At the end of every year, I’ve always thought about writing a blog post to summarize my analogue writing system for the year - what worked and what did not. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition due to sheer laziness and other commitments during this period of the year. However, this year, I’ve decided to prepare the post in advance so that just maybe I’ll finally have something worthwhile to share. If you see this note, I think I may have accomplished it!
The Past Years
Ever since I started making an effort to write a daily journal, which began in late 2017, I’ve been open to trying all sorts of different systems to help maintain the habit. If it’s one thing I learned in my life, it would be that habits - both good and bad - are formed through consistent and sustained repetition. For that reason, I’ve been constantly seeking a system that I would be comfortable using and happy with for a long forseeable future.
What I am sharing here is my journey, mostly of mistakes, to find that mythical system.
2017 and of beginnings
Inspired by a blog post I read in July 2017, I came across the Stalogy 018 Editor’s Series 365 Days Notebook, which I had purchased in A6 size for the purpose of note-keeping in one single place. Previously, I’ve been struggling with tons of papers with random notes all over my desk that I have to review each week to determine if I could dispose of them when I cleaned my table. So it occurred to me that if I were to buy a single notebook that is portable in size, I could use it to jot down memos.
Unfortunately, it did not pan out as I had originally intended because there were times when I need to write a reminder for certain dates and the fact that it was dateless, made it difficult (at least for me) to do so.
As a result, in order to justify its cost (I was still new to ’luxury’ stationery then), I decided to repurpose it as a daily journal and record random thoughts. To my surprise, it worked out so well, I finished the entire book (of 360+ pages) with a journal dating from August to the end of 2017.
What I learnt:
- While the A6 size was portable enough, I learned that I still chose not to carry it around simply because I only wrote in it when I’m home, and not on the road. I did try once to write something on the road but it seemed like a hassle and the action did not suit me, so I decided not to pursue it anymore.
- I initially thought that filling up one page would be a chore. Towards the end of the year, I was averaging around 2-4 pages per day, which quickly filled up the book.
2018 and of experiments
Let me preface this by saying that the first choice was a grave mistake, and it happened because of a premature decision to purchase it before waiting for things to pan out.
I had realized within the first month of journaling that the A5 size was perhaps the better choice considering the amount that I write per day. Mixed with some idea to be able to date and decorate for the day, I thought the Midori MD Notebook Diary 1Day 1Page, which was a new product introduced that year, seemed like the perfect choice for me so I purchased it. However, shortly after that, I also came to know of other notebooks and brands that I realized were more suited to my needs. Even before I could start to use it in the new year, I already knew I made the wrong purchase. However, since it was not a cheap purchase, I decided I would just have to put up with it for the new year anyway.
And I did. As a result, I also came to realize that I’m not keen on cream coloured paper, nor the MD paper because the paper coating had issues when used with certain fountain pen inks. In short, I steer clear of MD Paper now, especially for the purpose of journaling. By the way, I do have friends who swear by MD Paper Cotton so I would not totally write off the paper (it’s all about personal preference!) but for long form writing, I would not consider MD paper ever again.
While the A5 size is ideal, both the weight and size of a quality notebook with over 300 pages can be quite hefty to travel with. For short distance traveling, I would bring it along but it’s a bulk even on a weekend trip. Finally, in August, when I ended up traveling to Japan with a friend and we were moving from hotel to hotel (since we covered three major cities), even though I had it in my suitcase, I didn’t want to dig the thing out. We were traveling on a budget so our rooms were tiny even for the two of us and I just didn’t feel comfortable bringing it out. While nothing I wrote it in was private, it’s just not something I would bring out and having to explain about it.
As a result, I finally broke my journaling habit… after steadily maintaining it for a year! Ironically, the trip was the one thing I really should have journaled! But the tiredness, the bulk, the hassle and the shared space … it just weighed on me at the end of each day.
Eventually, when I returned back home, I completely stopped journaling. Once I broke the habit, it was quite easy to forget about having to end my day with a nice written entry about it. For the rest of the year, I occasionally tried to write something but my interest (after the Japan trip) started to converge on a totally different thing, so the amount of time I wanted to give to writing slowly became less and less.
