Beachside jade collecting

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Stoytcho searches for jade on the beach.

Japan is crazy about collecting things, but we haven’t collected much here in Japan beyond a handful gacha toys and fountain pen ink so it’s time to fix that. For our last stop in Japan, we head to a beach in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture in search of jade (ヒスイ). While the beach in this whole region is known for jade, Itoigawa is the closest stop to us via the Shinkansen, so using our JR pass we set out one last time.

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The highway just outside of Itoigawa.

Itoigawa itself is quiet when we arrive, the streets devoid of people and cars during a work day. We pick up a map and some advice from the mini-museum/visitor’s center behind the train station, then walk toward the beach. There’s a highway between us and the shoreline, so we have to go about half a mile north before we find an underpass with beach access. Nearby, we find a 7-11 and grab lunch.

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The underpass entrance, leading to the beach on the other side of the highway.

The beach is a pebbly stretch dotted here and there with piles of concrete tetrapods to prevent erosion. It doesn’t look like much until you’re standing on the pebbles and look down to find the stones glisten with a rainbow of colors. There are green, purple, red, white, brown, and black stones of all shapes and sizes. To find jade, we know we should be looking for stones that feel heavy for their weight and are smooth and cool to the touch, but the color can range from white to green to purple to black. Time to start collecting.

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The stones on the shoreline; perhaps there’s jade in here?

Though it’s a work day, we’re not the only ones on the beach. Other folks on holiday are here too, combing the beach for jade and other treasures and dodging the surf that occasionally rushes past the bowl-shape of the water’s edge.

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A larger than usual wave breaches the bowl-shaped edge of the beach.
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The aftermath of being a second too slow to escape the wave.

At the end of two hours, we’ve collected more than a kilo of stones and it’s time to decide what we want to keep. We try to be picky, because everything we take we either have to carry in our packs or have to send through the mail. We pick out the pieces most likely to be jade, then add in pieces we like for their color or shape. Our favorites are a tan colored stone etched with red and brown impurities, forming the patterns of hills or lakes or planets. We’ve found only five of them in our hours of collecting, so we keep them all.

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Our stone collection, with our favorites in the upper right corner.

After we finish up, we walk the beach and watch the other collectors with their bags slung over their shoulders, crouched down with hands sifting through the pebbles. The sound is unique, more treble than the ocean’s movement of stones, and reminds me of the sound candy-coated almonds make when you shake a box. The clinking of dozens of stones continues, as does the craze of collecting things.

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Holiday-makers and visitors collecting on the beach.

ōhashi dō fountain pens (大橋堂 万年筆)

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Ebonite pens by Uehara Yūichi

Today’s mission will test the limits of my Japanese skills, dragging me from the comfort of casual conversation into unknown waters. For today, we are looking for a specific store that has eluded many. The man that runs it, Uehara Yūichi (植原友一), is one of the few students of the late fountain pen maker Uehara Eiichi. Online rumor is that Yūichi*, who still makes all of his pens by hand from Ebonite, is somewhere here in Sendai, at a store called ōhashi dō.

If you ask Google Maps for “ōhashi dō, Sendai” (which is大橋堂, 仙台), it will direct you to 3 Chome-8-5-Chuo, a nondescript gray building just southwest of Sendai Station that houses a fish market. We knew from prior reports online that we would need to do more work if we actually wanted to find Yūichi. We tried the phone number on Google Maps, but got no answer. Hoping that the fountain pen community would know his whereabouts, we continued our search at on the pen floor of Sendai’s Marzuen, where we soon had three employees dutifully trying to help us reach Yūichi. They tried called him (but again got no answer), looked ōhashi dō up online, and eventually printed the Google Maps directions out for us. But the most valuable information they provided was that ōhashi dō as a storefront no longer existed, gone with the late Uehara-san’s death. His apprentices mostly sold pens at pen shows while traveling around the country, meaning that Yūichi may not be in town. Darn.

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We head to the market at 3 Chome-8-5 Chuo

Still, nothing ventured and nothing gained: we walked over to 3 Chome-8-5 Chuo in hopes of finding Yūichi. When we arrived the local fish market was bustling with midday shoppers and the lunch crowd. We walked through, hoping to find some sign of fountain pens through the seafood smell, but no luck. I finally approached the employee of one of the fish stalls and asked “Do you know where Ohashi-Do is?” The woman gave me a smile and said “Well, since you asked so sweetly!” and disappeared for a few seconds. Then she returned and handed me a pair of chopsticks.

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The employee who handed me a pair of chopsticks, kindly posing for a photo.

For those of you who speak Japanese, I hope you’re laughing. For those that don’t, “O-hashi” would be an honorific way to refer to chopsticks, so the fish market employee thought I had asked her *very politely* where I could find some chopsticks. At the time, I was confused for a second, then laughed with embarrassment. “No, no,” I told her. “I’m sorry, I meant ōhashi dō. It’s a store that sells fountain pens.” The market employee began to laugh, too. “Ah, I’m sorry! I thought you asked for chopsticks. I don’t know where the store is, but I can ask.” In minutes she helped us find a guy who knew where Yūichi was, and directed us to a room number three or four floors up.

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Heading around to the elevator. This looks more like a residential complex than a place for stores.

