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Top Japanese Pencils: The Mitsubishi Hi-uni and the Tombow Mono 100

Hello, it’s been a while since this blog has been online or updated. Good news: The server hosting the blog survived being in storage, and has again been cranked up and placed online!

Thank you to those who wrote notes of encouragement about the blog. They were definitely appreciated.

Even better news is that there are lots of things to write about. I thought I would start with two top Japanese pencils. A couple of years ago, these were very hard to acquire in North America. Thanks to the internet, they’re now possible (though still far from easy) to source.

The intriguing cap of the Tombow Mono 100

The intriguing cap of the Tombow Mono 100


The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni is the top woodcase pencil in the Mitsubishi Pencil Company’s line. There seems to be no doubt that mechanical pencils are much more widely used in Japan, with woodcase pencils like these considered niche products.

This pencil’s packaging announces it – a light green cardboard sleeve with a cutout that lets one see a half dozen pencil crowns. Taking off the sleeve, there is a black plastic box with a clear plastic lid that pops up to allow access. The interior of the box has a many-spoked divider that keeps each of the twelve pencils separate. It’s heavier than any pencil box I’ve encountered, and definitely indicates that the contents are valuable.

The pencils are offered with a heavily varnished maroon finish, topped by a black crown. The stamping is gold, along with a white barcode. The pencils are also distinguished by the orange dot on their tops.

The intriguing cap of the Mitsubishi Hi-uni

The intriguing cap of the Mitsubishi Hi-uni


They sharpen easily, and in HB have a very rich dark lead that doesn’t crumble. On paper, the markings seem reasonably smear proof. I look forward to trying some other hardnesses. I haven’t spent too much time with them yet, but hope to soon give them a lengthier workout. I’ve found that some pencils which do well for a few jottings aren’t necessarily great all day writers.

The Tombow Mono 100 is a legend, especially in the animation field. It has a reputation as a high quality professional pencil. Dick Blick calls it the “gold standard.” I’ve spent quite a few dollars not getting this pencil – ordering it and being sent something else. Anyhow, I’m glad to finally have a few in my stash. They’re black, with gold band, and a white stripe that traverses the pencil’s cap.

They’re just a wee bit longer than any non-erasered pencil I have. A slight compensation for their price, I suppose.

They sharpen well, and like the Hi-uni, have a dark rich lead. I have tried them for a sufficient period of time to confirm that they make a great writer.

To my eye, the finish of both pencils is disappointing. Maybe I was expecting too much, but they’re overcrowded with too many font faces – both of them. A pencil just doesn’t have room for six different fonts without being very distracting. And of course the almost ubiquitous bar code makes them less sleek. They do have superior paint finishes, though.

Now as pencils – they’re really good. They seem to have the dark lead (the right combination of graphite, clay, wax, and other ingredients) that’s so pleasing to see on paper, without the crumbling or quick point erosion that some other attempts at dark leads have seen.

42 comments to Top Japanese Pencils: The Mitsubishi Hi-uni and the Tombow Mono 100

  • Good to see you back online. The caps on the Tombow Mono 100 certainly do look interesting.

  • Thanks!

    I’m not sure “caps” is the right word, but they do look sharp.

  • j

    Wow! Ihave a bunch of Tombow 100′s and yes they are sort of coveted in animation.
    Where did you manage to get the hi-unis?

  • J, you have a great web log, btw.

    My box of Hi-Unis came from a Japanese vendor. Already an expensive pencil, the shipping, duty, and tax pushed them into a range that I would not have payed for many other pencils.

    Still, they’re proving themselves to be very good, and I’ve ordered some more.

  • j

    Thanks very much. Is there a link I can follow to order some of my own??

  • Well, when I wrote that they were hard to acquire – I meant it! I had looked for these without success for years. This past summer, I saw a Japanese ebay store that often sold stationery items, and sent them an email. They agreed to source these for me. (This occurred over some period of time, and I had written to many such vendors previously.) There is no direct link, but I can offer contact info offline.