Compared to when I started out the year with the worry (judging from my track record for 2017) that I’ll exceed the 350 pages limit before reaching the end of the year, I had to leave quite a bit of blank pages because I had nothing else to fill it. It was a sad feeling that I started the year so motivated, but then, ended on a rather sad tone.
Next would be the Hobonichi Original. What I learned from using the Stalogy was that I really wanted dates so that I could mark down events and todos and such. I’ve never really used nor needed a planner before, but once I started to want to write more, being able to chronologically look up things was crucial. Ironically, I had discounted the Hobonichi when I first looked into lightweight notebooks with plenty of pages because it had dates printed that I felt was not useful - granted, pricing was also a big factor back then.
Overall, I liked the Hobonichi a lot, but as many people have noted, it has a lot of unncessary fluff and pages (which contribute to the overall weight and bulk) that I wished could be trimmed out. But in the current market, it’s quite hard to find a replacement product that serves the same purpose, with the same paper, in the same size as the Hobonichi. Due to its versality in size and purpose, I carried it everywhere I went - granted I did not reference it as much as I’d like to. So I did a tiny daily work exercise of charting the amount of time I spend on calls every day at work, and it was quite eye-opening!
The other thing I realized was that perhaps I should have bought the two-books edition which is called the “Original Avec”. Basically, it’s the same planner but split into two separate books, one dated January to June, and the other July to December. I noticed I rarely needed to look at the first half once I’m into the second half of the year. While I generally do not need the second half during the first half, I’ve encountered situations where I need to write an appointment that is future dated 6 months away and I hate having to write a note to remind myself to dig out the second book just to mark it down.
What I learned:
- The A5 size works for me in terms of space for writing, but it is bulky and the size not conducive for traveling. As a result, it just sits on my desk at home.
- MD Paper is not my ideal paper. Neither is cream coloured paper.
- Once a habit is broken, it can be tough to build it back up, especially when you no longer have the same drive as you did when you started.
- Hobinichi worked out quite well and is a keeper, but it would be nice to try the two-book edition in order to lighten the load.
The tumultous 2019
In 2019, I decided to go with a plain Tomoe River A5 dot-grid notebook. The paper, as it is well-known for, is light and works awesome with fountain pen inks. I felt that with a plain notebook, I am free to use the pages as I desired.
… that was until until I realized that with long form writing, I would fill up a whole page with text and the text really shows through on the back of each page. That was somewhat irksome and disconcerting.
As time passed, I got over it. But I resolved that if I were to use a blank notebook again, I might pick the Tomoe River 68gsm paper, or the more expensive but my true love - Graphilo paper! The only problem with that … is its weight. Everything falls apart when I need to travel with it.
Two other problems also came up. One that persisted from the end of the previous year, was my lack of interest to journal anymore. It’s true that I have a newfound interest that take up most of my free time, and because of that, I’ve been unmotivated to take a short time just to write in my journal. Ironically, it became a hassle to grab it out, open it and write it in.
Oh dear, what happened there? I’ve also started to inch away from the fountain pen community simply because there is so much commercial hustle and bustle associated with it these days and the truth is, I’ve found my ideal pen(s) so there wasn’t anything much out there that I really cared about anymore.
The other problem was the fact that I no longer have a way to write down short notes and ideas because the A5 was meant for journaling the day. And I’m not the type of person to mix content. On the other hand, I did not like the idea of carrying mini notebooks full of random things, and avoiding having random loose sheets of paper on my desk was the reason why I decided to get the Stalogy in 2017.
Then in the second quarter of the year, due to the fact that I no longer have much opportunity to write, and a renewed (but serious) resolve to self-study the Japanese language again, I started to focus on school-related stationery, particularly quality loose-leaf paper that I could take notes on, with a fountain pen and such.
So once again I turned to the Japanese stationery world and ended up exposed to yet another different aspect of the world of affordable, and functional school-related stationery.
