In one of the world's largest cities, there always seems to be a place to take a break. At the Hakusan Shinto shrine in Tokyo.
A week in Japan makes me think stationery stores are the retail urban planning equivalent of zen gardens. They provide an analog break in days filled with digital noise.
We have only a few stores left in the United States, in Appleton, Wis., and Little Rock, Ark., of all places, and Houston, and Nashville, and another north of Pittsburgh. A couple in New York and New Jersey. Two in Maryland and one in Washington, DC, and that’s about it.
I’m probably leaving out a couple, but my point is that in a really big country, there are fewer than a dozen bricks-and-mortar stationery stores. Unless you count Staples and OfficeMax, which are great for laserjet paper, printer cartridges, and office chairs.
Japan, on the other hand, is stationery mecca. I was in meetings in Osaka where team leaders handed out agendas and summaries in elegant transparent folders, and erasable gel ink pens, and we realized that every one of us around the table was a geek who, in elementary school, undoubtedly loved the fragrance of promise and hope in a new box of yellow No. 2 pencils.
In Kyoto, the spiritual heart of Japan, there are more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. TAG’s headquarters stationery store is in Kyoto, and there are five other TAG shops around the city, filled with paper for calligraphy and art projects and school assignments, and racks of washi tape and fountain pens. Kyoto specialists in natural dyes, who got their training in textiles, created the TAG line of inks. Remember indigo? Around 900 AD, people in the imperial court of Keian in Heian-kyō, the former name for Kyoto, fermented leaves to produce indigo. I digress, but here’s my point: if you really like writing, it’s entirely possible that, like Matsuo Basho, your heart is in Kyoto.
On a walk through the Arashiyama bamboo grove, I’m talking with a friend about how Japan offers up so many details that would make great visual pauses in films. Breathing space. They’re like the short musical interludes, sometimes called buttons, in radio news broadcasts. She asks why I like calligraphy. It’s an analog break from digital chores, I tell her, and she responds, “Oh, like a button.” A few meters away, we walk by a home where the poet Matsuo Basho hung out with one of his students.
Even in Kyoto --
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry --
I long for Kyoto.
-- Matsuo Basho
One of the great things about Tokyo is that even though it’s one of the 10 largest cities in the world, with almost 14 million people, there always seems to be a green place to take a break -- a playground or a garden, a bench on a shady patch of street, or a shrine with a fountain for prayer. Stationery shops are air-conditioned and filled with students and bookish people, and they are wonderful quiet spaces. I found myself in two of them, the Maruzen bookstore, located a hundred meters from Tokyo’s central station, and the TAG store on Tennouzu Isle.
Maruzen is a Japanese chain, and half a floor in the main Tokyo store is devoted to stationery, pens, and inks. Lovely display cases show pens from global brands as though they are objects in a museum, all, it seems, at retail list price. But a section of ink is tucked away on one side of the pens, a closet full of colors from Pilot, Platinum, Sailor, Montblanc, Faber-Castell, and Pelikan. Hiding away in one corner are inks made for Maruzen by Sailor -- Athena sepia, and renga, an urushi red. They’re considered unobtainable everywhere else. I buy them both, again at retail price, which in the case of Japanese inks is 30 percent less than everywhere else. The notebook section offers funky composition notebooks by a brand called nanuk. I’m not sure if the paper works well with fountain pens, but they have a sample copy for testing. At the pen counter, a salesperson helpfully pulls out a Platinum Preppy pen, and as it turns out, nanuk paper is terrific.
On the late afternoon of another unbelievably hot July day, I stumble upon the TAG stationery store on Tennouzu Isle, just off the monorail to Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The store offers envelopes and paper in pastel patterns of coral and indigo, designed for writing letters, lined or unlined. The store manager is playing an entire Beatles album -- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band -- and for 20 minutes, I’m lost in a bliss of washi paper and “I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better.”
Then, it gets better. Next to the cashier there’s a display of every TAG Kyoto ink, from Moonlight of Higashiyama, a brick red, to Aonibi, a blue-black. The manager gives me a pen with a glass nib for testing ink. (Let me repeat that -- they keep a glass-nibbed pen for testing inks.) I realize that one ink, Nurebairo, is a black that shades blue, with a subtle golden halo sheen. When I’m confused about whether Nurebairo actually shades blue, she explains that it depends on whether the paper is cream or stark white. Then she wraps it up, adds it to my other purchases, and agrees with me about The Beatles. I walk out onto a boardwalk and as the sun sets on Tokyo Bay, I eat a wagyu hamburger with an old friend.