A month ago, at 4:10 on a very chilly morning in Tokyo, I got into a taxi for the quick ride through traffic-less streets to Haneda for a 6:40 flight to Tottori, capital of the least populous prefecture in Japan. I have been a loyal customer of Hakase for the past few years, and decided personally to pick up my two new additions to the collection so that Ryo Yamamoto, the owner of Hakase and the current pen maker in a company started by his grandfather, could tweak the nibs and make any last-minute adjustments. This was the pretext. Of course, I was also curious to see Tottori for myself because I always wondered what it was about the place that could produce such beautiful writing instruments. Ryo-san explained it to me: "I am inspired by the tranquility." Indeed, the work table where he tweaks the nibs is in a window overlooking the street.
As the plane banked over the famous sand-dunes of Tottori a minute or two before landing, I looked around. The waters were very rough. Snow covered the snow and the bamboo roofs of the houses. It seemed an idyllic picture of what I had always imagined Japanese rural life to be.
Tottori, of course, is not exactly the country. It is a city, albeit a very small one. It took about 20 minutes in rush-hour traffic to drive from the airport to my hotel, the New Otani, which is located directly across the street from Tottori Railway Station. I chose it expressly for that reason, because the next day I would be taking the express train to Himeji, and from there the Nozomi Shinkansen to Tokyo. Trains cover the 711 km trip in just under 5 hours.
I had a vision of Hakase's shop from photos I had seen on the web and, specifically, here on FPN. I always imagined Tottori to be akin to a Southern California beach town. It is not. Coming from Tokyo, one can be forgiven for thinking that the downtown area looks a bit gray and dusty. Perhaps it was the weather that day...it was freezing cold, and within 3 hours, it would be snowing and hailing, after which the sun would shine despite a fierce wind...but as I turned right at the Mister Donut shop directly across from the entrance to the railway station, I passed some shuttered restaurants, grocery shops, mechanics' garages, and pachinko parlors with the music blaring even at 9:30 am until I came to Hakase's familiar brick facade.
Ryo-san was waiting for me inside at a table, and beside him sat Kyoko-san, a Tottori native who served as our translator because my Japanese could certainly not be relied upon to get us through a day's conversation. Shortly after I walked in, Ryo-san's parents came in: his father worked for many years as a pen maker for Platinum, and his mother is the one who runs the shop and is solely responsible for the beautiful calligraphy on Hakase's signature boxes, which she does with a fude (brush pen).
The shop is very small: on the left-hand side is the table where we sat to discuss my pens and another table on which sample pens and materials are laid out for prospective customers to examine, while on the right-hand side, there is a small pen counter that sells several well-known brands, as well as Private Reserve and Hakase Real Sepia inks. In the front window overlooking the street is a table, like a draftsman's table made of wood, at which Ryo-san does his nib work. The lathes and other machines, all operated by foot, with which he turns the pens are in the rear of the shop. This is a one-man operation: there are no apprentices, no helpers, no division of labor...Ryo-san makes all the pens from beginning to end. The only thing that he does not do is the urushi finishing, which is sent out, and the tortoise shell (in Japanese, "bekko") barrels are made by a single artisan in another part of Japan who is in his 90s and is allegedly the last one who can work in tortoise shell by hand according to traditional techniques. Once I found all of this out, I could understand why there is such a long waiting list.
Ryo-san took the entire day off to speak with me about my pens, and we were together until lunchtime, when he led me and Kyoko to a nearby restaurant which served a fabulous meal based on crab, for which Tottori is famous. In the evening, we went to an amazing sushi restaurant in a small house which had six seats at the bar and was run by a single family. There was no menu, of course: every meal is omakase, "what the chef selects." I have been eating sushi for at least 30 years, and have been to Japan a few times, and never before have I eaten sushi that was this good.
I came away with a black buffalo horn pen with tortoise shell barrel. The material has a depth that is beguiling; the tortoise shell seems to be liquid. It was explained to me that tortoise shell is composed entirely of keratin, and it is scraped off in extremely thin layers by an artisan who then molds it around a ceramic tube by steaming it; in this way, one layer literally glues itself to the next. As a natural product, tortoise shell, like buffalo horn, is subject to all sorts of unpredictabilities. For example, buffalo horn tends to contract when it gets cold, and expand when the weather is warm and humid. Thus, I learned, the ring around the barrel can become loose or
tight. There is no way to fix this without risking a crack in the barrel.
I also came away with an African ebony pen with a sterling silver band. Both pens are magnificent, but the nibs required a lot of work, and Ryo-san had endless patience. They are great nibs, but still not perfect...one is a B, the other a B modified stub. They will require time to get used to my peculiar way of writing, perhaps, but I cannot help but use them everyday. I love the pens. They remind me of an unforgettable detour to Tottori to visit people whom I consider not only artisans, but friends.
I hope you enjoy a few pictures. The shrimp, called ama-ebi, was twitching even as we ate it.
Edited by daoud62, 05 April 2014 - 02:46.