Wednesday, August 29, 2018

(Not Quite) Vintage Colored Pencils: Mitsubishi JR Kyushu Trains

Mitsubishi JR Kyushu Train colored pencil set

During all those days I was sealed up inside the house, avoiding the smoky air, I had time to play with colored pencils, so I have a few new reviews coming up.

First up is probably one of the most unusual and rare sets in my collection: a limited-edition set of Mitsubishi JR Kyushu Train colored pencils. Technically, these aren’t vintage; they are probably only about 10 to 20 years old, according to Kamikokuen, the Etsy vendor I purchased them from. Several Japan Railway train themes were available; I sentimentally chose Kyushu because that’s the region where my mom’s family came from (but I occasionally kick myself for not getting the Shinkansen set . . . I still could if I hurry).

The box lid shows the 18 trains featured on the pencils. All Mitsubishi train sets have pencils with square barrels. Three of the four sides show the top and sides of the train; the fourth indicates the train’s name and the core color in Japanese. A train geek I am not, yet I can still appreciate the attention to detail. (I wonder if these were originally marketed to kids or to adult train buffs?)

The set came with an eraser and sharpener.

Square barrels
Given the unusual form and rarity of the specimen, you can imagine how difficult it would be to sharpen and use these pencils. As gorgeous as they are to simply ogle, when I first started acquiring vintage colored pencils, I never intended to buy them just to hoard and eventually resell in mint condition. I swore that I would only buy them to use.

I did, however, give myself a couple of weeks to admire them in their unsharpened state of beauty. Then one smoky day when I was frustrated that the unhealthy air was keeping me from sketching outdoors, I decided it was time. Pausing a bit after each pencil to avoid hyperventilation and apoplexy, I eventually got through the whole set. Actually, finding a sharpener that worked well on the square barrel took a while. I tried several before I discovered that the small green one that came with the set turned out to be the most effective.

One reason I passed out each time I sharpened one was that I was recalling a set of genuinely vintage Mitsubishi colored pencils I own that are scratchy, hard and not at all enjoyable to use. Would the train pencils be similarly unsatisfying? Am I sharpening for nothing? (I could have sharpened only one as a tester to see if I liked it before sharpening the others, but that didn’t occur to me until I had sharpened half the box. I guess I tend to go for all-or-nothing.) I left one pencil in a color I knew I wouldn’t use unsharpened for posterity.

This sharpener didn't do well.
The sharpener that came with the set turned out
to be the best of my many handheld sharpeners.

Look at that curl!

With trepidation, I got an apple from the fridge and started a sketch. To my pleasant surprise, the cores are soft, produce very little dust and apply and blend well. In fact, I like them better than some contemporary Mitsubishi Uni “No. 888” colored pencils I’ve tried and certainly better than the vintage set. The square barrel takes a little getting used to (my first experience with square-barreled pencils were the Moleskine graphite drawing and colored pencils), but they are also very lightweight and comfortable in that regard.

8/22/18 Mitsubishi JR Train colored pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

It’s not often that a novelty pencil has a usable core. Relieved that I didn’t sharpen them for nothing, I can now happily use these most unusual pencils.

The colors in the set with color names in Japanese.


  1. Sharpening a square pencil must be strange...and a lot of work.

    1. Yeah, it was kind of weird until I found the right sharpener!


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