By the third quarter, I was tempted to buy a quality loose-leaf binder to store my frequently reference notes. I do own many plastic binders but I wanted something fancy that I could keep on my desk and functioned as my main reference file of notes. That’s when I randomly picked up the Maruman Giuris A5 Binder thinking that it would fit my needs.
But things didn’t go as I had expected. My personality is that I don’t like mixing topics in the same collection. I have too many different topics going at once and storing them in a different folders would mean lots of half-empty binders (not to mention the cost and storage space needed). In short, I’d be inching back here to many half-empty notebooks, just in a different form. On the other hand, I work on several different things at the same time and it would be silly to have three different binders or notebooks open just to access them.
Something still wasn’t right so I kept browsing for more ideas. It was around September when the Japanese companies have started pumping out 2020 planners, that on a random whim, I decided to get a 12-tabs yearly planner from Maruman which caused me to inadvertantly land on something that would blossom into a whole new obsession.
Although I had bought the planner for the new year, it was still early in 2019 so I wanted to make use of it in some manner instead of keeping it in storage. An idea struck me, and I moved the tabs to the Giuris Binder and ignoring the 2020 dates, I decided to use the tabs to help categorize all the notes and random papers I have by the associated month.
What I landed on was an answer to my note organization problem:
- The monthly tabs allow me to easily access to everything I’m currently working on (irrelevant of subject), or to lookup past projects and related notes in a chronological order.
- Notes that are very specific in topic can be cleanly extracted and grouped together to be filed away in a single binder once I am ready to archive them.
- The ability to collect and lump random things - like a pretty packaging that seemed wasteful to dispose off even if it no longer serves any purpose, can be trimmed to become a pretty page divider. People call this scrapbooking - I’m not big into it (at least when compared to what I’ve seen people do online) - but sometimes, there’s just some things that I want to keep around as a keepsake for a brief period of time because it seemed wasteful to throw away immediately.
- The ability to track to-dos and events for future dates that go beyond a year. One of the sore points about analogue planners is that they are limited to a year period, unlike a digital one that could span “infinitely”. I had struggled with recording reminders to get my passport renewed, or my PR card renewed or the health card, etc. They are important dates but also tend to fall in a 5-year range.
Because I’ve been focused on my study notes, I never really ventured out of the 20-hole A5 size loose-leaf paper, or the 26-holes B5 (standard size for scholar notebooks in Japan) system. They are affordable and standard, with plenty of options in the market.
But as I started to venture deeper into the loose-leaf refill world, a different system started to make itself known (thanks to internet shopping AI) - one with almost a century of history, deeply steeped in the executive world (particularly in the 80s) and synonymous with luxury stationery.
I’m talking about system “techos” (system planners, as it is known in Japan), or ring bound planners, originally introduced by the “Filofax” brand. I’ve known of its existence but subconciously dismissed because it was associated with an executive image - you know, those black boring binders that you see executives carry to meetings.
But when I started digging deeper into Japanese market for them - a whole different picture was painted. For starters, it is still commonly used and sold everywhere, and also has a large female user base. On the surface, you have the usual, standard black leather look, but as I looked into each brand’s offerings, the depth of the catalogue as it caters to more casual use is quite fascinating!
I own a few copies of Shumibun (a quarterly luxury stationery magazine published in Japan) that I’ve bought for fountain pen news, and looking at them now, I see a whole slew of coverage on these planners too. How did I miss them before?! I know a few caught my eye when I first read about them, but because I did not think I would want it, I never paid much attention to those articles. Now I’m re-reading them with a different eyes!
It would require a whole new post to summarize everything about the world of system planners in Japan and all the different sizes and accessories available. I may attempt to write one in the future but it is beyond the scope of this already long post …
Shortly before this, I was seriously considering switching to the B6 size notebook for journaling as an alternative to avoid bulk that comes with A5 but still keeping things larger than A6. It was already October - the season where all the major publishers in Japan are pumping out techos for the next year so I was in heavy research mode to set the stage for 2020.
