The Simple Joys of Japanese Stationery

Hit the Road in Japan and Abroad with the Traveler’s Notebook

It has been 11 years since the debut of the Traveler’s Notebook. Created by Japanese design firm Designphil, the customizable notepad offers a wide variety of unique features and accessories, including a leather cover hand-crafted in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since its launch, it has grown to become a favorite among globe-trotters in Japan and abroad.

The unadorned leather cover of the Traveler’s Notebook, a modest notepad produced by Japanese firm Designphil, has a coarse, rustic appeal. Since its appearance more than a decade ago, the brand has built a sturdy base of dedicated users, mostly global wanderers who use it to record their world travels. The stature of the customizable notebook is now such that fan events known as caravans regularly draw crowds of admirers to shops and hotels in such far-flung locations as Amsterdam, Berlin, Hong Kong, London, New York, Seoul, and Taipei.

Traveler’s Notebook is the brainchild of Iijima Atsuhiko, head of the Traveler’s division at the Tokyo-based Designphil, a design firm boasting an extensive portfolio of original stationery products. Iijima says the idea for the notebook came about as part of a 2005 contest at the International Stationery and Office Product Fair Tokyo (ISOT) to create a slim, A5-sized notepad. The open framework of the contest allowed him to take an unconventional approach. “When designing new items, it is standard to consider market indicators, including comparing trends and price ranges of competitors’ products,” Iijima explains. “But with the Traveler’s Notebook we broke all the rules.” This included using hand-crafted leather from Thailand and the company’s original “MD paper” notepads.

The Traveler’s Notebook comes in two sizes, regular (¥4,320) and passport (¥3,456), and offers various types of refills, including blank, vertically and horizontally lined, and gridded notepads along with daily, weekly, and monthly diary types.

Linking Hands with Thailand

Iijima’s decision to use Thai leather has its roots in a chance encounter he had years back while in the country on business. During the trip he met a young couple running a small workshop in the northern city of Chiang Mai. He was impressed by their diligent approach in producing quality leather and kept the pair in mind for a possible future project. That chance came in the form of the ISOT competition.

Japanese firms generally insist on uniformity when bringing new products to market, but Iijima saw the wrinkles, spotting, and scratch marks that are part and parcel of the tanning process not as defects but evidence of the natural quality of the material. By using an elastic band to loosely bundle the leather cover with a notebook made from smudge-resistant paper, Iijima created a product that projected a sense of being on an excursion. “As soon as I looked at it, I wanted to hit the road,” he exclaims.

The Traveler’s Notebook made a splash at the ISOT, earning a second-place finish, and went on sale in March 2006. Its debut was far from a grandiose affair, though, and was only accompanied by a low-key advertising campaign. The notebook at first was only available in black or tan, and offered just five varieties of refill sheets. But despite limited availability and a rather high price of more than ¥3,000, sales beat expectations as people were won over by the new item.

Iijima attributes the success of the Traveler’s Notebook in part to a shift in esthetics brought on by the digital age: “As the Internet came to dominate life, people began to reevaluate the warmth of hand-held stationery items. At the time, blogs were really starting to take off, and the notebook was able to ride this wave as customers who bought the product shared their experiences online.”

To tap into the momentum on social media, Iijima and his staff set up a dedicated webpage where they framed the notebook as an item for travelers by uploading photographs of the product taken during their overseas business trips. Customers now enthusiastically continue this practice and share their personal experiences through travel shots, columns, and other posts.

Iijima has transformed his own Traveler’s Notebook into a work of art by filling it with colorful stickers and drawings from his many trips.

Fit to Satisfy

The Traveler’s Notebook is built on the concept of harmony produced by the rough Thai leather and refined Japanese paper. Portability is also a vital aspect meant to inspire in users a sense of being on an ongoing journey.

Another pillar is the product’s easily customizable design, which Iijima says is indispensable to the success of the Traveler’s Notebook: “The leather responds according to how it is used. People might take good care of it, or treat it rough. Similar to the way stickers from different trips accumulate to give a suitcase a one-of-a-kind feel, regular use gradually transforms the notebook into a personalized item.”

In addition, customers can tailor their notebooks with a variety of trinkets that attach to the elastic band and with specialized decals and decorative masking tape that help lend an individual touch to the inner cover and pages.

The flagship Traveler’s Factory, the brand’s dedicated store chain, sets in an unassuming alley in Nakameguro, Tokyo.

Traveler’s Factory offers a wide variety of specialty accessories for customizing notebooks.

Travel-themed accessories made in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Different varieties of masking tape and stickers are available for users to add a personal touch to their notebooks.

As part of the travel theme, customers can use stamp pads to make original postcards. The shop also offers a selection of postage stamps.

A number of items designed in collaboration with Pan American brand.

Taking advantage of its growing popularity, the brand in 2011 opened a dedicated store in an old paper workshop in a winding back alley of Tokyo’s Nakameguro district. Christened the Traveler’s Factory, the shop offers a lineup of specialty items that play into the notebook’s travel theme.

That same year, the Traveler’s Notebook also reached out to fans overseas with an event in Seoul and Hong Kong. Later gatherings brought together users in Taipei, New York, and major cities in Europe and other regions. According to Iijima, the highly participatory caravans were an instant hit, taking off globally as fans clamored to have the gatherings held in their corner of the world.

The Traveler’s Notebook has grown into an international brand largely through the dedicated efforts of a three-person team led by Iijima. Over more than a decade the trio has kept the product on a steady course, working with a single designer to guide it through the development phase and on to the success it enjoys today.

New shops at Narita International Airport and inside Tokyo Station have appeared in the last few years, but these will be the last in Japan for a while. Going forward the brand will focus on strengthening its connection with its dedicated fan base while expanding into new overseas markets.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 29, 2017. Photos by Nagasaka Yoshiki.)