    These pencils may (after importation) have been too pricey for success in North American art stores a few years ago, but I’d bet that with the web, they could be very successful at reaching target markets today.

  • Joey

    I grew up in Japan during the 60′s and 70′s, and was used to their stationary. When I moved to the United States during my high school years, I was shocked at the poor quality of American stationary. I had to try to find professional level materials just to feel comfortable.

    Fewer people use regular pencils these days, but I think to this day the Mitsubishi Uni pencils and the Tombow Mono plastic erasers are the best.

  • ryan

    It is necessary for me to use the “Hi Uni” pencil for testing purposes.
    I need several of each hardness, at this point price does not matter, my employer is desperate. One ebay ad has a hb set. I have contacted them, without response, any help would be great.

    Thank you, Ryan

  • Ryan,

    Good luck with your quest. If it’s desperate, I would suggest contacting Mitsubishi Pencil Co. directly. Or feel free to email me and I can give you the name of one Japanese ebay seller I can recommend.

    “Price does not matter” – I’ve never heard that in connection with woodcase pencils, but I like it! I’m curious about what industry you are in. (I’m guessing animation.)

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Robert O

    I would love a source for the above mentioned pencils. I am an old school draftsmen who loves the look and feel of a premium woodcase pencil.

    Thanks again,

    Robert

  • I know this is an older article but I just had to leave a comment.

    I recently acquired Tombow Mono 100′s siblings, the Mono J’s and I’m super thrilled with them! It feels like they write and raw darker, smoother, and stay sharper longer than any other lead I’ve used.

    I’m extremely fortunate to live in San Francisco, where I have a handful of Japanese stationary stores that import such pencils (Kinokuniya Stationary and Gifts in Japantown, and Maido Fine stationary & Gifts in SF’s Westfield Mall). I did see the Mono 100′s as well (and some other brands I may have to try), but I agree with the sentiments that markup is outrageous! I went for the Mono J’s ($0.89/each) because the 100′s were almost $3 each! It seems like they’re worth it though. I’m wondering what the difference is between them though (the 100′s seemed “fancier”, but I don’t know if there’s a quality difference). I’ll have to see if those Hi-Unis are sold there as well.

    This blog has made me fascinated with the different types of pencils, and it makes me glad I’m a short walk away from these hard to find treasures.

  • Hi Jenn, thank for your interesting comment. I wish I had a local source for this range of pencils. I’m sure a lot of pencil users are envious of your proximity to stores like Kinokuniya. I haven’t seen the Mono J, though I have few of the Mono R.

  • Mark

    I went to the Kinokuniya Bookstore in NYC recently and bought:

    Mitsubishi Uni-Star 2B & 3B
    Tombow Mono J 3B & 4B
    Tombow 2558 HB

    Of these, I wanted to like the Tombow 2558 HB the most because it is the only pencil intended “for general writing” and as such it has a yellow paint finish and has an eraser attached. However, I ended liking the Mitsubishi Uni-Star 3B the best, for its rich, dark lead. I would love to try the Tombow Mono 100 and the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, which Kinokuniya did not have in stock when I visited in July.

  • Mark, that sounds like a nice shopping trip. Thanks for the update!

  • Fortunately, I have various pencils of Japanese vendors.
    Tombow 8900, MONO J, MONO R, MONO RS, MONO, MONO100, MONO Marksheet, Pentel 999, Mitsubishi Hi-Uni.
    I could buy them in one online store, but it’s for Koreans.
    Here’s the product search result of the word “Pencil” in Korean.
    http://www.japan09.net/index.php?pgurl=shop/sh_schgds_list
    If you want to buy some pencils from that site, maybe you need to pay by KRW, and today’s currency rate is about 921KRW/USD.
    I’ll send an e-mail to store administrator if they can deliver worldwide.
    I hope this information is helpful to the people who want to have those Japanese pencils, but could find them nowhere.

