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Sunday, November 04, 2007
Nakaya fountain pens of Japan have caused quite a ripple in the fountain pen community in Japan and around the world lately. These custom hand-made pens seem to be the topic of discussion almost daily on Pentrace and other discussion groups as well. It's amazing to think that this company was only started around two years ago, and consists of only a few retired pen craftsmen.

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.

By coincidence, directly across the street from Nakaya's office is the old Platinum Pen Company building, which has not been used by Platinum since the company out grew it many years ago. The current Platinum building is several blocks away.

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 name on the nibs, incidentally is the name of the founder, Nakata, rather than the name of the company, Nakaya. The Nakaya Pen Company employs 3 retired craftsmen from Platinum who specialize in handmade fountain pens. While the old Platinum building across the street is no longer used for producing pens, the upper floors are still the residence of founder Shunichi Nakata's widow, now 98 years old!

When I opened the door the Nakaya office, I was greeted by Mr. Watanabe, the nib craftsman who always represents Nakaya at pen clinics.

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.

Nakaya's hard working president, Toshiya Nakata
I took some photos of the room, but tried not to ask too many questions as the craftsmen were obviously extremely busy. I discovered that they have so many orders these days (one third of these orders coming from overseas), that they have to work straight through Saturdays and Sundays.

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.

Wajima-nuri Pens

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.

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.