On Keeping a Journal

My primary journal for the last decade has been a hard-bound 8×10 archival journal from University Products, which unfortunately is no longer offered, though they still sell it in a smaller size ( a 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 version). I also carry a small (9cm x 14cm) Moleskine pocket journal that I can easily keep with me when toting out a larger journal is inconvenient, and I have switched my large journalkeeping to a large (13cm x21cm) Moleskine as well.

Moleskines are immensely practical. They fit nicely in the back pocket of a pair of Levi’s. Their durable cover will not just take a beating, but gain character from the bumps and knocks it receives. The cloth bookmark is indispensable while the ticket pocket inside the back cover becomes a storehouse for treasures.




While these two journals are my favorites, I am not so compulsive that I always use the same identical journal. I am always looking for new journals in my travels, and use them for specific trips, events or activities. Some people like to look at their shelves and see the comforting uniformity of volumes and volumes of the same identical stock. I prefer the mixed topography of volumes large and small, leather and cloth — the more variety, the better.

Despite the globalization of consumer products, you will find that different destinations can offer unique volumes. Here are my three favorites:

Florence. An ancient center of publishing and book-binding, Florence is a great place to find beautiful and practical journals, from small leather numbers smaller than a cigarette pack to large fancy volumes trimmed with Florentine marbelling (a bit too gaudy for my taste). Il Papiro once was the sine qua non of Florentine bindings; it’s quality has fallen a bit, but still has some wonderful offerings. However, if you are seeking the best of Florence, hunt out the smaller stores, where they hand-bind luscious, hand-made volumes that will intimidate you into writing only the finest and most rarified of your thoughts or most elegant of pen-sketches.

Kyoto. Japanese codex-style journals are a delight, and better—they are available in many US art stores, as well as Japanese stationery stores like Kinokuniya which has stores globally including in San Francisco’s Japan town. Any good stationery or art store in Japan also will offer a wonderful selection, but for inspiration, visit Tera-machi Street in Kyoto which has dozens of shops selling traditional writing tools. The fanciest is Kyukyodo on Tera-machi, which has been around for several centuries and caters to the upper-crust of Kyoto creative society with prices to match. It sells everything a scholar needs: ink sticks, suzuri (ink stones), brushes, paper and incense. The prices are beyond breath-taking but one can still find small treasures that won’t empty one’s wallet. Theologian Alan Watts haunted the shops on Tera-Machi when he studied in Kyoto back in the 1960s, and is is easy to imagine him in Kyukodo admiring the brushes or looking for just the right stick of vermillion ink covered in gold leaf.

Beijing. Liulichang Dong jie. (near Nanxinhua Xie) is a dreamy narrow street lined with shops and stalls selling the four scholarly treasures: paper, ink, inkstones and brushes. Brushes and inkstones utterly identical to what I have seen selling for hundreds of Dollars at Kyukodo go for under $50 here (be sure to bargain a bit!). But the codex-style blank books are my favorite. They are bound in silk or linen and come in all sorts of sizes from full-sized books down to tiny volumes smaller than a pack of cigarettes that cost less than a Dollar. And the shops here offer every brush you can imagine from giant two-handed swabbers to tiny brushes no larger than a hummingbird’s beak.

Liulichang has been discovered by the vast hordes of tourists, so be sure to get away from the stores that cater to them. Do visit Rongbao Zhai, an especially famous art/calligraphy supply store, but I prefer haunting the myriad little shops farther down the street and in the side alleys. My favorite is “the ZheJiang Huzhou City Shan Lian Hu Pen Factory” (the name is bigger than the shop!) on a side alley off Liulichang Dong jie. While tourists who find the place are welcomed by Mr Yu, the proprietor, this shop has a very serious local clientele. Let him know you plan to actually use what you buy and not only do the prices drop, but he will entertain you with all sorts of amazing information!

Now, a word about pens. Pens are as important as the journal, and moreover, must be carefully matched to the paper or otherwise the ink will smear or blot or just look crummy. I love fountain pens, but I prefer to use disposableAlvin Tech-liner drawing pens when journalling. The ink is archival and insoluble which means I can use them for sketches and later add in watercolor without everything smearing. And they are disposable, so if I accidentally leave one behind, it is merely an annoyance, where losing a much-loved fountain pen is a disaster. Techliners are a bit hard to find, but one site, MisterArt, always has them in stock.