  • I’m sorry, the link above will not work.
    Put the word “??” into the edit box on the middle-left of the page.
    Or, move your mouse pointer on the 4th word under “CATEGORY MENU”,
    and press 4th word on the poped-up menu.
    Then you’ll see various vendor’s name. Remember this site only sells Tombow, Mitsubish and Pentel pencils.
    I’m definitely not related with that site. I just want to help the people who visit here.

  • Kent, your directions work perfectly! Thank you for this additional contribution.

    I’m not sure how comfortable those who don’t speak Korean will be with ordering pencils this way, but I’m sure many will want to have a look.

    It has a quite complete listing of quality Japanese pencils for sale.

  • I’ve just got an answer from above mentioned site.
    They can deliver worldwide, But because they’re focusing on the korean customers, you need to send an e-mail to the site administrator instead of online one-click buy.
    If anyone who want to buy pencils from that site has some problem especially because of language, leave e-mail address below. I will be really pleased to help.

  • Hello there!

    This is my first post in your blog, and I must thank you for bringing me into the world of pencils. I’ve just recently started to get really interested in them, and much so because of your site with excellent reviews and many pictures.

    I’m quite fond of japanese pencils too, and have managed to aquire some myself. Not these (yet) though. They’re quite intriguing, so I might wanna buy them some day. ;-)

    I’ve started my own pencil-blog these days, and would really like you to visit it. Though it is in Norwegian, it might be of interest to you as it’ll be rather picture-heavy.

    Best regards from Norway!

  • Thanks for your message, I am really pleased that you have enjoyed my blog.

    The Japanese pencils (Pentel, Kita-Boshi, Mitsubishi, Tombow) are definitely first rate.

    I like your blog, though I can’t read Norwegian. I will add a link from my site.

  • Yes, I seem to stop by here almost every day, looking for updates. :-) You’re site is very inspiring, you know. I’m glad to hear you like my site, and don’t worry about the language, it’s mostly about telling pencil stories with pictures anyway.

  • Zach

    Go to penwish.com and then search Tombow by manufactures.
    It’ll come up with two different mono pencils. Just a thought

  • Michael

    Very late addition to this post
    The Tombow pencils are now available in the UK from Cult Pens at £2.50 each – still waiting for the Uni

  • Jomann

    I can confirm that in Seattle Washington, in uwajimaya asian market, the is a book store that sells Mitsubishi uni-star 2b and 3b pencils, I love the 3b’s and I’m glad to know I am not the only one! I may report back when I find out what other pencil’s are in stock!

  • James Davis

    I fell in love with the Tombow Mono 3B and 4B pencils. They fit my writing and work well on smooth papers. Others said they were similar to the Mono 100′s, and I was curious.

    Yesterday, I recieved a box of Mono 100 3B’s. The test was on. A Mono 100 was smoother and blacker than the plain Mono 3B. I began to think to extra price was justified. Barely, but still justified.

    Since a Mono 4B was handy, I threw that into the test and was suprised. The Mono 100 3B and the Mono 4B were, to the best of my ability to test, exactly the same.

    Hmm…clever marketing. At the least, I’ll save some money.

  • James

    Just a quick note to let everyone know that the full line of both the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni and Tombow pencils is available at jetpens.com. I’ve made several orders of these pencils from that website and received excellent service each time. I recommend it highly.

  • grant

    I just purchased a set of the “Mono Professional” line of pencils from Amazon. Do you know if they use the same lead as the Mono 100′s?

  • Grant, Kent’s translation of the Mono 100 insert, found here, indicates not – they have different graphite compositions. The Mono 100 has 20% greater density of graphite molecules if I understand correctly.

    A successful professional animator who has occasionally commented here (Congratulations on Toy Story 3, James!) says they are definitely different in use.

    So I have no doubt that yes, there is a difference.

