Here we are in a somewhat ambiguous and non-revealing location. We are nothing if not ambiguous.

As a small business owner, there’s sometimes a limited extent to which you want to demonstrate how the sausage is made. Do people really need to know that the lights in your pen display are held together with washi tape?* Is it really a good look to share that you found some shop display furniture on the side of the street and you had to guard it while you called someone from the team in the shop to come out and find you half a block away to help you carry it back? It could go either way.

However, I am really, really into the sausage making of everyone else. I’m always super curious about how other small business owners make things work, the creative processes of people who do things like write blogs or write in general, what entrepreneurs are actually doing every day when they try to balance family and work—it goes on. And on this trip, we’ve had some pretty great behind-the-scenes looks.

But one of the most incredible views was seeing how Pilot fountain pens are made, first-hand. We had the tremendous experience of going out to Hiratsuka and receiving a tour through the Pilot fountain pen factory as well as the Namiki Atelier (where they make the really fancy stuff).

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the factory, so you’ll have to bear with just a few peripheral photos and mostly me rambling.

Pilot was gracious enough to send Yoshihiko Ueki-san, a manager from the international sales division, to pick us up in Tokyo, from our slightly out-of-the-way apartment, bring us to Tokyo station, and then take us on the train out to Hiratsuka, about an hour train ride out of the city. We consider ourselves fairly intrepid travellers, but let me tell you, it was nice to have someone show us where to go for this one. There is quite limited English within Tokyo, but there’s less and less the farther out you get from the city.

Pilot is the largest manufacturer of pens in Japan, and their factories have employed generations of workers. We all know and love their Metropolitans and Custom lines and Frixion gel pens. They have separate factories for ballpoints and gel pens and things, but we visited their fountain pen factory. Obviously then, Pilot’s factories are quite important to Hiratsuka and the street in front is actually named Pilot Street.

Here we are at the entrance to the factory. Caleb looks pretty unimpressed here, and I swear he really enjoyed the whole thing. I can admit there were a few things we did that he wasn’t super into (washi tape shops, general stationery shops, pottery shops), but he was wide-eyed for most of the factory visits, and there were some pretty crazy machines in this place.

It was incredible, there’s no other way to put it. The fountain pen facility is massive, with around 750 employees, and you wind your way around mazes of different sections on different floors, some with mostly machines running, some with people set up in rows to inspect nibs or polish bodies. They have brand new modern machines, machines that are decades old but still running efficiently and well, table areas with neat stacks of boxes with forms and supplies for shipping to different countries, super clean looking metal cylinders where they make Iroshizuku ink, gloved nib tuners inspecting things under bright lights, trays and trays and trays of beautiful pens.

We were shown how Vanishing Point pens are checked multiple times to ensure good air tightness when the nib retracts. We were shown how nibs are cut and shaped and tested by hand. We saw the machines that cut nibs from the Kakuno to the ultra compact gold VP nibs. We saw trays and trays of Custom 74s, en route to somewhere good.

Pilot is proud to be a manufacturer that makes all of their parts—nibs (obviously), plastic parts, metal pieces, inks—here in their own factories, able to quality control everything. Even the Kakuno nibs are cut with a machine controlled by a person, each individual nib.

A symbolic urushi tree.
The Namiki Atelier, where their artisans create the beautiful urushi pens.

It was fascinating and fun and surprising and educational and, most of all, an incredible way to appreciate how much value and skill goes into each pen that Pilot makes. To see how much care is put into every step of the process, from “lowly” entry level pens all the way up to special edition Maki-e Vanishing Points: the triple checks at different stages, the care that goes into the maintenance of machines, the efficiencies to reduce wastefulness, the focus and skill of the hands that are putting together and inspecting the pens, the loyalty of its employees. As a shopkeeper that sells Pilot pens, and as someone whose Custom 74 is basically in constant use, I’ve experienced first hand how consistent the quality of the nibs and pens from Pilot are; seeing their factory has shown me why this is. You simply cannot go wrong with a pen from Pilot.

Enormous thanks to all of our friends at Crestar, the Canadian distributor for Pilot Pens, for helping to arrange this. We’ve only been in business for six short years (that also have seemed extraordinarily full of major events), but the longer we’ve been in business, the more and more we see the value in some of the relationships we’ve been fortunate enough to be one side of. Crestar usually makes an appearance at Scriptus, often with Pilot goodies, so you should make sure you say hello at their table, and tell them how much we appreciate all that they do for our pen community here in Canada.

While I’m sure they get many visitors, distributors or retailers from around the world, I’m not sure how often they get babies. On a personal note, I was a little worried going into this: two kids, slightly erratic, uncertain nap timelines, a train ride out. Turns out there’s good reason to worry, kids are terrible to bring along on a business trip, but we all made it out alive. I mean, maybe not terrible. Not terrific. Somewhere in between. Depending on the precise moment at which you ask me.

Family conference/pre-game pep talk/serious discussions around being grounded for life if anyone touches anything.
Surviving train rides, apparently one-shoeless. Later on someone would pick up a dinosaur from the floor of the Namiki Atelier and graciously offer it to me, eliminating the possibility of me pretending like it didn’t just fall off my leg.
About 15 seconds before we dropped the patty on the floor.

***

As I write this, we are currently weathering the tail end of a typhoon that has wreaked a bit of havoc with our plans. It’s crazy to watch out the window as it goes from sort of eerily empty, rainless streets, with shops closed down and the occasional lone brave soul gripping their umbrellas, suddenly turn to torrential sheets of rain coming down. Our AirBnb is located right alongside the Ladies Market, where vendors set up tents, and they all shut down early in anticipation of the winds and water, another eerie sight.

As Jon has returned to Toronto, I’m also weathering this solo parenting thing here in Hong Kong, and for the most part, have been enjoying myself. It’s been a balance (what does this vague, meaningless word even mean?) trying to tag into projects at the shop, get some words onto the blog, scavenge dinner, make our way through public transit, brush all/most of the teeth, figure out phone SIM cards, take in all of the political unrest here, hang laundry dry, negotiate appropriate pre-dinner-time snacks, answer the odd email, do all the funny voices at the bedtime story, hold the umbrella while pushing the stroller, and of course, find a way to pick up a bubble tea.

*Don’t look too closely at ours.

August 01, 2019 — wonderpens

Comments

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Caryn

Caryn said:

You’re very brave! (And I love my Pilot pens, so thank you for the tour.)

Hedy Czuchnicka

Hedy Czuchnicka said:

You are an amazing woman to travel with two children such a distance while doing business. I bow down to you. Thank you for sharing your journey.
Hedy

Joy Dale

Joy Dale said:

Please be careful Liz, news out of Hong King is getting alarming. I hope all is well and you’re able to enjoy time with the babies too.

Melody

Melody said:

Thanks for sharing your trip! I have been to Tokyo and was born in Hong Kong. To travel with two little ones on a business trip and then having them on your own after your husband goes home truly makes you a super mom! I have made several purchases online and is always looking forward to my happy mail arriving. I’m in Calgary and have not been out east for many years, but next time I am out there, I will visit the store for sure! Have a great summer :)

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