Kyo No Oto inks are small batch fountain pen inks made by the Kyoto-based Takeda Jimuki stationery store in cooperation with the Kyoto Kusaki Research Institute which studies ancient techniques for dyeing using plants. These inks aim to reproduce the colours created using these techniques in the Heian period (around the 9th to 12th centuries), Heian being the ancient name for Kyoto.
This particular colour- urahairo – is described as the colour of the back of a leaf, specifically a willow leaf. Many green inks are too vivid for my taste, tending towards lime green. Others are too yellowish. This ink is perfect. Google translate renders the description on the accompanying leaflet as “astringent and dull” which isn’t exactly a strong selling point. I would say it is “austere and subdued”.
It is also a very dry writer, a problem exacerbated by my extra fine nibs, and I believe from reviews I’ve read this is common to the entire line. Since all my nibs are either fine or extra fine I got round this by adding tiny quantities of washing up liquid which helps the flow, though there is still a certain chalk on chalkboard feel at times, particularly when writing fast. The extra effort is worth it for the result which lightens to that beautiful back of the leaf colour as it dries. Bonus point as well for the great packaging – a box made from high quality textured card with an embossed name and log, and a nicely designed label unique to this particular ink.
At $28 for a 40ml bottle this is not a cheap ink, but given this is a high quality, small batch ink, and well packaged and presented I think it is worth it. At least some of the Kyo No Oto line are limited edition inks including this one and there is already a new ‘No. 08’ – Moegiiro – which is one of those vivid greens I’m not so fond of. I did think of buying extra bottles of urahairo but decided instead to appreciate it as a one off pleasure. Currently I am using this ink in my dark violet Lamy Scala where I find the combination of these two colours very pleasing.
If you are curious, the text is from Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
Our neigbourhood store was on Skender Luarasi. I don’t know if that’s what the street was called back then when I lived in Tirana but that seems to be how it’s known now. It was just round the corner from my house on a nameless street now called Rruga Liman Kaba. The store was owned by two brothers, an assumption on our part. They looked like brothers, but since they spoke no English and I spoke only a few words of Albanian there was no way to know for sure. It was a tiny place no bigger than the front room of a small house with a covered outdoor space for the fruit and veg. They sold a little of everything, not unlike the corner stores that dotted Belfast when I was growing up. I shopped there because it was convenient and I wanted to support them but also because the fruit I got there tasted better than most of the fruit I had ever eaten up to that point.
Fruit was seasonal, picked when it was ready and sold as long as the season lasted. I never knew from one week to the next what would appear or what would disappear. There were a few glorious weeks of peaches or cherries or whatever happened to be in season and then they were gone. Often it looked a little rough, a little battered and bruised and it probably wouldn’t have made it past quality control in Tesco or Sainsbury’s but it tasted better than anything I could get at any supermarket.
Watermelons piled high in front of the store announced the arrival of one of Albania’s most popular fruits. I have seen claims that Albania has the highest watermelon consumption per capita in the world (though I saw this unsourced claim on the internet so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt). They were certainly abundant in the shops in Tirana and on the roadside stalls during the season so people were clearly eating a lot. In the heat of an Albanian summer cool, wet, sweet, flavourful watermelon was blissful.
Meanwhile a Norwegian expat of my acquaintance was working with the Albanians to develop export markets for agricultural produce. It was a tough job. He told me about the many challenges of trying to set up the administrative structures and processes necessary to get Albanian produce into the wider market of Western Europe, and of changing mindsets among Albanian producers and bureaucrats who didn’t understand why it had to be so complicated. But the problems weren’t all on the Albanian side.
My Norwegian friend saw the potential of watermelons as an export crop. They grew in abundance in Albania, they were a little more robust than some other fruit, they were delicious. But there was a problem. They had seeds. Western consumers had got used to ‘seedless’ hybrid watermelons and so some Western consumers resisted the idea of a watermelon with seeds. If both kinds tasted the same perhaps there might be some sense in choosing seedless over seeded (though spitting out the seeds is part of the fun of eating watermelon) but they don’t. The industrial agriculture that produces the hybrid watermelon has also produced the shelves full of beautiful but largely tasteless fruit and veg that stock Western supermarkets. So potential consumers given a choice of flavourful seeded watermelons or flavourless seedless ones chose to forgo flavour for the convenience of not having to remove a few seeds.
It’s been more that ten years since I lived in Albania but I thought of these things one day when I bought a quarter watermelon at Whole Foods in Washington DC. It looked fine, it was ‘seedless’, it tasted vaguely like watermelon, though mostly it just tasted wet. Yet for many consumers it seems even seedless watermelons aren’t enough. Above the shelf with the watermelon quarters was another shelf lined with plastic cups of pre-sliced watermelon. At a generous estimate each cup may have contained the flesh of one sixteenth of a watermelon but was 30% more expensive that the unsliced quarter watermelon.
Who are these people, I wondered? Who are these people who apparently don’t have the time (or perhaps the skills) to slice up a watermelon? Granted, something like a mango or a pineapple requires a little more effort to slice so perhaps people feel its worth the extra, but a watermelon?
My parents were teenagers during the second world war and entered adulthood in the years of austerity and rationing that followed. The values of that war and post-war generation, my parents’ generation, have stuck with me even though my life is more comfortable than they could ever have imagined. Perhaps choosing seedless over seeded watermelons or paying extra for sliced watermelon is a marker of how sophisticated we have become as consumers, but I can’t help thinking that ‘I don’t like seeds’, ‘I want it sliced’ sound like the exclamations of an overindulged child.