  • Robert

    As far as I can tell, Mono Professional is just a repackaging of the standard Mono line. They’re a good product, but they’re not the same as the Mono 100.

    I keep going back and forth between the Hi-Uni and the Mono 100, trying to figure out which one I like more, just in case I decide to start stockpiling them. Half the time, I feel like the Tombow gives me a slightly better line, writes with more control, and retains a very sharp point a little better without breaking or wearing down right away…the other half of the time, I think the Mitsubishi ages a little more gracefully and the graphite slides over the paper a little more easily.

  • Lucas

    After much anticipation I just received my first box Hi-Unis (HB) from JetPens. I have to say I am very disappointed. The box was of course very nice but the contents were lackluster. The finish is quite shoddy, specifically the foil stamping. It is overall inconsistent and cheap-looking. The transition between the core and the plastic cap is rough, and again, feels cheap. Writing with the pencil, while not bad, does not live up to expectations either. Writing with the Hi-Uni is a consistent and rather smooth affair but the line is not nearly as dark as a Palomino HB nor does it feel as smooth. The Hi-Uni does erase better than this competitor and is less likely to smudge, but only barely. Definitely prefer the Palomino, Mars Lumograph, and even the Tombow Mono Homograph to this pencil. Wishing I had gone with the Tombow Mono 100s as I was torn between these and the Hi-Unis when I ordered. Bummer.

  • The foil stamping is “shoddy”? What specifically about it? The fonts and aesthetics may not be to all tastes (I think there are too many fonts used, as an example), but I’ve never heard the quality of manufacture impugned.

  • Kevin

    What is this obsession with darkness of a grahite pencil. Has anyone heard of the term Grade which denotes darkness (or lightness if you prefer H pencils). That is why there are different grades so you can choose your own preferred darkness. Now Faber Castell is constantly criticised for having light colored leads compared to other makers such as Tombow, Staedtler, Mitsubishi. I tell Faber Castell to take there 2B pencil and rebadge it HB then all the darkness lovers will be satsified. For what it is worth my personal favorite is Tombow Mono 100 in B grade but I’m not being swayed by any darkness arguments.

  • Lucas

    penciladmin: I agree that many products are too cluttered and use too many fonts, however the Hi-Unis aren’t too bad. At least there is only print on two sides. If only they stamped the grade on three sides, ala Tombow, they would be even that much cleaner. My complaint had to do with how the foil was laid down and the resultant aesthetic. The gold is chipped in places, does not fill many of the letters, and extends beyond the lines of others. Just looks rather sloppy. This was only the case with a few of those in the box I purchased, but still. I do have to say that I have warmed up to how the pencil writes, perhaps my expectations were too high and have now leveled out.

  • Robert M.

    Interesting observations, Lucas. I’ve come across a few instances of slightly wonky plastic ends, but the stamping and imprints have always been quite clean and well-executed on all the pencils I’ve ordered. It’s unfortunate if they are slipping on what has traditionally been one of the strong points of their product.

    I don’t use Hi-unis that often really nowadays, but they’re nice pencils. A good deal nicer than Palominos, in my opinion. I agree with Kevin on grading…the arbitrary nature of it allows some companies to use an excessively soft lead, stamp HB on it, and enjoy praise from users who can’t seem to realize it’s no different from a midrange pencil in B or 2B, including in graphite wear rate. It’s also the easy shortcut to “smoothness”, but seems disingenuous. A bunch of other pencil makers try to capitalize on that dishonesty, such as Liberty in Taiwan with their cheap No. 90 “#2″ pencil, which in my experience is pretty reminiscent of the Palomino in softness, darkness, smoothness, and point durability.

    Like Kevin, I have a bit of a preference for the Mono 100, though I prefer a two-tone combination of HB and 2B in my writing. I tend to use the same combination, or sometimes F and B in Mitsubishi’s 2mm Uni leads. Probably won’t buy Liberty or CalCedar pencils anymore.

