain pens undergoing a global resurgence in both the corporate and personal spheres as instruments of individuation—a means by which you can literally leave your own signature on a stack of digitized documents, and set yourself apart from the ballpoint-clicking herd—many Filipinos now know familiar American brands like Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. Lawyers and doctors typically want German-made Montblancs, and might even try Pelikans, Lamys, and Faber-Castells. But a growing number of mostly young professionals have discovered the Japanese Big Three—Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum—as well as newer brands like the Taiwanese TWSBI. They’ve been helped along by the emergence of local fountain pen, ink, and stationery specialists like Scribe Writing Essentials, Everything Calligraphy, Noteworthy, and PenGrafik.

The Japanese pens I was looking for in Tokyo exist in a whole other realm of connoisseurship. These are artisanal masterpieces, the culmination of centuries of fine workmanship. I’ve often said that pens fascinate me as the perfect fusion of art and engineering, and nothing exemplifies that more than the best Japanese pens. You’d think that the Japanese would be more inclined toward brushes—and they still may be—but a fine pen is considered a personal treasure, as distinct as the swords carried by the samurai of old.

In 2002, Pilot Pen Company—one of Japan’s pen pioneers—opened a pen museum at its headquarters in Kyobashi. Beng and I made a beeline for it, walking the couple of kilometers from the Tsukiji Fish Market, only to discover to our dismay that it had closed a few years earlier. But Tokyo’s fabled pen shops are in themselves museums, and more, so armed with a 72-hour subway pass, we made the rounds of the usual suspects. (Earlier, at the Tokyo City Flea Market in Shinagawa, I had treated myself to a defective but repairable Pelikan M805, a Pilot Custom 74, and a prewar Pilot with a flexible shiro steel nib.)

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A fountain pen tourist’s first stop in Tokyo should be Itoya in Ginza. Japan’s oldest stationery store, Itoya has a whole floor devoted just to fountain pens, and not just your everyday Sheaffer either but the very finest examples of Japanese penmaking. The Japanese pride themselves in the art of maki-e (literally, “sprinkled picture”), which involves creating intricate designs with gold dust and hand painting on ebonite or hard-rubber barrels and caps, on which many layers of hard urushi lacquer are applied. In the 1920s, Pilot—then known as Namiki—partnered with Dunhill to create exquisite examples of urushi/maki-e pens, which have since sold for over $250,000. These urushi and maki-e pens—now also produced by such makers as Nakaya, Danitrio, and Hakase, aside from the Big Three—are hand-made by master craftsmen in small shops, and are typically ordered months ahead. Or you can go to Itoya (or online, to www.nibs.com or www.penchalet.com, among others) to find yours.

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A couple of blocks away from Itoya is Eurobox, a small room on the fourth floor of an old building stocked full of vintage pens, mainly Western, very well chosen and sold at competitive prices. Another must-see is Maruzen’s large pen section at the basement of its Nihonbashi store. And no Tokyo pen visit would be complete without stepping into Kingdom Note in Shinjuku, which specializes in used but top-tier pens, both Japanese and Western. One pen store that takes and ships orders for Pilot urushi pens with special nibs like the so-called Waverley and Falcon nibs is Tokyo Pen Shop Quill in Kugahara, which unfortunately we missed because we took an express instead of a local train on our last full day in Tokyo.

That diversion turned out to be serendipitous, because Beng and I got off on a whim at Sengakuji Station, only to realize that we were within walking distance of the graves of the famous 47 ronin who had attacked and beheaded a despotic ruler in 1702, paying for their deed with their own lives. As we paid our respects to these noble warriors under the cherry blossoms, I seemed to hear voices urging me to “Buy a big Japanese pen to fight evil overlords!”

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So off we went to our last pen stop, Komehyo Ginza. Komehyo is a resale chain that sells mostly high-end used goods but also some new items, including fountain pens, and this was where I found my “grail” pen, by which I was going to remember Japan this time around—a large, new, and thankfully affordable urushi Platinum Izumo pen, its deep red undertone sheening through the rich lacquer. As with many things Japanese, it’s simplicity itself, but breathtakingly elegant. Unlike some places we know, Japanese stores accord their customers extraordinarily solicitous service—you can hold and try out any pen you want for as long as you want without any dagger looks from the staff—and even Komehyo lived up to that standard, processing my 8 percent tourist rebate without any fuss (a few stores ignore it, or require you to collect it at the airport).

