A Snooping around the
Nakaya Fountain Pen Company
(and spying out new products)
By Russ Stutler, October, 2003
It had been a few months since I visited the Nakaya Fountain Pen Company headquarters in Tokyo (read about that visit), but in recent weeks I had heard rumors that some some new products had been developed or taken beyond the prototype stage, so I decided to go back with my camera and snoop around.
I once again took the subway (the Ginza line) to Inaricho station which is located in Higashi Ueno.
When I arrived, two of the craftsmen, Mr. Watanabe, Mr. Matsubara and pen designer Mr. Yoshida were busy at work on new pens. Toshiya Nakata, president of Nakaya wasn't able to come into the office this time, but he telephoned the office to welcome me back.
I asked everybody how business was going, and they were happy to report that they were busier than ever. The big surprise is that their overseas sales have recently surpassed their domestic sales. Although domestic sales have not slowed down, more westerners are buying Nakaya pens than Japanese now! They asked me to pass on their gratitude to all the Pentracers who have made this possible.
The last time I was there, Nakaya had just finished making a clear prototype on a special pen with metal internal weights to customize the balance. Many of you saw that prototype in Len Provisor's hands at the Washington Pen Show recently. I asked how that project was going, and Mr. Yoshida showed me several ebonite pens with these internal weights.
These should be available very soon! I still don't know what they are going to call this thing, but it is a great invention
Next, they showed me their blue "Kikyo" pen. This is a recent addition to the Wajima urushi pen line. I've seen this model before, but this particular pen seemed a bit different. The blue finish appeared to be "deeper" for lack of a better word.
When I inquired about this, I was told that this change in appearance occurred naturally after just a few months of aging.
I then asked about the "Shobu" purple pen project. Last time I had visited, there were several prototypes -- attempts to get the perfect shade of purple. Mr. Yoshida was happy to inform me that they finally arrived at the perfect purple which was not too bright and not too subtle.
They had tried to produce a colored lacquer as they had done on previous urushi pens, by adding pigment, but with this particular color they had to increase the amount of pigment in order to achieve the brilliance they were aiming for. However, this created a new problem: uneven coverage, especially on the ends where the color tends to thin out. The only way to combat this problem was to apply several additional coats of urushi with burnishing between each coat to assure an even coating of color. This tedious process of repeated coating, hardening and burnishing is the same as that used for maki-e pens (except for the application of gold dust), and even experienced maki-e artisans find it challenging to get consistent results.
The results were incredible. These new shobu pens are unique among the Wajima nuri pens and represent an incredible amount of work. The contrast between the gold clip and the purple body is striking. Of course, yellow and purple are opposites on the color wheel, so the create a beautiful balance.
Developing the perfect shade of purple may have been a challenge for Nakaya and the maki-e artists, but just trying to faithfully show that color in a photograph proved to be a great challenge for me. I was not alone. The Nakaya staff had tried to get a decent photo of the color, but it kept turning out black. I tried for well over an hour with a makeshift light tent and two 500 watt lights, taking dozens of photos, and only one came close to the true color. This photo should give you an idea what the pen looks like. The color is stunning!
Mr. Watanabe the nib master held both of these pens in his hands and gazed on them proudly. He also remarked about the "deep" nature of their finishes which seemed to intensify over the months. The Shobu purple pen had also "deepened" in a few months time.
I don't own either of these pens, but the black-over-red tamenuri pen I bought over a year ago has definitely transformed over the months, and I can see more of the red showing through. It's subtle, but it's definitely different now!
When Nakaya started out with a couple of retired Platinum craftsmen a few years ago, they began production by creating the types of pens they had been making in the past -- only this time by hand. So their pens at the time were pretty much identical to models also produced by Platinum. But then Nakaya began to design their own unique models such as these Wajima urushi pens, which have turned out to be very popular.
I would say the Wajima nuri pens are quintessential Nakaya. And with Mr. Yoshida on board thinking up more exclusively Nakaya pen designs, the small company is definitely charting its own course, quite different from that of its bigger cousin.
Next Mr. Yoshida brought out their urushi hand painted ink converter. I had seen this on my last visit, but this time something new had caught my eye; there were a couple of goldfish lurking among those seaweed.
Nakaya decided the design needed a little more life.
If you have a clear Nakaya demonstrator (skeleton model) then you can show off your pets to the world. But keeping in mind that most Nakaya pen owners do not have a skeleton model, these "private aquariums" were actually designed with regular models in mind, for the pen user's private enjoyment.
Of course, the effect depends on the color of ink you use. Imagine these with blue or even turquoise ink!
Do you recall the hand made wooden hinge on the pen box prototype from the last visit? That has now been perfected and included on all of Nakaya's wooden boxes.
Which reminds me, it had not occurred to me until recently that the kanji on the box might not be readily understandable to a lot of people (as they often say, "I've been here too long").
The larger line of characters running down the middle reads, TOKU SEI MAN NEN HITSU which is translated, "specially made fountain pen."
The smaller line running down the left side and running into the official seal reads NAKAYA MAN NEN HITSU KIN SEI which is translated, "Nakaya fountain pen carefully produced." (Sorry if this translation has taken away some of the mystique!)
As you can see, they also have new fancy outer boxes made of heavy Japanese paper that seems to have something like silk running through the texture.
As I was packing my camera, I spied a pen tray on a desk with ten pens, each with a different nib type.
Several of these nibs, such as the soft (flexible) nibs and the stubs were created because of requests from customers .
I couldn't resist the temptation to sit down and write something with each of these nibs in turn.
The first pen I picked up turned out to be a surprise. It had two slits on the nib.
Mr. Yoshida told me that there were two corresponding slits on the underlying feed as well.
Nakaya nibs usually have kanji characters designating the nib type, but this one had the Roman characters, "MUSIC."
I had no idea Nakaya was planning on making a music nib. This had incredible line variation, and was very smooth, partly because of the very wet and broad vertical strokes.
As I tried each pen, I was impressed by the smooth lines. My writing style is pretty standard, and these standard pens fit my hand perfectly.
My other big surprise was the Nakaya stub nib. This nib has been available for about a year now, but I had not actually tried one out until now. I must confess that I am a flex snob. I had my fling with edged pens many years ago in college, and had "graduated" to flexible nibs where line variation depended on skillful use of pressure and not just the angle of the pen.
If I could handle a flex nib, why would I ever want a stub? Well, this stub nib put me in my place. Not only did it give my handwriting a subtle beauty almost effortlessly, but it was smooth as butter!
By the way, these two writing samples were scanned and resized together; this shows the relative difference between the music nib and the stub.
Later, when I looked at all the handwriting sample, my few lines produced with the stub nib stood out as being more "classy" than the others -- even the flex nib samples. Okay, I heard that snicker; keep in mind I used to get failing grades in handwriting -- really!
How embarrassing; I have been smitten. Now, I gotta get me a Nakaya stub!
Time to save those pennies (I mean yen) or sell off a few more other pens in my humble collection. I'm one of those people who would rather have a few really great pens that I use every day than a large collection with a rotation system, and the few Nakaya pens in my pocket have become my pens of choice.
A special thanks to the busy Nakaya staff for letting me snoop around and bother them with all my questions!
For more information on Nakaya Pens, visit their English language Web site.