Nakaya in North America

Nakaya pens have been a very popular subject on Pentrace for the last few years when “discovered” by Pentrace East Editor Russ Stutler when he wrote a report of a small company that was created or the purpose of hiring retired craftsmen from the Platinum Pen Co. Mr. Nakata is Vice President of Platinum Pen Company, formed by his family in 1919.

Russ had purchased one of their pens and talked about the beauty of his pen with such enthusiasm we suddenly paid close attention. We saw a new beauty in a simple and uncomplicated design of a pen without a clip that changes color in time. Suddenly the Nakaya Wajima tame-nuri became the theme pen of Pentrace.

With Russ’ further reports and articles on Pentrace East we watched the popularity of Nakaya pens grow and saw remarkable new products being developed. Some of these products are the new Equilibrium pen with adjustable steel rings inserted in the barrel to fine tune the balance in the owner’s hand. Other small details were created to give pleasure to the owner such as the small goldfish swimming in seaweed, painted on the ink converter and the owner’s personal Kanji painted in gold or silver maki-e on the pen barrel.

Mr. Nakata has often stated that his major concern is to be sure that the customer is always satisfied. He personally reviews every order that is received and replies to every e-mail or letter and maintains contact with the customer to be sure they are satisfied with their new pen. It is also taken as a personal responsibility by every employee to create a custom fountain pen to the exact requirement of the owner. Mr. Nakata has told me he has no plans to build a large dealer network as he wishes to maintain his responsibility to pay close attention to every pen order and customer that calls to Nakaya.

Orders for Nakaya pens are now arriving from many countries and the majority are from the United States. Mr. Nakata decided he would like to visit America to thank his customers and meet the many people that had corresponded with him. He related to me one of his main concerns was to see his customers and be sure they were happy with the performance of Nakaya pens. He also had a great desire to meet John Mottishaw, the famous nib craftsmen who would share knowledge with him about creating nibs for American customers. He has a great concern to perfect the making of stub nibs, and in this manner he would learn to provide a full range of nibs for his customers.

Mr. Nakata told me in early February he would come to the Chicago Pen Show in April. We believed that Chicago would give him a good opportunity to meet as many Nakaya customers as possible. From that day on I was in almost daily correspondence with Mr. Nakata and others to make arrangements for this visit and be sure that no detail was overlooked. From the very size of the exhibit space and table size to determine exact displays to the actual electrical plug to be sure it would fit. Mr. Nakata decided to bring his master nib craftsman Mr. Watanabe in order to demonstrate his skill at adjusting and shaping nibs, and Mr. Matsubara would demonstrate his skill of producing pen caps and barrels from raw ebonite rod stock in front of the customers. This was going to be a major event for them, as they never take vacations and always enjoy their work. To visit Chicago and work made them feel like super stars, which would happen sooner than they thought. Also attending was Ms. Noritsuke, Nakaya business manager.

A few weeks before the Chicago Pen Show a 208kg (500 pound) crate arrived at my home. This was the vintage electric and foot-powered lathe machine mounted on a large cabinet that was used by Mr. Matsubara. This was sent for my care to be sure it was delivered to the show at the right time and not lost. This lathe is the very life of Mt. Matsubara, so I had to be very careful with this. Well, 500 pounds is pretty hefty so I knew this would be safe in my garage, it was not going to move anywhere. A few days later I received four more large cartons of hand tools and equipment for the show, including many of the pens for the display.

Mr. Nakata and his associates wanted to arrive on Tuesday before the weekend show. In typical style of preparing for very single detail his purpose was to study every area of the hotel where he would display so he could present Nakaya attractively and be able to meet many visitors at one time. On Tuesday morning I drove to the hotel with the four large boxes and unloaded them at the dock.. At that moment Mr. Nakata called me on my cell phone that he had just arrived in the lobby. Not leaving the priceless cartons out of my sight for a moment I had them loaded onto a cart and brought them to the lobby where I met Mr. Nakata, Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Matsubara.

Now I am a Chicago boy almost my whole life and I speak Chi-caw-ga. With the help of Russ Stutler and my very dog-eared Japanese Culture Shock book I was able, I think, to express my self in Japanese trying to hide my distinct Chi-caw-ga accent. For weeks I was greeting my wife and friends in Japanese. I memorized many expressions such as domo arigato, konnichiwa and expressions for different occasions. I was kind of proud of my self, just maybe I would not humiliate myself by saying something stupid like “my Nakaya pen smells like a fish.” I had anticipated this moment for a long time and as we greeted….I went totally blank. I laughed at myself, pictured Will Thorpe and asked myself…what would Will do…so I just gave my handsomest smile and gave a big Chicago-style “Howdy!”