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As we flew home with the Izumo sitting smartly in my pocket, I munched on my 100-yen rice crackers from Daiso, and dreamed about whipping out my pen and slashing a few bile-filled throats in the name of truth, beauty, and justice.

(Top pen images from http://www.nibs.com)

 

Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

MY WIFE Beng and I have been to Japan—on our own and together—a few times, but not until last week did we go there just to immerse ourselves for seven days in one place, not trying too hard to see or do or buy too many things. The place was Tokyo, which Beng and I last visited as a couple almost 20 years ago, a depressingly downscale sortie from which Beng can only remember living off the nearby 7-11 and slurping rice gruel with construction workers beneath a bridge. With my retirement then looming, I booked this trip last year, well in advance of the 2019 cherry-blossom season, which Beng had expressed a longing to catch. I thought it was a chance to make up for that sorry first outing and for making new memories.

Wherever we travel, Beng and I always have two sure targets in mind: museums and flea markets. The museums provide an intimate feel of the history of the place, and the flea markets—well, they a have a bit of the museum in them, bits you can actually buy and bring home. (Indeed, we often remember cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beijing, Seoul—less for their landmarks than for their flea markets.) For this Tokyo trip, we also resolved to enjoy the cherry blossoms and to look into as many fountain-pen shops as we could.

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The Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms—that perennial signal and reminder of the transience of beauty and of life itself—is well known. As our friend Julie Hill puts it in her book Privileged Witness, “Cherry blossoms are a punctual miracle, a well-rehearsed event in the annual Japanese calendar. They first appear in the southern part of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. As the weather gets warmer, cherry trees flower in central Japan; and in two weeks, depending on the weather, they will make their presence in Tokyo, achieving their full glory in the parks—Ueno park is a famous spot—and the gardens bordering the Imperial Palace.

“For weeks preparations have been underway in Kyoto; paper blossoms have been fluttering off lampposts and major downtown stores; newspapers and television channels have run elaborate charts of the sakura zensen—the cherry blossom—as part of the daily weather forecast. There are many varieties of trees, some occurring in the wilds of Japan, featured in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Others are bred as flowering trees with over-large, over-pink and over-endowed petals. The most popular are those with small pink flowers held in compact clusters.”

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The sakura bloomed early this year—the weather in Tokyo was nippy to almost chilly—but we caught showers of them in pink and white around the Imperial Palace, along the Meguro River, and in Ueno Park. Most fortunately, we stumbled into a bank of them in Chidorigafuchi Park just as it darkened, and suddenly the trees were lit up, lending ethereal magic to the scene. The only downer with these hanami or flower-viewing walks is that you’re doing them with several hundred other people looking for exactly the same thing—that perfect pose or shot under the same trees.

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A quieter time can be had exploring the sakura in context, such as you might do at the Tokyo National Museum on the far edge of Ueno Park, fittingly at the end of a long walk under the flowering cherry trees. There the blossoms figure in everything from Hiroshige’s Edo Road prints to exquisite kimono and lacquered boxes and bowls—indeed, a recurring theme that can only resonate more poignantly in these times of fleeting joys and affections.

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Speaking of fleeting joys, we had our fill of them at the Tokyo City Flea Market beside the Ohi Racecourse in Shinagawa, where we spent most of our Sunday morning. Beng and I are Japan surplus-shop regulars, and this was the mother of all of them, hawking everything from used clothes and vintage electronics to ceramics and scientific instruments. We walked away with a handsome thermometer/hygrometer, which Beng needs for her art restoration studio, for 100 yen (50 pesos) and a big leather bag to carry our stuff for 300 yen. My big find—adrift in a sea of bags and blouses—was a newish Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen, which normally retails for between $100 and $150, for less than P2,000.

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That was before I ran into the mother lode of vintage pens at one stall, where the owner had kept them in translucent plastic boxes, not thinking that anyone would be interested in them, and not thinking that a persistent Pinoy with X-ray vision would spot Montblanc stars in a galaxy of caps. It was a real treasure trove that I would have gladly sold a car for were I a younger and hungrier collector, but after much dickering, I picked out just two prize pens, about which you’ll hear more in another report on pen hunting in Tokyo.

