This article resonates with me :D
Apr 24, 2011
Pen pals for life
Every now and then, I must go to stationery shops to buy pens - the unsung heroes in this digital age
-- ST ILLUSTRATIONS: ADAM LEE
Last week, I went to the bookstore Kinokuniya at lunchtime, but it was not to buy a book or to browse magazines.
Once in a while, I get this urge that I cannot control. I simply have to go to a stationery store and buy pens.
It's been a guilty habit of mine since I was a child. And over the decades, I have found that this pleasurable and borderline fetishist experience hasn't changed much.
This is why I am dedicating this column to the unsung Japanese corporate heroes of my life that have too long been under- appreciated.
In this digital age, who even bothers to remember the difference between trusty old Pilot, its marginally flashier cousin Zebra and unfortunately named Uni-ball?
Yet they soldier on and produce a mind-boggling array of products that greet you at stores.
In fact, every time I go to the pen department of a stationery store, I find that a few more intriguing sub-species of a particular genus of pen have emerged.
If I'm lucky, a new technological breakthrough in ink or gel has led to the formation of a new genus or family altogether.
It's all for the advancement of the whole order, I think to myself, as I happily attack the shiny plastic army before me.
I inevitably start with Pilot pens because they hold, for me, many bittersweet memories of my time in school when I used their trendy Hi-Tecpoint V5 liquid ink pens by the carton.
I started with pens such as the Papermate Kilometrico (ugh!) in primary school but soon realised that while they cost less than a dollar, these pens were tough on a writer like me.
I tend to press down so hard on the paper I leave an imprint several sheets in, so both skinny pens and ballpoint pens make my fingers ache. Besides, they were ruining my wonderful handwriting.
So the first time I tried a Pilot Hi-tecpoint V5, it was like my entire inner being had suddenly become unclogged.
Never mind that my hard-writing style bent and even broke the nibs, the words came out smooth and beautiful. I felt I could write forever with the thing, until of course the ink in the super cool transparent window ran out.
It got to a point where I became convinced that my grades would actually suffer if I went into the exam halls with the wrong type of pen.
Since then, it's been an unstoppable habit - from V5 to V-Ball Grip, G2-EX to the signature Signature Pen. In the 1990s, I became a fan of the Mitsubishi-owned Uni-ball, going through countless versions of the Signo before arriving at the sublime Vision Elite.
I hover, as I always do, for a good half hour at Kinokuniya, trying out all of these instruments, as if on a voyage through history.
I used to wonder what I should write when I test a pen on the 'testing paper' the stores tape to the glass shelves.
I used to sign my name, until I realised one day that this - or my handwriting - would give me away too easily as the class pen nerd. Now I just do 'waves'.
I try the Zebras again (confirming that I don't like them for some irrational reason) and glance very, very discreetly at the Pentels with their girly J-pop colours. When no one is looking, I've been known to bust a couple of pink ones out and write 'Takeshi Forever!'.
Finally, I bought three Uni-ball Jetstream rollerball pens that pumped out a unique shade of dark blue on a lovely 0.4mm writing line. It's smooth as butter with rubber grips to die for and has the oh-so-perfect 'new sensation air suspension click'.
Appetite sated, I ended my ritual by sitting alone in a cafe afterwards and spending 10 minutes carefully peeling away the price tags, so as not to mar their stylish blue-grey plastic bodies.
My friends and colleagues have often asked me why I don't just save myself the trouble and buy a 'proper' pen, such as a Parker, Sheaffer or even a Mont Blanc.
If you're successful, your pen should say it, they argue.
Besides, a nice pen can also impart a sense of occasion. You use it to sign your name on important documents, said one friend, slightly scandalised that I signed the papers to buy my house with a $2 pen.
I don't know. There have been brief flirtations with [ixi:z] pens (a 'must have' for all cool kids in the 1980s) and some Lamy pens by design gurus such as Konstantin Grcic, but I have not really found reason over the years to spend more than $5 on a writing instrument.
Perhaps it is because in my profession, pens are utilitarian objects that we tend to chuck around and often misplace.
Maybe I have, like many others, come to mentally associate designer pens (especially Mont Blanc) with pushy sales people and insurance agents in their matching suits.
But I think I have resisted it mostly because I love the sacred ritual of pen buying too much.
I've studiously avoided stationery shops in Tokyo for this very reason - afraid I will get sucked into a vortex of pen-testing delight, never to return.
The sad thing is that although writing pens have more or less survived the IT wave for decades, I sense they are now starting to lose the battle with technology.
The inks are now water-resistant, quick-drying, eraseable and even eco-friendly, and there are state-of-the-art ink flow systems even for simple ballpoint pens - but these innovations are low-tech compared to the writing technologies in computers and tablet PCs today.
More and more schools are ditching paper altogether and migrating their lesson materials and student assignments entirely onto standard-issue notebooks and iPads.
In offices all around the world, there is hardly any need to physically write anything on paper. Applications and proposals are put up and approved all electronically.
Even journalists are discarding their pens and notebooks in favour of digital recording devices and transcribing interviews directly into computer files.
These days, the urge to go and buy pens at the store usually coincides with some special assignment.
Last week's outing, for example, was inspired by my being asked to judge some essays for a competition. (I resisted the temptation, this time, to buy a red pen.)
I write these words not to urge people to bring the practice of physical writing back, but to pay tribute to an underrated joy that it brought.
The world must of course move on, but it was great while it lasted.