Monthly Archives: March 2015

Retro 51 200 Series Fountain Pen–Twenty-One Year Review

I bought a pen in 1994 that I wouldn’t like very much until 2014.

Soon after I moved to Oxford, Mississippi to work on my Ph.D., an acquaintance of mine opened a shop that was way ahead of its time (i.e. doomed to fail) and featured items that wouldn’t be trendy for another ten to fifteen years.

I helped out by buying a dark green Retro 51 fountain pen. I liked the look and liked that it was heavier than my old Cross Century. The grip section wasn’t much thicker, but the barrel was and the extra weight made it much more comfortable to hold.

It turned out I didn’t like much else about the pen, though. The wood pen coffin it came in was cool, but it didn’t lock closed. If I grabbed the coffin incorrectly, I dumped the pen on the desk. I also didn’t like that it couldn’t hold two small standard international ink cartridges. (One installed, one backwards in reserve.)

Also, although the cap was apparently designed to be posted, it had to be pushed on hard to get it to stay. The cap flipped off several times when I was writing. Without the cap it was too small to use comfortably.

I could have forgiven that, though, if the nib had been better. I always found the steel M nib scratchy and dry. After several months of use and attempting to like it, I ended up switching back to my Cross Century (until I discovered the Pilot Vanishing Point).

Also, almost as soon as I started using it regularly, it got chips in the enamel paint, exposing the brass underneath. Even worse, the gold plating on the clip and the band started wearing off.

I stored the Retro 51 and almost literally let it rot as I didn’t bother cleaning it much before putting it in storage.


Here you can see the corrosion and the size.

Here you can see the size and the corrosion from all the years of neglect.

Detail of the lost gilding and the Retro 51 Logo.

Detail of the lost gilding and the Retro 51 Logo. This all used to be shiny.

Me being me, I took it out of storage after 10 years or so and tried to use it. Me being me, I dropped it and left it with a nice hook style nib. Me being me I put it back in storage until I heard via the Pen Addict of a nibmeister named Mike Masuyama. Because I had another fountain pen/questionable purchase that needed nib work, I decided to send the Retro 51 along for repair. (More on the other pen in another post.)

Mike Masuyama did a great job on both pens and the Retro 51, after twenty years, finally entered my regular pen rotation.

Now, however, the pen is going back in storage. It’s too small to use for a long time and I have other pens I like better. I’m still annoyed it won’t carry two cartridges and that it won’t accept standard sized converters.

I may still have the annoying wood coffin, but I have no idea where it is. That’s also me being me.

A wider size comparison.

A wider size comparison showing the cap posted.



Cross Century “Classic” Fountain Pen Long Term Review

I used to claim, back when I was in school, that I’d never thrown out a pen. This was not because of hoarding tendencies, but because I would always lose them long before they’d run out of ink.

Then, sometime in the early 80’s, my father got a pen and pencil set from Cross that included a fountain pen he didn’t want and he passed it to me. The first hit was free and I was immediately hooked. I kept that pen longer than any other pen I’d ever owned and actually used.

Eventually, of course, I lost it but somehow (student loans) managed to replace it guaranteeing that my student loans were spent on at least one thing that was useful.

The first hit was free.

My oldest fountain pen and maybe the only useful thing purchased with my student loans.

I used the Cross Century all through college and graduate school and am still impressed by how neat my notes were when I used it. It also survived two years in Albania with the Peace Corps.

I was partial to blue-black ink although I tended to cycle from blue to blue-black to black to blue quite regularly. It has a gold plated steel medium nib that was always very smooth and the black matte coating on the barrel looked cool–I’ve never been a fan of the gold and silver versions–and kept it from getting too many finger prints.

I used it until I bought a Retro 51 200 series and then used it some more when I didn’t like the Retro 51 as much as I thought I would. I didn’t replace it until I moved on to harder stuff: Pilot Vanishing Points. Even after that, I used it a bit, but eventually it got tucked away in a box.

A couple years ago, out of nostalgia, I broke out the Cross Century, cleaned it and re-inked it. I immediately began to wonder what I saw in it. It is surprisingly thin, much thinner than I remembered. In fact, it’s about the same thickness as most woodcase pencils. After several attempts to writing something longer than a signature, I cleaned it and returned it to the case.

The Cross Century next to a Levenger and a Palomino Blackwing.

The Cross Century next to a Levenger pencil and a Palomino Blackwing.