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This time around, we had chosen a better hotel, well located near the Imperial Palace, small and rather expensive but impeccably clean as Japanese hotels go. We still found ourselves subsisting on the prepackaged rice-and-fish dinners at 7-11 (actually, they’re good and cheap!), so Beng and I celebrated the day (and yes, the transience of money) with a grand dinner at a steakhouse in our neighborhood in Chiyoda. A good time was had by all.

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Penman No. 297: A Witness Speaks

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Penman for Monday, April 9, 2018

 

I WAS very honored to receive a response to my recent column-piece on “Writers in Wartime” from no less than Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., the eminent economist-historian perhaps best known by contemporary readers for his harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed by the retreating Japanese forces in Manila at the closing days of the Second World War. Titling his message “Writers Under Compulsion,” Dr. Legarda pretty much confirms what I observed, but with the kind of authority I couldn’t possibly lay claim to. A teenager during the war, he also adds a couple of personal vignettes. (Previously, Dr. Legarda and I had corresponded on another topic of mutual interest, the French adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose very colorful account of his Philippine sojourn Legarda had introduced in a 1972 edition.)

This may sound like an academic discussion, especially to young readers who know or care little about what came before them, but the question of how writers respond to the challenges (and opportunities) of authoritarian regimes is actually a very timely and practical one. Dr. Legarda ends his comments with a pointed reference to martial law, but we all know that authoritarianism didn’t end with Marcos or martial law. And it’s one thing when you’re writing at the point of a Japanese bayonet—but is it much different when you take the bayonet away and replace it with a balled fist? Here’s what a witness to war had to say:

The predicament of writers working under an authoritarian regime is brought out by Jose “Butch” Dalisay in an article, “Writers in Wartime” (Philippine Star, March 26, 2018). In this column Dalisay describes the conditions under which writers worked during the Japanese occupation.

They had to toe the Japanese propaganda line of Japan as the liberator of Asian people from Western imperialism, the exemplar of nationalist governance.

Dalisay examines the December 1943 issue of the Philippine Review. How did writers comport themselves at the time? Were they cultural collaborators?

Dalisay did not know those writers himself and did not know their inner convictions but as one who lived through those times, I can say that the editor, F.B. Icasiano or “Mang Kiko,” was reportedly a collaborator and disappeared after the battle for Manila.

Other editors, all working for the Manila Shimbun Sha (the only publisher permitted), were Vicente Albano Pacis, Angel  Anden, and Jose Luna Castro—all respectable journalists who had to make a living.

It was not difficult for fiction writers like Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera to avoid the propaganda line by writing Christmas stories. This was also easy with Juan Collas’ translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adiosand Jovito Salonga’s commentary on the language of the Constitution.

A friend of my youth, Isagani A. Cruz, in a different issue wrote a poem in praise of Rizal. Later, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court he  would be known as the most elegant prose stylist in the Court.

For the fictionists Dalisay notes the sharp and painful transition to the darkening of the times.

Not so the essayists who could not avoid mouthing the Japanese propaganda line. One was educator Camilo Osias, author of the prewar Philippine Readersseries and future Senate president, who argued for a sound eclectic choice as Japan had done in its cultural borrowings and emphasizing the precedence of the State, of social interests over the individual.

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Osias once escorted my mother home from a civic meeting, and at  our front steps asked my father if he was willing to send me to Japan on a scholarship. My father flatly turned him down. “I see I’m barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

Osias’ ideas were general enough to avoid being tagged propaganda; at most they might be qualified as political adjustment. Not so Luis Montilla, national librarian, who wrote fatuous praises for Japan as a guide and regenerator of true Orientalism, realizing Rizal’s supposed dream of re-Orientalizing his people.

Dalisay withholds judgment on this matter considering that it was possible for some Filipinos to regard the invading Japanese as liberators, after centuries of the white man’s rule.

But as one who lived through that time, I remember the Filipinos regarding themselves as better than the Japanese, who had cruelly ravaged Manchuria and China. They were certainly not looked on as liberators by a people who were already on the eve of full independence.

Perhaps the writer’s dilemma of the time was best expressed by a leading Filipino writer   in Spanish, Don Pedro Aunario, who told my uncle Jose “Pepito” Legarda who worked at the Shimbun Sha with him, “How fortunate you are that you don’t have to write for a living.” Yes, writing for a living under an authoritarian regime meant suppressing one’s own opinions and parroting those of the rulers. Writers would experience this again under the Marcos dictatorship. (Images above from pyswarrior.com, photo of Dr. Legarda below from ateneo.edu)

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