My left hand doesn’t work as well as it should, which is unfortunate as I’m left handed. It’s a long story involving a metal gate, a torn ligament, hundreds of hours of physiotherapy, more injections than I can recall and two surgeries, which I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that my hand is ‘good enough’ though subject to aches and pains. About a year ago I started working full time after a gap of almost fifteen years (another long story). Since the job involved a lot of writing andtyping, and since I’m old school and prefer to do a lot of actual pen and paper writing, I was concerned about how my hand would hold up.
A chunky pen with a squishy grip might be a good investment I thought. At which point my simple quest turned into an epic exploration of the internet universe of pens. It turns out the Japanese are very good at pens as a result it seems of complex character sets and an emphasis on handwriting and calligraphy. I ended up with a collection of smooth writing, fine-nibbed gel pens from Pentel, Pilot, Uni-ball and Zebra. I added a bunch of Muji pens, because you can never have enough stuff from Muji, and rounded my collection off with a couple of ingenious mechanical pencils.
I never even considered fountain pens, having bad childhood memories of scratchy, leaky pens and assuming as a lefty that they were were a recipe for smudgy pages and ink stained hands. It turned out that one of my new colleagues was a fountain pen user and out of curiosity I asked if I could try his pen. I wrote some random words. The nib glided smoothly over the paper, the ink flowed evenly to the nib and there was not a smudge to be seen. The real revelation was the ease of writing. I thought my gel pens were great writers requiring very little pressure and needing only a light grip, important when trying to take the strain off the hand when writing for extended periods, but this fountain pen was in another league. And so I plunged back into the pen universe and headed straight for the black hole of fountain pens.
Initially overwhelmed, I eventually ordered a cheery yellow Lamy Safari. Since then I’ve ordered two more, one in ‘blue macaron’ and the most recent in ‘violet’. Lamy introduced the Safari in 1980 and the striking design caused quite a stir. The pen was oringally aimed at 10 to 15 year old schoolkids and the designer Wolfgang Fabian worked with psychologists to develop the pen, a process that took five years. The ‘Safari’ name and the initial colours of ‘savannah green’ and ‘terracotta red’ were also shaped by the psychologists’ suggestion that children were interested in travel and faraway places.
The general idea was that if Lamy could get kids using the Safari then those kids might stick with the brand as adults. In the event the strategy, despite – or possibly because of – the psychological advice, was a failure. The kids weren’t impressed but it turned out that some adults were. So Lamy asked Fabian to come up with some new colour schemes that would appeal to a more mature audience.
Fabian said that his approach to designing the Safari was driven by his own childhood experience of awkward grips and inky fingers. As a young designer with no presuppositions about how a fountain pen should look he was free to take a different approach to achieve his goal – a fountain pen that would sit comfortably in the hand. That approach resulted in the most distinctive feature of the pen, the three sided, recessed grip designed to teach young people the ‘correct’ way to hold a pen.
Fabian’s work has stood the test of time with the Safari still in production after 40 years and now one of the world’s best selling pens, popular with kids and adults, casual users and collectors. Fabian modestly rejects the idea that the Safari’s longevity is down to his design, noting that the pen has received plenty of criticism alongside the praise. Instead he attributes it to Lamy’s willingness to persevere with the pen in the early years when it was a lot less popular than today, and the marketing department’s decision to produce an annual special edition usually in a new colour with matching ink. The first of these appeared in 2004 and this has now become an annual event with multiple themed releases in more recent years. So every year with the special edition the Safari gets a big marketing push and the pens become collectors’ items for the enthusiasts in pursuit of a complete set. Two of my pens are special editions with the ‘blue macaron’ from 2019’s ‘pastel’ range and the ‘violet’ from 2020’s ‘candy’ range. You can of course get it in black if you want.
The pen itself is made from ABS plastic, the same material Lego is made from and if you have ever stepped on Lego in your bare feet you will know how tough that stuff is. The design though it has its critics is very distinctive. Put it in a tray alongside a dozen other fountain pens that only an expert could tell apart and even a complete fountain pen novice could pick out the Safari. The grip does seem to get some people worked up but even as a lefty writing sometimes at very odd angles I have never had a problem with it. As with most Lamy pens the nib is easily changed for any of the wide selection of widths and styles available. If you wish you can even mount one of the company’s gold nibs. Since I write small all my nibs are ‘extra fine’.
Many fountain pens take standard international cartridges giving you a wide range of ink options from multiple producers but Lamy is one of the makers using proprietary cartridges so your colour options are a little limited. Alternatively, install a converter and you can explore the thousands of bottled ink options available. Right now my yellow and blue macaron pens are using converters with iroshizuku syo-ro ink in the former and shikiori shigure in the latter. The violet, my most recent purchase, is still using the blue cartridge that came with it.
Over time Lamy has produced several variants of the Safari including the AL-star in aluminium, the transparent Vista, and the slightly more upmarket Lx. There is nothing about the Safari I dislike which is probably why I have three of them. They are also as fountain pens go very cheap, typically around $25 in the US and £20 in the UK. This means you can collect them without breaking the bank and if you do happen to leave one behind somewhere it’s going to be a little less painful than if you left your $1,000 Montblanc.
Enough from me but if you would like to read more, Lamy’s beautifully designed website has lots of information and great product photographs, while Swedish based German blogger Michael Waltinger at Scrively has an insightful interview with Wolfgang Fabian (from which I have borrowed) which includes pictures of the earliest Safaris and their themed packaging. If you do take a notion to buy a fountain pen please shop at an independent retailer and give Amazon a miss. I have bought from Goulet Pens, JetPens and Endless Pens and had great service from them all.