At this point, I still could not find an alternative for the Hobonichi so I went ahead to purchase the new one for 2020. I decided to return to the single book edition because it was just easier to manage.
So I bought what I thought would be my system of choice for next year, when suddenly, I succumbed to the temptation and bought an affordable Bible-sized (also known as Personal size outside of Japan) system techo to check things out. It was a difficult choice because once you get into the more luxurious offerings, I’m venturing into fountain pen prices. For a “newbie”, I wasn’t prepared to oversplurge just to satisfy my curiousity. But when I started using it, I suddenly fell in love with it.
The paper size has the height of a B6 paper, but not as wide. Since it is a ring bound planner, I can literally put anything I want in it. I could fashion my own inserts and the Japan market was filled with all types of planner layout in all the popular and quality paper such as Tomoe River, Nolty, etc.
Ah, if only I discovered it two weeks earlier before I bought all the other stuff that I did. I can’t return the items I bought, and I even tried to sell them away but failed. So it looks like I’ll be using some of them for 2020.
Amazingly, I’ve resumed my daily journaling in the Bible sized refill paper and it has been fairly steady since. Size-wise, it is somewhat perfect (in height) though I wish it could be wider because I usually end up using at least 2 sheets of paper per day. But the flexibility to remove the single paper and write without encumberance, and the ability to rearrangne and just carry just enough pages and what I need when I go out, it is just perfect for my needs!
So from November to December, I’ve been throwing money at buying different system techos - different styles, sizes and ring sizes - with a hope to try them all out and find that one perfect system to end my search.
Into 2020 and my ideal system
With that, here is my current system that I plan to start 2020:
Maruman A5 Giuris Binder
A simple A5 20-hole binder by Maruman, and comes with a PU leather cover. I bought mine with a pink cover but it comes in 5 other colours and also available in B5 size. It was a costly purchase but worth every cent I paid. Smell aside, you could fool someone to think this is real leather based on its texture.
Giuris is Maruman’s luxury line and the binder also comes with 10 sheets of their premium Giuris paper (90gsm) that is fountain pen friendly. It comes with 16mm ring which can be a little small for long term document storage but I’ve yet to find a better option.
I have mine set up with monthly tabs which I use to categorize on-going project notes, printouts, receipts and just about anything I may want to reference later. It’s like my workbook binder that I’m constantly cross-referencing so this remains open on my desk at all times (or when there’s room).
Acru「星結いの輪郭」Bible Size Techo Cover
This is a special edition release from Acru, an atelier workshop based in Osaka. I first heard about the company from the System Techo Style Vol. 4 magazine, an annual print magazine that covers the system techo scene in Japan, where their leather inserts caught my attention. I was shopping for something particular and their offerings matched what I had in mind for so I went searching for their website.
That was when I saw this cover! The perfect blend of dark blue and deep green to depict the night sky with stars, the first thought I had was, I have to get that!
While this cover is certainly gorgeous, I generally prefer to travel and carry around a thinner cover (see Plotter). For now, it sits on my desk and stores all my daily journal entries that I periodically transfer in batches once my thinner Plotter cover is starting to be difficult to handle due to excessive pages.
I also store long-term records and planning lists in here. I wish I could get more use out of it but for the time being, I’m still experimenting so we’ll see how things would end up in a few months.
Plotter Bible Size - Horsehair (Navy)
Plotter is one of the child brands from DesignPhil, which is famous for its Traveler’s Company Notebook system. As expected from this sister brand, their system techos feature a simple but very functional, no nonsense design - simply speaking, it’s a piece of leather with a 11mm ring installed. Nothing more, nothing less.
This similar slim cover design was originally produced under the product line “LUFT” by KNOX (previously known as Knoxbrain), also a child brand owned by DesignPhil. However, in 2019, it was discontinued and reimagined under the newer “PLOTTER” brand which is targed to “creators” and creative thinkers.
Personally, I think it’s a brilliantly executed product line. You get a streamlined, bare minimum design with no frills, and also no choice in ring size (all comes with 11mm). To supplement it, the company produces a whole line of accessories that is as streamlined as the cover - functional, simple, but executes its purpose perfectly without getting in the way.