Now, after almost 30 years, I’m thinking about getting rid of it. I don’t see myself ever using it again and there’s no point in keeping it if it’s just going to stay in a box.

I’ll either sell it or pass it on to one of my daughters and see if I can get her hooked.


Slowly at First Then Faster and Faster

I’m a good enough dad that I’ll go to a concert even when I’m tired. I’m a good enough photographer that I’ll keep the camera straight when I’m asleep. Mostly.

Today was a special concert for our oldest’s brass band club. It was the final performance for all the 3rd year (9th grade members) and took place in a large auditorium with professional lighting.

As always, it was a good performance but there were two problems:

1) last night was the final (probably) farewell party for a departing colleague and I didn’t get home until the next to last train. (I actually wrote yesterday’s post early because I knew I wouldn’t be home until late). (More on “last trains” and “first trains” in another post.)

2) The band front-loaded all the serious slow songs. The songs were so serious the students actually wore their uniforms and sat seriously.

I was using a monopod and had situated it with one hand more or less strapped to it as an anchor and the other holding it straight. Several times during the performance I caught myself waking up but subsequent check of the video showed little drift. Luckily I didn’t experience a Hypnic Jerk (which would make a great band name) or the film might have been more exciting.

Only once did I catch myself falling to the side, but on video it looks more like a clumsy adjustment.

After the five slow songs and, as it turned out, the accompanying nap, there was a ten minute intermission.

During that break the band changed to jeans and t-shirts and came out for the real performance: theme songs from movies and a couple of the girls acting like Ariel from Little Mermaid (who suddenly went blonde) and another girl dressed like Captain Jack Sparrow. We then listened to “Under the Sea” and the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean and medleys of various Studio Ghibli tunes.

During the third phase (Japan Pop Tunes) the graduating 9th graders put on funny hats and sunglasses and tried to induce the audience to join in a popular dance to the song “Gera Gera Po (Yokai Watch)”. The effect was something like this. (You don’t need to understand Japanese; it might be worth watching a minute or two.)

At some point there was the obligatory random standing, but at times there was also actual dancing, which is one step away from marching, but not as annoying.

It ended with one parent encouraging the audience to shout “Thank you” to the graduates, which led to lots of tears.

Next year, I’ll have to go again for our oldest’s graduation performance. I’ll try to be more awake then, but I make no promises.


There’s No Such Thing as a Free Beer

One of the things I think a lot of people don’t get about government goodies is that although something doesn’t have a price, it always has a cost. You only think you’re getting it for free. This is also true of free beer.

One of the advantages of being a foreigner in Japan is that, even in this area, people will invite you to their blue tarps during Hanami and offer you a beer. If you’re lucky the only cost is 20 questions and a chance to practice your Japanese while they practice their English. Then, if you’re smart, you run to a beer machine or a convenience store and replace the beer you just drank after a short “oh, you didn’t have to do that” ritual.

If you’re not lucky, or an introvert not good at making long term conversation in another language and/or not good at making graceful exits, you may pay a higher cost when you end up trapped. On two occasions, I’ve been trapped. Both actually happened in the same day.

First, when I was still in Nou-machi, the town festival (more on that in another post) fell on a Saturday which meant a lot of people were suddenly able to attend. As soon as I arrived, I ran into my former boss who had secured a prime location. He immediately ordered me to sit down and drink. I stayed a while and every time I was about to try to leave I was handed another beer. Eventually, other friends arrived from other towns and I was able to exit.

(For the record: I probably out-stayed my welcome by quite a long time but I’ve never been good at reading “your time is up, get the hell out” signals in any language.)

After that I pointed my friends in the right direction for beer and refreshments and then got ordered to sit by a group of people I knew. They also started handing me beer. I ended up stuck there for a while until I managed to escape.

Keep in mind, part of the reason I liked attending the festival was it gave me a chance to play with camera gear and take lots of pictures. Being trapped, even with free beer means I’m stuck in one location and can’t just break out a tripod and camera when I’m supposed to be being sociable. It also means I can’t enjoy the food you have to pay for. Most of the free beer entrapments provide free snacks, but I’d rather head to the food stands.

The stuff there has a price but little cost.

I rather be here. The food stands at Takada Park in Joetsu. It's famous for its night Hanami.

I rather be here. The food stands at Takada Park in Joetsu. It’s famous for its night Hanami.

Viewing Flowers Through Beer-Colored Glasses

A lot of people are about to celebrate spring by getting really drunk.

