A Visit to the
Nakaya Fountain Pen Company
By Russ Stutler, July 23, 2003
The New Headquarters
The company didn't even have its own office until recently, but borrowed a room in the current Platinum Pen company building. A few months ago, in March, they finally became completely independent by setting up shop in a small office in one of the older neighborhoods in Tokyo.
Recently I visited their office, camera in hand.
I took the subway (the Ginza line) to Inaricho station which is located in Higashi Ueno. This area retains the atmosphere of old Edo, its ancient streets and buildings stubbornly resisting the winds of change, and is a very fitting location for Nakaya. The Nakaya Pen Company is located on the second floor of a building surrounded on both sides by old shops filled with the smell of incense, and specializing in Butsudan and other Buddhist articles.
Nakaya and Platinum
Many have asked what is the relationship between Platinum and Nakaya.
Platinum was founded in 1919 by Shunichi Nakata, and the original name of the company was Nakaya. Later, the name was changed to the Platinum Pen Company. The current president of Platinum is Toshihiro Nakata, son of the founder.
The old Nakaya name was revived a few years ago, and given to this newly formed company which is directed by Toshiya Nakata. Toshiya the grandson of Platinum's founder, and son of the current president. The old globe logo of the original Nakaya company once again adorns the nibs of the current Nakaya pens.
The Nakaya Staff
From left to right: Mr. Yoshida, Mr. Watanabe, and Mr. Maruyama
I also met Mr. Maruyama who specializes in metal work including nibs, clips and bands. I had not met Mr. Maruyama before, so this was a special priviledge.
Mr. Matsubara the barrel specialist whom I have met several times in the past, works at home. His huge foot powered lathe would not fit in this small room!
Also in the room was a new member of the Nakaya staff, Mr. Yoshida, who was formerly a pen designer at Platinum, and now does the same work for Nakaya. He entered Nakaya in March, on the same day they moved into this office.
Inspite of the traditional nature and feel of fountain pens, Mr. Yoshida does all his work on a computer using an auto CAD program. Now Nakaya is re-examining every aspect of their current pen designs from a scientific viewpoint to make them even more efficient inside and out, while retaining their traditional look and feel. There was a beautifully rendered new pen design on Mr. Yoshida's monitor, but I am allowed to publish a photo of it here, since it is still is the works.
It was very difficult to tear them away from their work even for the few moments I needed to get a shot of their faces.
These craftsmen do not receive a salary, but merely receive commissions on the pens they create. So they are happy to be so busy. They even laughed when I apologized for the part which Pentrace has played in this recent flood of orders.
After a few minutes, Toshiya Nakata, president of Nakaya came in, so I was free to ask all the questions I wanted without being a nuisance.
His "day job" is at Platinum, and he gets no salary or commissions from Nakaya at all. This is a labor of love for him. The whole reason he started this company was to allow these retired craftsmen to continue to use their skills after they left Platinum.
He also wanted to promote the use of high quality traditional fountain pens. He once confided in me that he is happy to see people using fountain pens even if those pens were made by other pen companies.
He is a bit of a pen collector himself, as are the other Nakaya craftsmen.
We discussed the amazing success of the Wajima-nuri pens. These are ebonite (hard black rubber) pens which have been coated with several layers of urushi (lacquer). At first these were produced in the traditional Japanese urushi colors of black or red, but have recently become available in green and blue. In response to requests from customers, there are now plans to produce a purple Wajima-nuri pen. Right now they are experimenting to get the perfect shade.
The most sought after urushi finish is still the tamenuri, which has an undercoat of red which is later covered with black or natural brown urushi. As the finish ages, the top coating becomes translucent, allowing the color underneath to shine through like a dark pool of water. Some models have an undercoating of green or blue.
The Tamenuri in red and black
These pens have no gold band or clip; just solid unbroken color. A few months ago Nakaya did start producing a red and natural brown tamenuri pen with band and clip. During this visit, I was surprised to see among the newest pens a blue wajima-nuri pen with gold band and clip. The gold contrasted wonderfully with the dark blue color.