The only issue I have with this brand is the pricing, which I find is too pricey for what you get. However, because of its execution and functionality, not to mention a small footprint, I simply can’t help but want more even if it is quite costly.
It is lightweight, and unobstructive while in my bag so I can carry it everywhere I go. Now that I’ve moved my journaling to Bible-sized refills, I usually carry about 5-10 days worth of refills for my entries and transfer them out for archival once I’m done with them. I also store some frequently accessed notes with it.
Ashford Deep Life Organizer A6+MINI6 (Brown)
The Deep Life Organizer is a line of tri-fold organizers from Ashford that allows one to include a regular notebook size that corresponds to the techo size. For example, the MINI6 (also known as “Pocket” size)’s closest paper size is A6. So this organizer fits one or two A6 size notebook, making it extremely versatile if you like carrying a bound notebook (like your journal) in addition to the loose-leaf ring system.
Ashford also sells ring accessories that you can stick into one of the pockets so that it transforms into an organizer with TWO rings, as I have pictured above.
I don’t have words to describe how much I adore it. It is made with buffalo leather which I can’t stop carressing (it’s so nice!!) and really fits my style where I keep daily pages (repurposed from Hobonichi Original) of all the small reminders I have for daily tasks, while on the right, I keep my weekly pages of appointments and other tracking lists.
This is my current daily carry that I simply can’t live without!
Finally, not pictured is the Tsuchiya Kaban Tone Oilnume Multi-Pocket Bible Techo. This is the epitome of luxury system techo and is simply gorgeous. I bought it lightly used and even so, I’m reluctant to carry it out of the house - it feels that luxurious! I store my less used ID cards and long term reference notes (e.g., my book catalogue), travel maps, foreign currency, etc. It’s kept in my desk drawer as it is primarily used to hold long-term storage items that I rarely reference.
Granted, as I experiment with different things and learn about other offerings, and move around from place to place, my ideal system will start to become more and more refined so I’ll say that for now, this is what I plan to carry into 2020. The beauty about these ring planners is that when I have the desire to use a different cover, I can easily move the pages or rearrange its contents to suit my needs.
I’ve been quietly ignoring the 6-hole A5 offerings because I’m happy with the regular 20-hole binders - both the breadth of paper choices, and binder catalogue in the market are far more affordable. I also have a lot of loose-leaf paper that I need to use before venturing into the 6-hole ones.
While I’m happy with the Bible-size and Mini 6 size (B7 paper), I’m still tempted to try HB×WA5 size - introduced by Ashford in Japan to answer the need of more space for journaling. Basically, it’s a mesh of B6 and A5 – having the height of a B6 paper, and the width of an A5 paper. Sounds like the perfect size for me, but outside of Japan, it is nigh impossible to get refills for it (at least affordably) because it is a proprietery size created by one company. As of 2019, commercial refills are only available from four companies.
There’s also the Micro 5 size (A7 paper) which sounds like my perfect wallet size. Most covers come with a wallet/purse compartment so I’m really tempted to get one. While I can get away with a minimal wallet in Canada since I mainly use my credit card, when I’m in Malaysia and having to carry all the different reward cards and such, I realize I needed a larger wallet. But when I think about it, the Mini 6 should be sufficient so I’m trying my best to refrain from splurging in one – I mean, at the end of the day, if I buy one, the other will have to stay home since it would be rendered useless. The other major concern is that the A7 paper and hole punch can be difficult to obtain outside of Japan.
How this coming year will pan out in terms of my use of these system techos remain a mystery, but that’s also the fun of it!
So I will end with this: What worked and did not work for me, does not apply to everyone else. That’s the beauty of stationery (at least in Asia) - there’s so much out there to cater to each and every little quirk, interest, or usage - so it’s a slow process to seek out that perfect stationery for you.
Hopefully this long narrative of my adventure of finding out my ideal analogue writing system helped someone out there find their perfect system too!