The arrival of spring in Japan means the cherry blossom trees are about to bloom and the Japanese will get drunk and stupid for at least one night during Hanami, or the flower viewing festival.

I think this festival is so important because it marks the first day the Japanese can have a party outside without freezing. That said, it is still kind of an odd festival.

The truth is the plum blossoms have been blooming for a while and they are much more impressive than the cherry blossoms, most of which are old and are more of a pale pink that a vibrant pink. However, most years the weather is too cold for people to properly enjoy partying outside, especially when it’s only plum blossoms.

This is what it looks like from under the tree.

Cherry blossoms from a couple years ago. Cool, but kind of pale.

Also, a lot of events happen at once at the end of March: graduations, teacher transfers, company employee transfers and the end of the fiscal year. Everyone’s tired, has cabin fever and is ready to party.

This also leads to a form of competition. Young employees are sent to the most popular party spots (Ueno Park, Shinjuku park and Naka-Meguro) and told to claim a plot of land for their company. The weapon of choice for this claim is a blue tarp. The young employees then work shifts, including spending the night in the park, to keep the prime spot of land claimed.

Some people camp out for a week at time and neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor rival companies will keep them from their appointed plot. (Something like that.)

At the same time the Japanese news is filled with official forecasts of when the leaves will be in full bloom. The forecasts include color charts depicting the current level of bloom and the full bloom day in various cities. Forecasters can get in trouble if they are wrong.

Reporters are sent out the parks to interview earlier partiers and commiserate with the campers as the young reporters probably were the campers the year before.

Once the party starts, it’s basically a 24 hour drunken picnic. Thousands of people assemble on the tarps and thousands more walk around with drinks in hand. Places like Naka-Meguro (a river walk) are so crowded all you can do is walk (don’t stop, it’s too dangerous to stop) and photographers will nearly come to blows trying to get the best angles.

At that point the tabloid magazines send out their reporters and photographers to capture the revelry and as much debauchery as possible. Back after I moved to Tokyo, a group of us managed to find a spot in Ueno Park along with tens of thousands of other people. We were then invited to join another group.

At some point a tabloid photographer started stalking us, mostly to get pictures of drunken foreigners and, especially drunken foreign women. That tabloid shut down soon after that party, but there might accidentally be a picture of me out there.

Luckily, it will be pretty boring.

More cherry blossoms. Still kind of pale, though.

More cherry blossoms. Still kind of pale, though.

Pilot/Namiki Vanishing Point “Faceted Version” Long-Term Review

It took me 20 years to write today’s review.

I don’t remember which one I got first, but I think it was the Pilot. I seem to remember getting it back when I was at graduate school at Ole Miss in 1995. I got the Namiki right after I moved to Japan in 1996. The latter came in a fancy pen coffin with enough room for three pens. Me being me, I got them both in basic black, although I wish I’d thought to get a different color.

The Namiki and the Pilot. Only the names have changed.

The Namiki and the Pilot in the coffin. Only the names have changed.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what order I got them, because they’re both basically the same pen with the same strengths and structural weaknesses.

As I’ve written before, my fountain pen history moved from a Cross Century to a GoldenStar 711 to a Retro 51 200 series before a friend introduced me to the Vanishing Point.

VPs are rather strange at first. The built-in clip takes some getting used to, but I found the “facted version” of the pen to be thin and light enough that I didn’t have any problem adjusting to it. I’ve used both pens enough that I’ve worn slight dents in the clips l where my index finger rested.

Oddly, when I switched back to regular fountain pens I found myself rolling the pen in ways I couldn’t with the VP. One advantage of the built-in clip is you always hold your pen correctly, at least if you are right-handed.

There’s also a charm to being able to click the pen into use rather than fiddling with a twist cap and posting and hoping you don’t lose the cap and then fiddling with the cap again and then doing it all over when you realize that in all the fiddling you forgot to write something down.

The VP nibs are terrific. I prefer the thicker Medium–that nib and Pilot Blue/Black ink is still one of my favorite pen and ink combinations–but had very few complaints about the Fine except the way it got scratchy on cheap paper. I otherwise never had any problems with them, even though I used them for almost 20 years and tended to flush them infrequently (once every five years or so, give or take).

The only complaint I’ve had in those 20 years was structural. The barrels on both pens–specifically the part with the “nock”–cracked over time. I suspect that it was partly a combination of over-tightening, being tossed in bags and occasional, sudden flights to the floor. It’s also partly the result of questionable design as the “female” threads are cut directly in the plastic and there’s no metal ring reinforcing them even though they are tightening over metal “male” threads on the pen body. (That sentence didn’t seem dirty until I wrote it.)