After I remembered my Japanese greetings I realized it was very easy to speak with Mr. Nakata. Although Mr. Watanabe and Matsubara did not speak English, they just seemed to understand exactly what we were talking about. I made sure everyone was registered correctly and had the cartons piled into Mr. Nakata’s room so he could see everything was intact, one less detail to worry about. I could see that they had a very long trip and a few hidden yawns told me to make this day short so they could get a good rest for tomorrow. Mr. Nakata somehow received a jolt of new energy and asked to see every part of the hotel where activities would be held. Mr. Watanabe and Matsubara are both over 80 years old and they were smiling in anticipation and anxious to look around. Still, I would make this a quick tour to satisfy them so they have time to rest. I showed them the smaller ballroom for Friday and they were very impressed with the large size. This is enormous compared to some Japanese shows or pen meetings. I showed them the large ballroom which is about 50’ x 100’ and they were totally amazed. I showed them the theatre auditorium where the auction will take place and they were very impressed to see this.

Wednesday morning I arranged for a truck with a lift gate to pick up the 500 pound crate and deliver to the hotel. I anticipated almost any problem and just in case I put some extra tools, crowbar, plug adapters and several long extension cords in my car trunk.. As fate would have it, we could not unload at ground level and the back of the truck was too low for the dock.. Of course, hotels do not have crowbars or people that lift crates from trucks. I managed to open the scientifically sealed crate and lift the lathe up to the dock. We wheeled it to a secure area and I plastered huge signs on every side of the lathe and open crate DO NOT MOVE. Immediately Mr. Matsubara plugged the lathe into the wall to be sure it would work. I heard the motor start and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The crate was shipped to Chicago by air freight, and would return by ship cargo, it was critical this specially fitted crate be saved.

After tucking everything safely away the Nakaya team was anxious to see Chicago so we drove downtown. It was a bright sunny day and I gave them a grand tour of the famous sights. Downtown could be seen from the hotel and as we got closer all eyes were trying to see everything at once as I explained the landmarks and famous locations.

We parked near Michigan Ave. and our first stop was 1,000 feet above Michigan Ave to the top of the Hancock Building and up the fastest elevator in the world for an 80-mile view of Chicago and four surrounding states. We walked on Michigan Ave., called the Magnificent Mile because that is exactly what it is. My greatest pleasure was watching their faces as they tried to see everything at once and as new visitors to Chicago, the usual pose was looking up!

We had dinner at a nice restaurant and returned to the hotel where we started to meet some early arrivals but called it a night. Time for a good rest before the big events yet to come.

Thursday morning we again met and I introduced them to early arrival guests and showed them the Hospitality Suites where early traders were meeting. These rooms had many tables and traders, actually as big or bigger than any Japanese pen show. They had a grand time seeing so many people and pens and as I introduced them the word spread as to who they are and interest was building quickly for people to visit their exhibit.

I happen to live about 40 miles from the hotel but I checked in today so I can be closer to all the action for the weekend. Friday is an early pen trading day, it is not the main show day and yet attendance was substantial at a few hundred traders and over 100 tables. Nakaya set up one table to display his pens and immediately became a major attraction. Mr. Matsubara was working his lathe and Mr. Watanabe was adjusting and polishing nibs. I suddenly realized that the lathe is made to operate in Japan at 50 cycles. Here we have 60 cycles. The lathe operated, but at a much higher speed than Mr. Matsubara is used to. His fingers are very sensitive in shaping the caps and barrels and cutting threads while operating at various speeds. He was able to work very well in spite of this higher operating speed as we could not find a suitable converter. The lathe is incredibly simple and vintage in appearance. The ebonite rod is simply slipped into what appears to be a large bamboo or wood collar with split sides. A hard wood ring is pulled forward to lock the ebonite rod into the tube and the rod spins at a very high rate of speed. Assorted tools with very aged and worn wood handles and various shaped cutting blades were used to quickly shape the pens, the ends and also for cutting the threads. I did not time the procedure but he sure made it look very easy with 50 years of experience. By Friday evening they had a great taste of a Chicago Pen Show and they were very happy. They had brought a large quantity of their most popular tame-nuri pens and they were being purchased very rapidly. A very impressive display of maki-e pens were also being purchased very quickly. These are pens shown on their website so customers were familiar with the designs and models.

Friday night we had a magnificent dinner at a great sea food restaurant. I have to say that it turned out that I was the one being entertained and this dinner was a major event from appetizers to dessert. One does not have to decide on an entrée, just about everything on the menu appeared on the table and every morsel was consumed.

Saturday is a major trading day, lectures, seminars and the big auction at 4 o’clock.. It was going to be a very busy day. It started with a breakfast with John Mottishaw who graciously discussed and explained his fine art of producing stub and italic nibs which were of great interest to Nakaya. John Mottishaw is a familiar name in Japan, as he has consulted before with other nib masters and pen makers for many years.