We went around to the back of the building and took the elevator up to what seemed like apartments. In a few minutes we found the right room, with the door ajar. We knocked, and a friendly-looking man appeared at the door. It was Uehara Yūichi! He was indeed in Sendai and happy to show us his current pens for sale, with the usual Japanese-style apologies for the messy state of the workshop. Stoytcho sat down to try them and was in heaven. I, meanwhile, attempted to translate as Yūichi half-described, half-pantomimed the creation process here in his workshop. A bit of a difficult process, given that I didn’t know technical words like nib, slider ring, and lathe. I could hardly keep the word 万年筆 in my head, and cannot thank Yūichi enough for his patience while I stumbled through translating for him and Stoytcho.

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Stoytcho tries some of Uehara Yūichi’s pens.

Pen aficionados talk about the simple and elegant beauty of the handmade ōhashi dō pens, but it’s hard to appreciate their magic until you’ve held one. I know little about pens, but even I can feel the precise art and painstaking labor given to the pen as I hold it. Even though we’ve spent the last two weeks visiting every fountain pen store we’ve found in Japan, where Stoytcho has tried countless Pilots, Pelicans, Sailors, and Mont Blancs, he marveled at the feel of the Ebonite pen body and the flawless fit and finish of each ōhashi dō pen he tried. For those of you that love fountain pens, the ōhashi dō pens aren’t flashy, but they feel like the essence, the Platonic ideal of a fountain pen**, worth feeling at least once in a lifetime. Brush up on your Japanese and find Uehara Yūichi.

* I hope Uehara Yūichi can forgive me for using his first name frequently in this post. It’s not common to use first names in Japan unless you’re very close with the person, but is common in English and I didn’t want anyone to confuse him with the late Uehara Eiichi.

** This is Stoytcho’s statement, not mine, which lends it much more credence since this is his obsessive hobby.

The Life of Passport Stamps

When we entered Australia, we had the chance to use their shiny e-Passport system, which expedites border entry for citizens of specific countries and has cut most wait times to around 10-15 minutes. Instead, we chose to wait in the standard line for more than an hour to get through customs. It’s not that we thought the e-Passport system would violate our privacy, or compromise our digital security. It wasn’t that it was hard to use. No, we stood in a low-tech customs line because we wanted our passport stamped. After all, at this point we’ve gotten stamps from more than 8 countries. How could we miss out on one? It’s a completionist’s nightmare, and we’ll wait in line, thank you.

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Pages of my passport with stamps from Central and South America

The passport stamp has provided evidence of travel for centuries, reminding travelers of their experiences and enabling governments to control the flow of people between borders. Passport stamps arose with passports in Europe during the 1800’s, but the modern system of passports and controls wasn’t developed until World War I, when hostilities and compulsory military service necessitated greater understanding of who was travelling where. Following the war, most countries kept the passport system and passport stamps became a common method of tracking human travel. Governments can determine where you’ve been by flipping through your passport, and can bar your entry; several nations (including Bangladesh, Iran, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia) will deny you entry if your passport contains a stamp from Israel. Depending on who your country is aligned with, your passport stamps could also raise some eyebrows when you go home and lead to questioning.

Despite their role as a bureaucratic tool, passport stamps have become a part of travel history and culture. Travelers covet and record the stamps.  Passport stamps from places that no longer exist remind us how much the world has changed in just a few short decades. We romanticize the passport stamp in our culture, with passport stamp patterns adorning everything from stationery to pillows and coffee thermoses. The passport stamp has come to symbolize sophistication and worldliness.

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People mill around after exiting customs and immigration in Hong Kong. Immigration areas are no-photo zones, so you’ll just have to imagine us waiting patiently in line, inching forward.

Back in Australia, we reached the front of the immigrations line and present our passports with an explanation. “We know as U.S. citizens we’re supposed to use the ePassport line, but we really wanted our passports stamped. Would that be alright?” The immigration agent looked up at us. “We don’t stamp passports anymore,” he replied, deadpan. I experienced a moment of dismay, then thought he was joking. This wouldn’t be the first time a customs agent has had a bit of fun with us. “Wait, you’re kidding, right?” I asked. “Nope,” he says, “we just stopped last Tuesday.” We had missed the Australian stamp by less than a week!

We asked the immigrations official if he’d be willing to stamp our passports anyway. He chuckled, “Sure, alright, I still have the stamp. Good thing you arrived now; they haven’t taken those yet.” With a loud thud, he inked a stamp onto a page in each of our passports. We asked if he gets many requests for stamps like this. “No, not many,” he replied. I guess we passport stamp hunters are a rarer breed now. And as electronic and biometric identification become more commonplace in travel hubs, passport stamps will become rarer as well.

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The Australia stamp, perhaps the last one ever issued. 

Hunting for information on passport stamp history, I encountered a few lamentations over the diminishing use of the passport stamp. Some reply that the loss of the passport stamp is for the better if it reduces hassle at immigration and during travel. Others look to collecting something else as proof of their journey, such as unofficial travel stamps. But what would the ideal future look like? What could we implement that would do away with the cost and trouble of a physical passport stamp, but still evoke the memories of a trip?

One possibility is to harness technology to create a digital “stamp” to collect. This could range from something as simple as a QR code in the welcome area that links to a country’s welcome webpage, to something as sophisticated as data embedded on your passport that you can privately access online. In the latter case, governments are already collecting and collating this information—why not make it accessible to the person it belongs to? Integrating it with digital records that we make during our travels – video, pictures, writing – and we could create whole travelogues of our experiences, richer than what we might remember years later when we glance at our passport stamps.

But it’s hard to beat the physicality of a stamp. Each of the things listed above would have to be accessed consciously and intentionally. A passport stamp travels with you, visible and present whenever you carry your passport. It’s as much a reminder of your trip as it is a government approval to travel across borders.