I asked Mr. Nakata where the idea for these unique pens came from. He told me that last year, he received an unusual order from an urushi craftsman in Wajima, Japan's most well known urushi and maki-e producing town. This man wanted to buy an ebonite pen with no clip or band or any other trimmings; just plain unadorned ebonite. Such pens were not yet being produced by Nakaya, but they went ahead and made one for him and sent it to Wajima. He then coated it with many layers urushi, and had created for himself a fine one-of-a-kind treasure. He later showed this creation to Mr. Nakata who was so impressed that he asked him if he could produce more pens of the same type, and thus Nakaya's most unique and successful pen was born!
I have been asked not to mention the name of this urushi craftsman as he is the head of a well known urushi business which has been passed down from father to son for many generations, and many of his fellow craftsmen would take a dim view of applying this ancient Japanese art to such a distinctly western product as the fountain pen.
For more information on Wajima, maki-e and urushi pens, see my article , A visit with Wajima urushi and maki-e artists
The Decorated Converter
Mr. Nakata then showed me some of their new products which have not yet been announced -- until now. The first is a converter which has been decorated with hand-painted pictures of flowing seaweed in various colors of urushi. When the converter is filled with ink, this could produce quite an interesting effect, and give the owner something extra to look forward to as the pen runs dry.
I must admit I had never seen a decorated converter before. Would make an interesting gift for the pen collector who has everything! These converters will probably cost an extra 2,000 yen (approximately 17 USD at today's exchange rate).
The Pen "Pillow"
Next, I was shown Nakaya's new pen "pillows" made of wood covered with urushi in the traditonal red with a black base. The word "pillow" (makura) might seem odd for such a hard object, but real Japanese pillows are small and very hard (and great for the neck, incidentally).
Since the original Wajima-nuri pens come with no clip, they are prone to roll off the desk without some kind of pen rest. These pen pillows come in either single pen or three pen versions. The cost to produce these dose not vary significantly between the two versions, and Nakaya is considering setting the price for either one at around 5,000 yen (approximately 47 USD at todays exchange rate). Mr. Nakata is also considering including these pillows for free on purchases which reach a certain amount (yet to be determined).
The Mystery Prototype
Next I was shown a prototype for a new pen design concept. Can you figure out what this is?
First, there is a brass band, threaded on the outside.
It fits snugly on the end of this ebonite rod.
An end cap is removed to make the inside of the barrel accessible. The barrel has threads running its entire length on the inside which correspond to the threads on the brass band.
(This is a clear acrylic prototype to demonstrate what is going on inside; The final product will be made of ebonite.)
This band can be inserted and screwed into place in the barrel. The ebonite rod allows you to screw in the band all the way to the far end of the barrel. There are even markings on this rod to let you know when you have reached the end of the barrel.
So what is the purpose of this brass band? Here are some hints: Each band will weigh exactly one gram. Five bands will fit inside the barrel, totaling five grams.
Did you figure it out? Nakaya has received requests from customers who like a flexible nib on a pen with a heavier barrel. Nakaya makes flexible nibs (semi flex by vintage standards), but the ebonite is a relatively light-weight material.
What is the ideal weight for a heavier barrel? Obviously, this ideal weight varies with each customer.
So Nakaya has created a way for pen users to customize the weight and balance of their own barrels, and has done it in a way that does not affect the external appearance of the pen!
This is probably a first in pen design. Other pen makers have had to resort to external bands to add weight and shift the balance.
This pen is still in the prototype stage, and they are still trying to determine the ideal size for such a pen. The addition of scientific minded Mr. Yoshida has already begun to make a difference.
The New Improved Box
Even the design of their wooden box has not escaped scrutiny. The new version will have hinges -- made of wood!
It is obviously a challenge to come up with new, creative ideas on one hand, and yet on the other hand retain the traditional "old" feel in the design that is part of the lure of fountain pens. I think Nakaya has done an admirable job in keeping a balance between the two.
Coming to a Pen Show Near You!
Web photos are okay, but you really must see these new products in person, and handle them with your own hands to appreciate them. Unfortunately, this isn't possible unless you plan on visiting Tokyo, since Nakaya is strictly an online vendor at the present with no dealers overseas.
However, Mr. Nakata says he plans on sending some or all of these new products and prototypes to a lucky Pentracer who will be attending the Washington Pen Show, so that Nakaya fans at the show will have an opportunity to play with these. Watch the Pentrace Message Board for more details.
By the Way, Nakaya does welcome visitors, so you may want to put them on your itinerary if you ever visit Tokyo. Just give them a call or e-mail before you come.
For more information on Nakaya Pens, visit their English language Web site.