  • Arne

    I’m about to make my first purchase of a dozen Mono 100′s. I’m using them mostly for journal writing and quick design sketches.(I’m a graphic designer.) Never having used this high a quality pencil, I’m wondering which hardness to go for to start out. I presume the hardness rating is quite different than a lower quality pencil. I’m thinking either a B or HB.

    I know it all comes down to personal preference, but it is $25 for a dozen after all. Is there any difference as far as smudging, ease of erasing, or how long they will keep a point (what I guess is being called wear rate)?

    The Mitsubishi’s sound nice too, but I haven’t found them for sale in the US.

    Thanks for any suggestions!

  • Pencil Me In

    Hi, Arne!

    Perhaps you might find the “Rating the Top Japanese Pencils” posts to be of use in your decision:

    http://www.penciltalk.org/2008/04/rating-the-top-japanese-pencils

    http://www.penciltalk.org/2008/04/rating-the-top-japanese-pencils-ii

    http://www.penciltalk.org/2008/05/rating-the-top-japanese-pencils-the-verdict

    The posts go over in detail the various aspects of the Mono 100s (and other terrific Japanese pencils) which may help inform your decision.

    P.S.: I just got a set of the Mitsubishis from http://www.JetPens.com (in the US). They also sell the Tombows, and offer free shipping on orders over $25.

  • Arne

    Really thorough reviews! Thanks for the heads up.

    Looks like I’ll try the Mitsubishi HB. The Craft Design Technology item 17 HB looks very cool too, but a quick web search didn’t turn up any place that sells them. Someone had mentioned DWR, but they didn’t seem to sell them any more.

    Not having used any fine quality Japanese woodcase pencils, I’m assuming even an HB grade in the Mittsubishi or Tombow has a much darker line than a Staedtler HB.

  • Unfortunately the Craft Design Technology item 17 has been discontinued.

  • Robert M.

    Arne: In addition to JetPens, you might consider an order from Bundoki’s English site pencils.jp. There are more Japanese retailers coming through on international offerings, but I’ve only directly done business with Bundoki, which is why I recommend it. I think you can get mixed singles instead of a dozen box if you want to try out a few grades first.

    As for the choices of pencils…Among the top pencils out there, the differences are rather minor. At the end of the day, apart from barrel thickness, I don’t really notice my Mono 100 and Hi-Uni HBs from my Mars Lumograph Bs, and I consider them all to be pretty good. Even the relatively humble Mitsubishi 9800 is a very fine and usable pencil. It’s fun to fetishize and make a big huff about the superiority of this or that, but at the end of the day, they’re not all that different. I was switching between a Staedtler Wopex HB and a Hi-Uni F earlier, and didn’t have any issues or complaints about the Staedtler, except that it’s not as easy to sharpen (not surprising considering the material).

    Don’t get too hung up on little things, unless you really want to. :)

  • Shane

    <>

    We all have pencil OCD. A self-selected group of people who browse pencil blogs. I think we’re all about getting hung up on the little things, heh heh.

  • Brian

    I’ve recently added some Mono 100 Fs to the stash, and I think they’re just great. From the lacquer, to the fine stamping, to the fat cross section, to the crisp edges on the hex, to the intriguing end cap, to the core itself, there is much that I’m finding to like about this pencil. The lead is pleasantly communicative, and I find that this extra texture helps me when the point starts getting a little round. It seems like a Palomino HB just gets too slippery when the point starts to get rounded. The Mono 100 F, in contrast, has a consistent scratch to it that helps to slow the tip down a little bit. The darkness seems to be a good match for a USA Dixon Ticonderoga 2 5/10 that I have handy, and the point is quite long lasting indeed. Thank you pencil talk and commenters for raising awareness of these and other great Japanese pencils.

  • I am looking to purchase the Mitsu-Bishi Pencils. I live in the Washington Dc, Metro area. Thank you, Laurie

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