I can say this without exaggeration, from the moment Nakaya was set up in the show room the crowds never diminished from their tables. One friend of mine actually told me to call him on his cell phone if I saw that he may be able to get in and grab a seat. My table was set up right next to them so I had a constant view of their progress. Lines were actually forming in front of the table with people waiting to sit in one of three chairs so they can try the full range of pen nibs and select a pen to purchase. Ms. Noritsuke and Mr. Nakata explained the order forms to determine the nib styles requested. The customer would chose a pen from the display and Mr. Watanabe would create their custom nib. The customer would write with the pens and adjustments would be made until they were satisfied. At that point Mr. Watanabe would laugh with pleasure that he had created another happy customer. Mr. Matsubara was turning ebonite caps and barrels all day, the quiet humming of his lathe told me he was quite busy. The subtle smell of burning ebonite accented the room. The caps and barrels he was producing were for demonstration only as they would go back to Japan for maki-e and urushi decoration. As the day progressed I noticed some customers were returning. Well-known pen dealers were returning, more than a few pen manufacturers were also returning. Many people were so pleased with their Nakaya pens they were actually coming back to buy a second and a third pen. The incredibly beautiful maki-e pens were quickly disappearing from the table. Crowds were forming on the sides and almost behind Mr. Matsubara. Mr. Nakata gave visitors a big black Sharpie and asked everyone to autograph Mr. Matsubara’s cabinet. Many people happily signed their greetings and best wishes, and he was very proud to have them sign all over the sides. Mr. Nakata finally admitted that he and Ms Noritsuke were upset for only one reason. They had greatly underestimated their reception and were almost completely sold out of pens by Saturday. Most of what was left was purchased on Sunday and many orders were placed. Orders for custom maki-e pens were also taken. Mr. Nakata brought a beautiful color catalog of maki-e design from a famous maki-e museum collection in order to show designs of animals, flowers and various topics. The catalog alone was outstanding and certainly helped but to me it would only made the decision even more difficult.

This was a very exciting day, not only for Nakaya, but also for me. I was very pleased to see their success and especially the many people that told me how happy they were that Nakaya came to visit. Sunday was a repeat of Saturday with a constant crowd of people visiting and returning.

Saturday after 4pm Mr. Nakata and Ms Noritsuke left to see some special shops in Chicago and we planned to meet downtown later after the pen auction. I had a short dinner with Mr. Watanabe and Matsubara and we walked over to the auction, which they greatly enjoyed following from the catalog.

Later I took a quick cab ride downtown and met Mr. Nakaya once again, up to the Hancock Observatory for a night view of the city for Ms Noritsuke. I soon realized that Mr Nakata is a huge fan of American baseball and football and he had a stream of questions about our Chicago teams and players. We were only a block from Mike Ditka’s restaurant, the former coach of the Chicago Bears so it was a given we would have dinner among Chicago Bear and NFL trophies and signed footballs lining the walls. Dinner was another grand event, starting with shooting Cowboy oysters, (from a shot glass with Tabasco sauce trim ) not quite my favorite thing but got through it and survived. Black sweatshirts with gold maki-e Mike Ditka trim were the souveniers after dinner, a jump into a waiting cab and we were off to Buddy Guy’s Legends Blues café where Ms Noritsuke was promptly carded at the door. The bouncer was very serious when he said she just did not look over 21. Chicago Rule #1, never argue with a Chicago bouncer. She was delighted and I told her I really did not plan that one. Up close and intense Chicago Blues, shooting some pool and Goose Island beer, what a great combination and let me tell you, I was impressed how they handled the cue stick. By 11 I could see it was time to head back to the hotel. Another sweeping Chicago night skyline view cab ride and within a few minutes I could see Mr. Nakata was out like a light. He had a busy few days and it was finally catching up.

Sunday 8am was another rush into the main show room, everyone was busy setting up or dropping bags and going shopping to see new “stuff” from newly arrived dealers and collectors. Nakaya was already set up and plugged in, all they had to do was spread what pens were left. Stylophiles had borrowed a few pens for photography and were returned just as customers were standing in line waiting for early pickings. From 8am to 6pm it was busy, no exaggeration necessary, this was really a unique event for the Chicago Pen Show and everyone was quite impressed. Even Nakaya’s importer-shipper attended the show, coming to see what all the fuss was about a vintage Japanese pen lathe. After he show we made sure the lathe was carefully crated up again and prepared for shipment.

Mr. Nakata told me this visit was more successful than he imagined. He met many Nakaya customers and made many new friends. One of his great pleasures was meeting so many people he has read about in various pen magazines and seen on the internet. He greatly enjoyed the compliments and admiration from so many people, which he would carry back to Japan and relate to his friends and other employees of Nakaya and Platinum Pen Company.

My thanks also go to Russ Stutler for assisting all of us to plan this memorable visit.

Nakaya visit the 2004 Chicago Pen Show
by Len Provisor


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