Several years ago, during a trip to one of the Tokyo pen shows, I asked the Pilot booth if it was possible to repair the pens. They referred me to the pen section of the store where the show was taking place. The clerk took both pens and sent them off to Pilot Pens which managed to find a replacement barrel for one. The other remains cracked and retired and I’ve always claimed I got the last replacement barrel in Japan. (It seems they were only out of black, though. I could have got another color.)

Eventually I replaced the “faceted versions” with a modern VP made of metal. I like the new style, and will review it some day, but nothing beats the sleek look of the “faceted” VPs. They are works of art.

Still good looking, even after 19 of use.

Still sleek and good looking, even after 20 years of use.





The Endless Tournament of the Not Funny

One thing I don’t get about Japan is it’s unceasing love for comedians. Perhaps it stems from a lifestyle that’s so work-oriented it’s driving people to suicide. In that environment, some humor must be a nice thing.

That part I get. What I don’t get is their love of unfunny comedians. For the most part Japanese humor is old vaudeville slapstick with two comedians, one the straightman and one the stooge. The stooge does something dumb and the straightman responds by slapping him on the head. In fact, it’s common for the host of a comedy show, if he’s a comedian to hit his comedian guests. They even do this to women which can be rather disturbing to someone from the west. (More on that in another post.)

There’s also a reliance on goofy gestures and pratfalls. Most comedy duos also have a signature gesture they use to announce the end of a joke as most of the audience isn’t laughing and need a cue to commence polite golf claps and polite, er, golf laughs.

Soon after I got to Japan, I saw a TV show where several comedians played a form of baseball. Nine members of a family were arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid. The members’ ages ranged from elementary school kids to retirees and included at least one teenager. Each comedian was given a set number of “pitches” (i.e. jokes) to make all nine members of the family laugh.

I wanted to practice my Japanese so I thought I’d watch and see if they could make me laugh.

Spoiler: they couldn’t.

Almost every comedian went up and started making stupid gestures or simply acting stupid. The elementary school kids laughed right away but everyone else kind of seemed sad for the comedians. Finally, Takashi Okumara of the Japanese comedy duo Ninety-nine got the chance to “pitch”. After a few failed gestures and stupid puns, he announced something called “Bruce Lee DJ”. He made a big show of balancing imaginary headphones and putting on a record. Then as he started to scratch the record he started making Bruce Lee kung fu chicken noises and kung fu gestures.

I’m not sure anyone else laughed, but I did. It was an actual joke requiring set up, timing and delivery. It also required a bit of knowledge about Bruce Lee.

It may not have been that funny, but by that point I was hoping for anything resembling a joke.

Trains in a Museum With a Bit of Tongue

I had a student who was so interested in trains that he’d memorized the gestures and phrases the station-masters used to send off trains. He also knew the announcements of every station on his route. When I gave out a map of the Tokyo railway system, he immediately knew which parts were out of date.

Oddly, for Japan, this is relatively normal behavior. At every station it’s normal to see several people taking pictures of the approaching trains and discussing how the trains look even if they are not that interesting:

A Yamanote Line train approaches. This is the kind of pictures train nerds take.

A Yamanote Line train approaches. This is the kind of pictures train nerds take. Mine is merely illustrative not nerdy.

It was therefore inevitable that a bunch of old trains would be assembled at a museum. What makes The Railway Museum very Japanese is the trains are all kept inside a temperature controlled building the size of an aircraft hangar.

Our youngest and I rushed off to this museum today and both of us were impressed. Because it was a school day, it wasn’t that crowded but there was a good collection of nerds present taking pictures of every detail of every train.



The museum is well laid out with all the trains and cars and exhibits in rough concentric circles. There’s a good mix of old and not quite as old trains and lots of displays about the new trains. Visitors could go inside most trains and experience the difference between third class, second class and first class (the latter being the one we could only look at not actually experience).

There were also several cars from the old Imperial trains which seemed fairly posh, at least from behind the floor to ceiling glass walls. Staircases led under some trains so nerds could photograph the undercarriage.

The rail yard part of the museum.

The rail yard part of the museum.

The rail yard from the other side. The Imperial trains are behind the glass to the right on the ground floor.

The rail yard from the other side. The Imperial trains are behind the glass to the right on the ground floor.

