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My Visit To Hakase

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#1 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 02:34

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

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Edited by daoud62, 05 April 2014 - 02:46.


#2 Earthdawn

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 02:54

Wow... thank you for sharing all the details of your amazing trip and time with Ryo.

 

Beautiful pens and I am sure you are enjoying them every moment you spend with them.

 

Congrats !!!!



#3 roger3

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 03:02

Fantastic! Pictures are great and pens are beautiful! You write a good story and not only make me hungry for sushi but hungry for one of the pens as well!! :D  Thanks for sharing your experience


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#4 shuuemura

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 03:34

Wow! That tortoiseshell/buffalo horn pen is just amazing! And the Japanese meal photos are just making me salivate. Congratulations on your new pens!

 

Can't wait for my own Hakase to be delivered, hopefully by October this year?



#5 Sblakers

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 03:47

Thank you for sharing your story with us! You've allowed us some insight into something we may never have known(those of us who can't travel to japan). I had no idea the tortoiseshell was fashioned into pens in that manner. Very very interesting stuff. Congrats on a wonderful trip and a beautiful pen.

#6 da vinci

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 04:12

An excellent post - thank you :thumbup:

#7 ArchiMark

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 04:36

Fabulous story and pens, thanks!!!!

 

Felt like I was there...

 

Definitely makes me want a Hakase pen.....

 

Would be great if you post a few more pen pics.....


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#8 hari317

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 06:30

Thank you so much for writing about your visit. actually your text is so good and descriptive that I felt the pictures were un necessary. However nice to see the entire Hakase team.



#9 Faisel

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 07:00

Thank you. I very much enjoyed reading you account. I am quite envious of you beautiful acquisitions.

#10 fountainpagan

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 07:00

Thank you for sharing the Hakase marvels with us.

 

I am not that sure about the torturing of animals, though (a twitching shrimp!!!). I don't see the interest or the magnificence of it.


Edited by fountainpagan, 05 April 2014 - 07:09.

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#11 Lorna Reed

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 07:04

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the use of tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under CITES? Or is this some other material which looks the same, and so is called tortoiseshell?


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#12 shuuemura

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 07:19

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the use of tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under CITES? Or is this some other material which looks the same, and so is called tortoiseshell?

 

The export of tortoiseshell from Japan to other countries is banned. But one can still pick up a tortoiseshell pen in person at Hakase.



#13 shuuemura

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 07:23

daoud62: if you get a chance, could you share with us the dimensions of your buffalo horn/tortoiseshell pen? I'm particularly interested in the length from nib tip to barrel end. 

 

Would also love to see photos of your ebony pen!



#14 mongrelnomad

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 08:38

So Tottori has an airport...

 

*Crosses out every reason not to visit next trip.

 

Thanks for such a detailed and evocative travelogue. I too have a buffalo/tortoise pen (albeit the desk pen), and agree about the tortoise - it seems more like an etherial liquid than a solid.

 

Hakases, IMO, remain leaps and bounds above all others...

 

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Edited by mongrelnomad, 05 April 2014 - 08:44.

Too many pens; too little writing.

#15 mongrelnomad

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 08:38

 

The export of tortoiseshell from Japan to other countries is banned. But one can still pick up a tortoiseshell pen in person at Hakase.

Or if you're in Tokyo, you can have the pen takiyubin-ed to you...


Too many pens; too little writing.

#16 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 12:32

Thank you for sharing the Hakase marvels with us.

 

I am not that sure about the torturing of animals, though (a twitching shrimp!!!). I don't see the interest or the magnificence of it.

 

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought the use of tortoiseshell was banned in 1973 under CITES? Or is this some other material which looks the same, and so is called tortoiseshell?

 

 

 

 

 

According to Hakase's website, the tortoise shell that they use is from Okinawa and was "released," by which I understand that no animal was killed to obtain it.  Moreover, Hakase's stock was "purified" in 1990, meaning the material itself predates 1990.

 

Though I am not a CITES expert, as a lawyer, I was interested to know what the Washington Convention states about this subject.  It covers many different species of flora and fauna.  When Japan acceded in 1980, it made a specific reservation for tortoise shell so that it could continue to import (and presumably export) the material.  Japan, it would appear, is the largest importer of tortoise shell in the world.   

 

The terms of the Convention specifically do not apply to the import and export of "personal effects and household goods" made of any restricted item except elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn for non-commercial purposes.  Thus, a manufacturer or dealer cannot import or export, but an individual can move something that he has purchased for his personal use.

 

This is what I have gathered from my research thus far, but if anyone could enlighten me further, I would appreciate it. 


Edited by daoud62, 05 April 2014 - 13:10.


#17 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 12:35

Thank you for sharing the Hakase marvels with us.

 

I am not that sure about the torturing of animals, though (a twitching shrimp!!!). I don't see the interest or the magnificence of it.

I'm sorry...the use of the word "twitching" was a bit of poetic license.  I meant to say that the shrimp was taken from the tank just before it was prepared and served.  Of course, that doesn't change the reality.  Your point is well-taken.