My biggest complaint about the rail yard section was that none of the drivers’ cabins were open to the public. It would have been cool to see what the world looks like from the point of view of the drivers.

On the other end of the museum is a learning center with a huge train diorama and a section where kids can play with various train related items involving physics and lights. Train driving simulators are available for those willing to stand in line. There is also a small train ride for those willing to stand in a longer line.

The final fun part is that visitors can buy boxed lunches (ekiben) from various stations around Japan and eat them on a train car. Our youngest had chicken with a side of ketchup rice. I had a Sendai specialty: breaded, deep-fried beef tongue sandwich.

Entry to the museum is 1,000 yen for adults, 500 yen for students ($8.38 and $4.19). The chicken and tongue are extra.



Making Your Time Thing is Not a Waste of Time

Any close analysis of it will tell you that I think too much about calendars.

I’ve written before how, after years of trying to find the perfect calendar, I gave up and started constructing my own. There is a certain feeling of accomplishment that you’re carrying something you made. The feeling lasts until you realize how much time you wasted making something that was supposed to keep you from wasting time.

That feeling goes away quickly, though, I’ve found.

My main problem is that I inevitably find flaws even with the calendars I made myself. For the past few years I’ve used an A4 sized calendar made from A3 paper. I printed a 12 day pattern on both sides then folded and sewed them together. Being a masochist at heart, apparently, I wrote all the dates in by hand. A smart person would learn how to let the computer enter all the dates, but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, well, yeah, you know how smart I actually am.

Next week's schedule. Guess where I'll be on or around the weekend.

Next week’s schedule on this year’s calendar. Guess where I’ll be on or around the 27th.

I like the 12 day format because I can write a lot in each day, but can’t write too much. I also like that I can get a full year in only seven or eight pages making it easy to carry.

The problem is that with the old system I didn’t have any overview of the year. I found myself turning the page and suddenly remembering the special event listed the very next day. Also, because the calendars are center bound and I just fold a page over, flipping and unfolding to find a past date can look a lot like black belt level origami (knowing Japan, that almost certainly exists).

What I’ve done this year is put 12 days on one page and left the back side blank. I’ve added full year calendar at the front and a monthly special events calendar behind that. I’ve then added card stock covers and left-bound it all with staples and gaffer’s tape. It makes the book thicker, but I suspect it will be a lot easier to use. I can also use facing pages for notes and random scribbles.

This format also gives me covers to scribble and doodle on.

I’ve backed it all up on computer (Google Calendar) so I can keep track of things when I’m not carrying the big book.

At least that’s how it all works this year. Next year, I’ll probably try something different.

Have fun now, because your days are probably numbered. No pun intended.

Have fun now, because your days are probably numbered. No pun intended.

Free Whiskey and a lot of Whine

On two occasions when I lived in Niigata, I was given bottles of whiskey. In only one case did I actually say thank you. In both cases I tried to avoid drinking the whiskey.

The first time I was given a bottle of whiskey was at a Bonenkai. My then boss knew I liked whiskey and presented me a bottle at the beginning of the party. It was a decent brand and was actually James Bond approved. (It’s the second bottle down on this site.) I said thanks and tried to set the bottle to the side.

Unfortunately, it became clear that I’d have to drink the whiskey rather than beer. The attitude was You like whiskey. You have always liked whiskey. You have never liked beer. You will like the one and hate the other. Ye cannot serve whiskey and mammon. (Something like that.) This would have been fine except for the Japanese party tradition that you never pour your own drink. Instead, someone comes up to you, forces you to finish your drink and pours you another.

With beer this is not a problem as the glasses are small. With whiskey it’s like drinking a triple shot and then being poured another. I tried sipping my way through but was forced to drink down the glass at least four times. When I was able to fly and crawl across the ceiling, I finally convinced them that I needed beer.

The second time happened on a ski trip where I was having one of my brain lock meltdowns. I’d been crashed into by not one, but two soulless snowboarders (but I repeat myself) and had entered one of my “I hate you all and you all suck” brain lock meltdowns. To appease me, someone in the group asked me what I liked to drink and I said whiskey. Suddenly, a second bottle of the James Bond whiskey appeared.

This time, I was not in the mood and far beyond anything resembling gratitude. When we boarded our bus to return home, someone offered me the whiskey, but I set it aside and asked for beer. The look I got was one part “what the fuck” and one part “fuck you”. I eventually shared the whiskey with my adult class and drank it myself, but I don’t think I ever said a heartfelt thank you.

Remind me again: Why don’t I get invited to parties?