Edited by daoud62, 05 April 2014 - 13:09.


#18 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 12:41

Thanks to all of you for your comments.  The trip to Tottori was long-awaited and an amazing experience in every way.  One of the most impressive realizations is that one admittedly very energetic man is physically able to keep up with all of the production, repairs, business correspondence required by a business that sells pens all over Japan and all over the world, yet still set aside a day to meet and take around one of his customers.  I look forward to returning, and I know that I have friends there to return to.



#19 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 12:42

daoud62: if you get a chance, could you share with us the dimensions of your buffalo horn/tortoiseshell pen? I'm particularly interested in the length from nib tip to barrel end. 

 

Would also love to see photos of your ebony pen!

I will do that with pleasure.  I'm not at home right now, but as soon as I get there, I will post the info/photos.



#20 ethernautrix

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 13:53

Wonderful report from your visit! Thanks for sharing such great details.

 

Now I will ask Google to show me photos of Tottori.


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#21 Dickkooty2

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 14:56

A great travelogue, foodie write-up, pen-appreciation, and with the addition of the issue of restricted materials, a look into the problems of making rare and beautiful objects!

 

While FPN is certainly the place for this posting, I think that it could appear in broader-interest publications.

 

By the way, your ink and wash portrait is excellent. Is it by a japanese artist?

 

Thank you for writing about your journey!



#22 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 15:50

A great travelogue, foodie write-up, pen-appreciation, and with the addition of the issue of restricted materials, a look into the problems of making rare and beautiful objects!

 

While FPN is certainly the place for this posting, I think that it could appear in broader-interest publications.

 

By the way, your ink and wash portrait is excellent. Is it by a japanese artist?

 

Thank you for writing about your journey!

You are very kind, thank you so much.

 

The portrait was done by a "rad" comic artist whom I found online (this is how he described himself; I don't even know what "rad" means).  I told him he made me look too old, and he didn't react well to the criticism, I'm afraid.  After a while, though, the portrait began to grow on me.  



#23 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 15:50

Wow! That tortoiseshell/buffalo horn pen is just amazing! And the Japanese meal photos are just making me salivate. Congratulations on your new pens!

 

Can't wait for my own Hakase to be delivered, hopefully by October this year?

You will not regret the purchase, and I'm afraid to tell you that it will not be your last...



#24 daintydimsum

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 16:46

Thank you for this report! I've been considering a rosewood/tortoiseshell desk pen myself. I love the shape of the desk pen. While I'm not a proponent of catching tortoises/turtles for shells alone (same point with sharks for fins) I have to say that shells already in existence, in addition to traditional crafts... it's quite the no-brainer for him.

 

And while I'm no expert on the Washington Convention, that was my take as well - simply no export for commercial purposes, but should be fine for personal 'consumption' (as it were), ex. if you get the product sent to a friend and then onwards to you.

 

edit: and honestly the first thing I thought upon reading this was... wait he does ALL THAT? and takes you out? that's mind-blowing and incredible!


Edited by daintydimsum, 05 April 2014 - 16:47.


#25 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 18:09

daoud62: if you get a chance, could you share with us the dimensions of your buffalo horn/tortoiseshell pen? I'm particularly interested in the length from nib tip to barrel end. 

 

Would also love to see photos of your ebony pen!

From the tip of the cap to the end of the pen, it measures approximately 153 cm.  Uncapped, from the tip of the nib to the end of the pen is approximately 133 cm.



#26 daoud62

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 18:11

Thank you for this report! I've been considering a rosewood/tortoiseshell desk pen myself. I love the shape of the desk pen. While I'm not a proponent of catching tortoises/turtles for shells alone (same point with sharks for fins) I have to say that shells already in existence, in addition to traditional crafts... it's quite the no-brainer for him.

 

And while I'm no expert on the Washington Convention, that was my take as well - simply no export for commercial purposes, but should be fine for personal 'consumption' (as it were), ex. if you get the product sent to a friend and then onwards to you.

 

edit: and honestly the first thing I thought upon reading this was... wait he does ALL THAT? and takes you out? that's mind-blowing and incredible!

 

The entire Yamamoto family is extremely polite and friendly.  I have patronized Hakase for several years now, and am glad to among their friends and customers.  



#27 Ishmael

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Posted 06 April 2014 - 02:17

Fantastic review. Like so many here, I'm entranced by individual artisans who seemingly pour so much of themselves into their work and reap a fair reward. I've eyed Hakase pens before, and now will consider them in a whole new light.

 

Thank you for such a long, interesting post!

 

 

Bill

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#28 tknechtel

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Posted 06 April 2014 - 02:36

David, what a great, detailed, evocative account! It's the next best thing to being there – many thanks! More, please!



#29 fljones3

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Posted 06 April 2014 - 02:53

Wonderful pics and narrative.



#30 Pen2009

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Posted 06 April 2014 - 08:01

I bet you are one of Hakase's special customers. Otherwise, the owner of Hasake would not spend a whole day with one customer, including having lunch together.  I am curious to know how many pens you have purchased from Hakase to date. 


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